By Dr. Thomas J. Venardos
There appears to be a trend, in some well-established law firms, that indicates partnerships are deteriorating because of management problems. More basically, few administrators or management teams have solutions to keep them from deteriorating. Many lawyers are leaving the more established firms to create their own firm or join others. More often than not, lawyers rarely remain employed with their established firm to manage their way through the problems by coming up with viable solutions. Few lawyers want to take partial responsibility for the problems, and would rather use the excuse of blame. This seems to be the easiest way to get out of the conflict and move on. Many times personal and professional accountability do not seem to be a viable behavior as part of the management solution.
First, it is important to admit there is a problem within the law firm. The earlier the admission, the better chance there is to resolve it. This is usually accomplished by internal surveys, looking at balance sheets, or using outside consulting services to uncover major issues. When problems are discovered a small management team should be assembled to strategize how best to attack them.
Second, once problems are identified, all employees should take responsibility for them and begin looking at solutions. Responsibility and accountability are critical and essential to solving problems. Some people feel like burying their heads in the sand, while others just want to run far away from the problems. Still others may deny there are problems. Your options are few: ignore them, deny them, or solve them.
Third, an objective person should be identified to help with the action plans and time lines which must be enforced to resolve these problems. This independent person should have the power to make things happen in a reasonable and timely fashion.
Nearly all problems in law firms can be traced back to people who tend to ignore or avoid interpersonal conflict. Therefore, it is extremely important to have managers and management teams who like people, enjoy being around them, and like to solve their problems. After all, there are many aspects to people that have to be balanced: personal egos, strong or dogmatic beliefs, different kinds of thoughts, and buried feelings. So a manager is, a manager of people first, and problems second.
Furthermore, the manager is dealing with a complex social structure. This includes people who have power because they have been in the firm longest. It also includes people who have the most access to knowledge-like computer data and office policies. And finally it includes people who bring in the most money and have the biggest client following.
Managers and management teams need to be trained in people skills-especially working with colleagues. They need to learn how to transition from being a lawyer to being a manager of people, which amounts to learning the skills of a professional psychological counselor. They are, in a way, responsible for the survival of the entire law firm. There is a need to learn better face to face communications skills and not think that others will change simply because they are asked to do so.
A few questions you might ask yourself about becoming more managerial should include different ways to address conflict. How do you approach others with the difficult problems of law firm survival? How do you deal with others’ feelings of frustration, anger, disappointment, and disgust? How do you make others become more accountable for their actions? How do you actively listen to personal problems and complaints and make it a real conversation with true professional outcomes?
Individuals can generally be classified into several groups in a law firm. Depending on the percentages you have in your law firm, you will need to work with them differently. Below is a partial list of groups that may exist in your firm:
This demonstrates the kind of diversity which can exist in your law firm and how difficult it can be to effectively communicate and manage such groups. To accomplish this task it takes a lot of patience, fortitude, and people psychology to be effective.
There was a time when lawyers could say to office staff “I am going to practice law, and you take care of all the office matters.” Not any more! Now it is imperative for every lawyer to be a businessperson first, a people person second, and a lawyer third, otherwise the law firm could experience serious business problems which many times results in loss of clients, lawyers, and valuable staff.
What does this mean for the lawyers in the law firm? It means self-education that results in learning about business principles and concepts. They will need to learn where their firm is in the business cycle. They will need to learn to read a balance sheet. There is a need to know how to assign money to develop current training budgets for firm technology, marketing strategies, and professional development. Finally it is important for lawyers to learn about “people psychology.” This entails learning effective human communications, motivation, and socialization work skills.
Part of what attorneys and management teams should learn when dealing with colleagues is how to solve problems using organizational negotiations, professional conflict resolution schemes, and redevelopment structures with value center criteria.
Financial restructuring is critical. Placing an emphasis on re-training all attorneys is the key to developing effective marketing styles, improving use of non-billable hours, applying technology to be more productive, improved billing procedures, and learning cost effective law practice methods in this new age.
Compensation packages must also be overhauled since much of the success of the law firm is based on financial matters that include expenses, collections, client satisfaction, client referrals, and marketing strategies.
Both attorneys and administrators are guilty of this and most times it does not work. Everyone asks for it and many outside consultants and advisors promise it, but it still does not work. What is it? In a nutshell it is promising a quick and easy solution to an organizational culture problem that is very complex. Because it is complex it takes months or years to change. It takes much energy, sophisticated and experienced organizational knowledge, planning that includes professional commitment, and endurance.
Below is a list of items that you may want to avoid if you hear them from others. These are simple answers to complex problems.
When you hear “we have all the right answers,” “we don’t have any problems in this law firm,” or “claim that what is being said today about change is inconsequential and irrelevant,” then beware of obsolescence. The consequences of this kind of thinking can be found in many of those ailing law firms that are stumbling into the twenty-first century, only to become very ill and die from lack of professional managerial attention because of their serious organizational symptoms. What are these organizational symptoms?
Below is a brief list of the major symptoms (check off the ones that apply to your law firm). By checking five or more of the following symptoms there may be a perceived problem of obsolescence in your firm. Further discussion with others in your firm is recommended to confirm real issues that need attention.
If you do believe that your law firm’s management practices are becoming obsolete, then you need to begin the process of correcting it. This needs to be done primarily by several of you calling it to the attention of everyone and beginning your plans for reconstruction. How does this work?
You can be assured law firms that are serious about implementing positive change can do so. The results they get can be measured. These results are then translated into a successful law firm that can meet the challenges of the community and twenty-first century.
Dr. Thomas J. Venardos is an adjunct management consultant with Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, St. Louis, MO, and President of Venardos Management Group, Organizational Performance Consultants, located in Albuquerque, NM. Dr. Venardos may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.