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11 tips on how to continue being a good law firm leader …… and not become a headless chicken again.

“We’re miles apart from each other but we’ve never felt closer”.

A partner of a law firm said this to me about his team a few weeks ago during a coaching session. For many lawyers it reflects what has happened in the sector over the last four months. I’ve yet to talk to a partner who hasn’t thought a lot about leadership behaviour since lockdown started, and as a phased return to office life begins for some.

And it’s a first!

After nearly 20 years of coaching, training and consulting as Positively Legal, I’m seeing for the first time an almost universal focus by partners – in small firms up to multi-nationals - on many of the key components needed to operate a successful law firm business, including

Never has there been so much self-awareness about overall business performance by the owners and leaders of law firms. The relentless focus by partners on manufacturing the product (ie billable hours) during core business time, and fitting - or often not fitting - everything else around that, is diminishing. If the trend continues it will undoubtedly benefit firms in the long term.

The sector has twisted and turned through three economic crises since the early 90s but not significantly changed in terms of leadership behaviour. Having worked with numerous lawyers over the last four months in the UK and internationally, and without downplaying for a moment the pain and misery that the Covid-19 has brought, it is clear that lockdown has had a transformational effect – it’s made partners better at business. It’s encouraging to see that

  • regular, well-structured team meetings during core business hours are now normal
  • many partners are for the first time creating written down plans
  • direct and effective selling conversations with clients are on the increase

and the list goes on…

I will look at these components – leadership, strategy and planning, business development – in this mini-series of blogs over the next few weeks.

My aim is to provide you with insight into

  • what has happened
  • the challenges
  • the risks

and to give practical tips to sustain or improve performance as we move into the New Norm.

What I mean by the New Norm is the working environment which will develop further over the next weeks and months as a hybrid between the predominantly office-based pre-March model and full lockdown. More and more offices are opening on a phased return basis and there are a range of practices being adopted which will continue to evolve - with some people continuing to work from home permanently, some coming in on an alternate week basis, others for client requirements only, etc.

Let’s start this mini-series with Leadership.

What has happened?

At the core of it, partners have been thinking much more about how people are feeling. Leadership is to a large extent about that. Lawyers commonly ask themselves

  • Do I feel positive about the team I’m in?
  • Am I being motivated and inspired by my leaders?
  • Do I feel valued?
  • Am I being listened to?
  • Does it seem like we’re all working towards the same goal?

It’s clear from my coaching experiences, various internal employee surveys and anecdotal stories that in most cases the answers have become more positive since lockdown started. Most lawyers (including partners, and I’ll come to that later) are feeling better supported, more effectively directed, listened to and encouraged. And they say their teams feel more cohesive and collaborative than before.

The two fundamentals that have influenced this positive change are (1) realisation of a need and (2) more frequent, better quality communication. Two of the ironies of lockdown are

  • Partners very quickly realised at the start of lockdown that unless they communicated more frequently and effectively, isolation and declining productivity would quickly follow. This newfound empathy was enforced as the partners themselves were in the same position!
  • Most people thought the quality of communication would plummet, but it has improved enormously.

It’s also worth saying that ineffective leadership behaviours – often command, control, and shout and bawl if things go wrong, all in an environment of frenzy and impatience! – seem to have decreased.

A caveat. I’m concentrating here on positive developments but that does come with a caution. It hasn’t all been a tale of leadership sweetness and light over the past few months. For example, I hear some partners have disengaged even more than usual, and there are occasional tales of an “I’m alright Jack” culture while sitting in my large house with garden and having no empathy for colleagues in one-bedroom apartments.

Hopefully by focusing on the positive, this blog can encourage awareness and improvement across the full spectrum of leadership performance.

The two key elements in my opinion for effective leadership are strategy and planning, and communication.

1. Strategy and Planning

Partners and indeed firms who have previously had an allergic reaction to even the merest thought of a strategy and a written down plan have effectively been forced into upping their game.

My favourite definition of strategy is from Kenneth R Andrews (The Concept of Corporate Strategy) – “A stream of decisions made over time, which reflects the goals of the firm and the means by which the firm achieves those goals”.

Whether it’s for the whole firm, a team or an individual, the starting point really is that simple. Since March most partners are taking more time to analyse and discuss what their business will look like in 3, 6, 12 months’ time, and creating goals and a plan. That is a significant move forward for many.

In my next blog I’ll focus on strategy and planning and explore it in much more detail.

2. Communication

Many partners have reinvented how they communicate - with their teams and each other.

Really engaging, useful and frequent team discussion is rare in law firms but has become more common. Similarly, there’s been much more focus on the frequency and quality of individual communications - lawyers tend to be motivated primarily by one-to-one discussions, and achieving objectives, so this had a high impact through lockdown.

The common excuse of “I’m too busy to do that sort of stuff” (the accurate translation is usually “I’m not willing to prioritise that” and/or “I’m so disorganised that I never get round to it”) has, to some extent, temporarily disappeared. And the anxiety - occasionally outright fear - that partners feel about communicating, particularly in group situations, has often been superseded by the pressing need to do so while working remotely.

A significant further benefit of more effective two-way communication is that all team members feel more confident to contribute ideas, observations and opinions, and the environment encourages them to do. Everyone is enabled to provide more value.

The quote at the start of this blog – I’ll remind you of it - “We’re miles apart from each other but we’ve never felt closer” could as easily have applied to how partners have been feeling about each other in the current environment.

