A Change of Outlook

Legal Week

The key to successful firm management is not to think like a lawyer. Stephen Schneider suggests how this can be done

Robert Glennie, senior partner of McGrigor Donald, once wrote in this column about how far the legal profession has progressed in terms of law firm management. At one time ‘management’ was seen as an ethereal concept that did not apply to the legal profession. Senior personnel saw any non-fee earning role strictly limited to 'overseeing a professional practice'. Today, law firm management is recognised as crucial to the survival of law firms, which now have to operate in an environment of vastly increased competition.

In particular, Glennie talked about how far law firm management has come as evidenced by the quality, seniority – and internal acceptance – of professional line managers brought in-house to advise on finance, marketing, training and human resources etc. He described how typical organisational structures have evolved – from the committees and sub-committees of the early years in the 1980s to the ubiquitous 'partnership boards' of today.

Managing partners have for many years been expressing a desire and ambition to run their practises more along the lines of corporations but this state of nirvana has yet to be reached. This is because a vital key to the piece is still missing; the next step for the profession in fine-tuning its management is to focus on behaviours – particularly of those people at the top end of the organisation.

There is a plethora of management training available for lawyers. However, the majority tend to focus on the hard skills, for example finance for non-financial managers, or strategic planning for law firms. But this is only half the picture. A pitfall for any lawyer entering into firm management – and most stumble headlong into it – is to approach this new role in the mode of 'lawyer' – using their legal brains to solve a new kind of problem.

What these lawyers often miss is that the new role requires them to behave differently. A simple example is to look at typical behaviours at partnership board meetings. Solicitors are used to advising clients and it is often this category of behaviour we see in the partnership boardroom. However, the skill required in this environment is advocacy; the appropriate boardroom style is to persuade.

New managing lawyers need to ask themselves the question: 'Do I understand the role I am expected to perform in the context of the business in which I work?' The title of the role should not obscure the job. It is not about learning to be a managing partner, but to understand what it means to fulfill that role in the context of the organisation.

Many lawyers at least talk of the different 'hats' they are required to wear such as fee earners, team leaders, heads of department and managing partners. As firms become more sophisticated in their management, there tends to follow a growing realisation that these hats or roles need to be kept separate.

However, for the legal profession there are particular difficulties here that other sectors do not have to grapple with. Thanks to the confinements of the compulsory partnership structure, power bases are often built around fee earning/client winning ability and it is these voices that are most listened to, despite the official 'management structure'. It is never easy running a business where you are working alongside the shareholders every day.

However, over the past 10 years, many firms have started to crack this one. We are seeing clear separation of management from politics and a true delegation of management power to the officially designated management team. However, there is a further challenge, and it is one even the more experienced and sophisticated of the law firm managers do not yet recognise in full. As lawyers change from one hat to another, how conscious are they of the implications and how does it affect required behaviours and their performance in the role?

It is not hard to imagine the benefits to an organisation that is able to effect change and control how its individuals behave and adapt. But it is much easier said than done. How can it be achieved? Work training to facilitate partners' understanding and exploration of both the organisation and their roles within it will be key.

Coaching and mentoring are classic tools used to effect personal change. There is a world of difference between these two approaches and each has its place. Coaching is excellent for individual training and can be particularly beneficial to senior people needing to master skills for a new role, or to improve performance in an existing one. But to permanently alter an individual’s outlook, their understanding of what is required of them, how their behaviour needs to change and to change it can only be achieved by mentoring. In brief, the difference between the two approaches is this: in coaching it is the coach who is doing most of the work, in mentoring the dynamic is reversed; the mentor merely facilitates mental progression, or the required paradigm shift, but the work is done by whoever is being mentored.

The difference between the two becomes clear when observing coaching and mentoring in session. A coach is typically in ‘telling’ mode. For example: 'This is the key to team management. Let us look at what is going on in your team at the moment and analyse in the light of what we have just been discussing …'. The dialogue with the mentor is different – their line is much more inquisitorial, for example 'What effect did that have? How did you respond?' It is by drawing realisations from individuals in this way, and helping them to grow in understanding that profound and permanent change can be effected.

The legal profession is clearly operating in an environment of competition, the like of which it has never seen before. For those that can master the finer management challenges, and free their organisation from the shackles of typical partnership behaviours there is a distinct advantage. It is the organisation that can truly change the way partners behave that will be able to adapt best to make the most of market changes and opportunities – and to gain and maintain competitive edge.