Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography, commented in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required), that following the publication of his book many writers have tried to draw management lessons from Steve Jobs, however, most of them, incorrectly, became fixated rather on the “rough edges of his personality“. He feels that one has to recognise that Jobs’ personality and approach to business were inextricably inter-twined, and we should go beyond this to appreciate the keys to his success.

A number  (but not all) of these keys provide great leadership and management lessons for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board. In practice I find that very few firms do. I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

In the quirky and sometimes controversial way Steve Jobs led and managed, there are important lessons for legal leaders. To make the most of these does require a different attitude and approach to that which one normally associates with leading a firm in a conservative profession. (composite image with thanks to the folk at Google Images)

Jobs was an amazing human being. He achieved incredible things as he managed and led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. Remarkably, this all happened in two relatively short periods between 1976 and 1985 (9 years) and from 1995 to 2011 (14 years) during which time he was booted out of the company but then brought back to resurrect and save it. A lot of this had to do with his leadership and management styles.

He transformed:

  • personal computing
  • animated films
  • music
  • phones
  • tablet computing
  • retail stores
  • digital publishing

He created:

  • Apple, the company
  • Apple Stores
  • iMac
  • iPhone
  • iPod
  • iPad
  • Pixar
  • iTunes
  • iTunes Store
  • MacBook
  • App Store
  • OSX Lion

Not bad for a college drop-out!  So, what are some of the lessons legal leaders can draw from all this?

1   Focus – ‘deciding what not to do as important as deciding what to do’

Eknath Easwaran, the great Indian–born writer on the ancient Indian scriptures includes in his famous eight–point plan the importance of being “one pointed” – giving complete attention to whatever we are doing – concentrating on whatever task is at hand.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 (after being dumped in 1985) the first thing he did was re–focus Apple – “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do“. For a start he got his managers to agree the 10 things Apple should be doing next – he then crossed off the bottom seven and announced “we can only do three“.

In my strategy work with law firms a common finding is that they have too many things they are trying to focus on – it may be practice areas, industry sectors, offices, marketing initiatives or a combination of these. In fact, usually, very little is prioritised and focused on. Very often the fundamentals are not clear – basic things like practice areas, industry sectors, how service is delivered and what regions to focus on. Over time the situation gets exacerbated and can become chaotic. What does or does not get achieved is hit and miss. No count is kept on implementation. There is little or no accountability and strategy is not stress-tested along the way. Basically a bit of a mess.

Law firms struggle to say “no” or to stop doing something that is entrenched in their culture. In one of my roles running large law firms we realised at an early stage that to compete with other corporate firms we had to reduce our reliance on two low-margin areas of work – insurance and local government – it was tough and challenging to get agreement to “stop doing” these practices as it was a big part of the firm’s history. Fortunately we got it through and it led to the successful transformation of the firm, which is now a strong, focused, corporate player.

2    Simplify: “getting rid of the on/off button

According to Isaacson Jobs had a natural instinct to simplify things and zero in on their essence, eliminating unnecessary components. He felt that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication“. He aimed for simplicity that came from conquering, not simply ignoring, complexity – this required a keen understanding of all underlying challenges to come up with elegant solutions – “to be simple, you have to go truly deep“. He even got rid of the ‘on/off button’ on the iPod.

Instead, too many law firms make things far too complex and long–winded, especially in documentation. The net result? Things don’t get read, remembered, supported or implemented. Those I have worked with will know that I have something of a fetish for boiling things down to simple, short documents wherever possible, whether this be a firm strategy, partner performance criteria or a firm’s guiding principles. One or two pages usually does the trick. It is hard work getting there, but definitely pays dividends.

A wonderful principle which emerges from this approach at Apple was that their machines were meant to defer to people, not the other way round. Simplicity made this possible. I believe they largely achieve this, something other technology companies consistently fail to do. Now, what if law firms could do the same?! I am aware of some who have managed to do this–it of course, is a true differentiator.

3   Take responsibility for the client experience from beginning to end

One element of achieving simplicity was to make sure every aspect of the customer experience was tightly linked together. Jobs and Apple took responsibility for the end-to-end user experience. In this sense his control-freakish nature paid dividends for the customers.

In law firms we are used to giving our top performing, ‘rugged individualists’ free sway on how they conduct practice and will deliver service. Strangely, this often applies equally to some support service areas. The result is often a hodgepodge of styles and levels of quality as well as responsibility taking for ensuring a particular level of service at every touch-point. There is also often a total lack of seamless integration and quality standards across a firm’s divisions and hence client experiences.

4   When you are behind or challenged, don’t simply compete, leapfrog

When Jobs achieved success with a product he spent little time relishing that success. He was always thinking ahead about how to stay ahead and not just catch up but leapfrog the competition. A classic example of ongoing S–Curve analysis – being aware when products were reaching maturity or decline and looking for ways to start afresh and energise them. A graphic example is the constant evolution of products such as the iPhone and iPad. Precisely the same can be done for practice or industry sector areas in a law firm.

However, law firms tend to find a niche that works and then simply carry on doing it, in the same way, forever. In the past firms got away with this. Nowadays, as firms become more businesslike, astute and competitive, it’s no longer good enough. Witness the remarkable changes in recent years in the legal industry world–wide. The profession has changed from a staid, slow–moving, conservative one into a fast–paced, dynamic ever–changing and adapting profession.

I experienced an example of this when I attended the Lex Africa AGM recently in Mozambique. This was a network I founded back in 1993 with only 5 country representatives. It has since reached a measure of maturity at 30 country representatives (out of 54) and for a long time it has ruled supreme, being the longest-standing and largest network of its kind. However, it has become clear that other leading firms have actively and effectively taken up the challenge and are competing fiercely in this fast-evolving market of the future. Clearly, time for a leapfrog!

5    Put services before profits 

Jobs always felt his greatest achievement was building (and rebuilding) the Apple Company itself. His never-ending passion was to make it an enduring entity where people were motivated to make great products. Right from the start, back in 1980, his command to the Macintosh team was to make it “insanely great”. He reasoned that if you do this with everything you do, profits will follow.

We probably all know of the few law firms which have achieved similar consistency in providing outstanding service and technical quality at every touch point. They never compromise, clients pay accordingly but come back for more. However, these firms are few and far between, usually only a couple in each jurisdiction. Achieving such focus and results in regard to high levels of performance and delivery excellence  is a massive challenge within the context of law firm cultures. It takes a combination of outstanding leadership, great systems and processes, uncompromising discipline and absolute responsibility and accountability-taking by all. Quite a tall order for most firms.

In PART TWO & THREE of this series we will consider some more key management and leadership lessons from Steve Jobs. In PART FOUR, we take a look at some characteristics of his management and leadership style which I do not think are appropriate for a majority of law firms.

Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International