Partners are, generally speaking, communicating better with each other, particularly in group situations. I’ve heard many comments like

  • I feel as a partnership we are communicating more effectively
  • Partner meetings are more valuable now, everyone’s getting a chance to speak

What in practical terms has caused the quality of team discussions to improve?

Video calls. Meetings by Zoom, Skype, Teams, Starleaf etc must adopt a structured, disciplined and respectful protocol otherwise they become unworkable – one person speaking at a time, mute buttons often on, hand up to request to speak, break-out sessions, everyone gets the opportunity to contribute etc. Now compare that process of discussion to what happens in the traditional partner meeting……

How does Emotional Intelligence fit in?

I mentioned earlier the importance of greater empathy from partners. It’s useful to put what is happening in terms of partner behaviour into the context of Emotional Intelligence, empathy being one of its five components. For those of you who know it only as an expression, EI is recognised as being fundamental to effective leadership. David Goleman, the American psychologist who was largely responsible for popularising EI, identified five key components – self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. How is partner behaviour changing in relation to these traits? 

  • Self-awareness – frequently questioning themselves as to how they are leading and what they can do to improve.
  • Self-regulation – much more follow through than usual on actually implementing ideas and improvements.
  • Motivation – significantly more driven than usual to be effective leaders.
  • Empathy – a transformational shift to regular focus on understanding team members’ situations and needs, and behaving appropriately.
  • Social skill – consciously trying to engage effectively with team members to keep moving them in the desired direction.

While Zoom’s share price has increased exponentially, so it seems has the EI performance of many partners!

The challenge and the risks

The challenge for partners is simple. To at least sustain and - ideally – improve on the heightened level of leadership focus and behaviour in the New Norm.

The risk here is that all the progress in leadership behaviour disappears as partners return to office based working, travel increases, internal meetings overrun, face to face client meetings restart ………and the traditional rushing around like a headless chicken begins again in earnest.

You will all have been in the position at work where a project is started, expectations are high, it flounders, then collapses, and the demotivational impact on the people involved is worse than if the project never started. If the regular team meetings become a distant memory and individual interactions revert to being ad hoc, rushed discussions at the coffee machine, you will very quickly have a deflated, frustrated, and disengaged team.

For those partners whose leadership behaviour hasn’t improved (or has even regressed) recently, they will need to progress quickly, or the performance gap will be significantly more obvious than previously.

The solutions – top 11 tips

Lockdown-influenced improvements have the potential to be transformational for leadership performance in law firms. These practical tips are designed to build on best practice during lockdown to sustain and improve leadership behaviour as we move into the New Norm.

  1. Time. Work out approximately how much time you spent on team and individual communication each week during lockdown and try to replicate that in the New Norm.
  2. Leadership objectives. Think of leadership as a specialism, like business development and financial performance. If you haven’t already, set yourself some objectives and write a task list.
  3. Team Meetings
    • As the New Norm takes hold it’s unlikely that you will have the whole team working in the same mode, whether in the office or from home at any one time. Don’t use that as an excuse not to have team meetings – run them, with some people in the office and others joining remotely.
    • Identify what 3 words you want each attendee to use to describe how they feel at the end of the meeting – then plan and run the meeting to achieve that.
    • Agenda – vary it. Starting off with a one-off issue that needs debate is much more engaging than doing all the routine stuff first. It gets the meeting off to an interesting start and immediately raises energy levels.
    • Replicate video call communications practice in face to face meetings. Agree a protocol with the team, for example
      • start on time
      • no interruptions – everyone on “mute” - when someone is speaking
      • raised hand if you want to talk
      • break into couples / smaller groups to discuss an issue then report back
      • finish on time
  1. Individual meetings. Make sure they continue. Consider asking everyone (privately, not in a team forum) how often they would like to meet, when and where. For example, when I’m coaching, some people prefer Starbucks to a meeting room in the office, some prefer a traditional phone call to Zoom or Skype. Although this is time consuming, your effectiveness as a leader and the benefits to the individual and the firm will be significant.
  2. Diarise, diarise, diarise team and individual meetings.
  3. Emotional Intelligence. From time to time informally gauge your leadership performance against self-awareness; self-regulation; motivation; empathy; and social skill.
  4. Communication style. Ask more questions. Less telling. Better listening.
  5. Location. Many of you will have noticed that clarity of thought has been easier while working from home. This is partially due to being in a different (and sometimes more peaceful!) physical environment. Don’t go back to your default state of doing everything at your office workspace. Consider an alternative place for leadership thinking, planning, and communicating.
  6. Review. Use your next team meeting to review and improve the communication process. Ask the team to have a think in advance in relation to communication during lockdown about
    • what has gone well
    • what could have been better
    • improvement actions

and incorporate agreed changes in the New Norm.

  1. Socials. Most teams have been doing socials – Friday afternoon drinks, quizzes etc. Keep that going. You might change the regularity and the format but if it was beneficial during lockdown it probably will be in the New Norm.
  2. Implementation Plan. Finally, take a step back and think about how your leadership style and behaviour changed during lockdown. Make a list of
    • the things you have done that have made you better as a leader (focus on communication)
    • the things that you have stopped doing that have made you a better leader
    • the things that you have seen others do that have worked

then work out what improvements you’re going to make and when and how you’ll implement them. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated – it can be anything from a handwritten list on a notepad to an Excel spreadsheet – whatever works for you.

What now?

None of this is rocket science!

It’s behaviourally challenging for many, but intellectually easy.

Keep it simple, build on successes, and don’t regress into that headless chicken who doesn’t have time to focus on leading.