As highlighted in PART ONE and PART TWO of this series, there are real leadership lessons for legal leaders from the career, achievements and life of the late Steve Jobs – who in just two stints of 9 and 14 years, founded and then transformed Apple Computer into the world’s most valuable company. These were the lessons highlighted by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography, in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required).

In this post we include a final batch of important lessons, again with liberal editing and interpretation for legal leaders.

Jobs liked engaging face to face but was tough on people, was a strategic guru but totally focused on detail, strongly believed in the confluence of the humanities and sciences and in staying hungry and foolish – so many contradictions, such a genius, and so much, with the right attitude, we can learn from him. (Image composite by Sean Larkan courtesy of Google Images – photographers unknown)

 13    Engaging face to face and death(?) to PowerPoint

Jobs felt that creativity came from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions and was a great believer in face-to-face meetings: “. . . you run into someone, you ask what they are doing, you say “wow”, and soon you are cooking up all sorts of ideas“. He designed his buildings to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. He felt that if you did not encourage that you would lose a lot of innovation in the magic that is sparked by serendipity.


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It does seem like we have been laying into angry or difficult partners lately – so much so, you (almost) gotta feel sorry for them! (not really, we all know how difficult they can really be and how much time and positive energy they eat up) –  3 recent posts attest to this:

  1. Difficult partners

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’


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Some partners are downright difficult. This makes them awkward cogs to fit into the firm set-up,  particularly where they are top producers, run important clients or contribute in other meaningful ways. And let’s face it, all too often they are and do.

Difficult partners are tough cogs to fit into the system. Sometimes exit is not an option, particularly where they are highly respected for their work, client management or contributions in other ways. This calls for thoughtful leadership and management. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is important therefore to work out an approach you can use for such partners.  Simply leaving it to chance, or the passage of time and hoping it will go away, or that you won’t have to deal with it, is not an option. They won’t go away and are bound to come back and haunt you and the partnership from time to time. Far better to be prepared with a sensible framework, and a willingness to take action.

Too often there is something of the bully in difficult partners, and you need to be clear to yourself and such partners that you will not be intimidated into non-action. Otherwise you are sure to lose credibility in the eyes of your partners and of course will not make any inroads in dealing with the challenging partner. You also won’t feel very pleased with yourself and your overall confidence may begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way law firm leaders and senior managers deal with these situations offer very painful and sometimes very visible tests of leadership.

In my last post I covered a few things you should not do in such situations. Let’s now consider what you should do. In the first instance, there are what I would call fundamentals:

  • make sure your values (or cultural attributes or guiding principles as the case may be) cover things like un-partnerlike or ‘difficult’ behaviour.
  • ensure your partner performance criteria measure adherence to such values and/or behaviours.
  • be consistent in all your dealings. This means treating the difficult partner no differently to others – they still need to be shown the same respect, given a fair hearing and such like. Equally, don’t treat them with kid gloves because they are difficult; other partners who may have slipped up in some or other way and been managed rigorously will be watching whether you are even-handed in your dealings.
  • be clear that the solution is going to come from the difficult partner, not from you, from the firm or some written document. Somehow you are going to have to get him or her in the right frame of mind, and suitably motivated, to solve the problem.
What else should you do?
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Difficult partners are tough work. As a professional services firm leader or senior manager, at some stage you are going to be faced with the unenviable task of dealing with one or more. As I am sure you will confirm, they can be gnarly, hard nuts to handle.

‘Difficult’ comes in various shapes and forms. They can be brilliant, top fee earners who are loved by their clients but who create trouble for everyone else, or they may be disgruntled, serial under-performers.  These distinctions don’t really matter for the purposes of this article – we can probably all recognise ‘difficult’ when we see and experience it.  Invariably, as a leader you are going to come under some form of pressure in relation to them. So, it is important you know how to respond and that you actually tackle and not avoid the challenge.

Difficult partners can be hard, gnarly nuts to deal with. They come in all shapes and forms. It is important that you don't default to simply bowing to their pressure or avoiding them. Try to find the balance. Whatever you do keep the lines of communication open and a respectful relationship, no matter what. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is tempting, even sub-consciously, to distance yourself from such a partner. Or to go soft on them and bow to their pressure in the mistaken belief this will ‘get it out of the way’. This is mainly because most of us don’t relish conflict. These unfortunately are very common courses followed by even the best leaders. My advice, don’t follow either.

If you bow to difficult partners you are effectively giving in to the play-ground bully – the issue may subside for a while when he/she realises they have their way, but it will crop up again and bite you. Also, don’t try to get rid of it by simply ignoring it. You are then guilty yourself of passive-defensive behaviour which is a clear sign of insecurity.  Difficult partners have a keen nose for this insecurity and feed on it.  It will only be a matter of time before something else comes up. You will then be on the run with a track record of having ducked these challenging  issue.

There are some real costs involved in not addressing issues around difficult partners:

  • as leader, your own confidence will start to wane. Others may even start to lose respect for you;
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The challenging future legal and business environment which is widely anticipated will demand a lot more from law firms than providing quality legal advice. This is the view of Ian Robertson, long-standing managing partner of Holding Redlich’s Sydney office, writing in The Australian (apologies; link requires subscription or log-in) recently.

Whether it be around service offerings, fee levels, management of fee-related activities or developing individual brands and thought leadership around industry sector knowledge, law firms will want to work out what they will bring to the client table in future. Simply basing decisions on past experiences is not likely to be enough.

This advice backs up on the findings of a recent survey of Australian managing partners and chief executive officers indicating tighter times ahead – with recruitment levels and profit margins expected to be down over the next five years based on deteriorating business confidence.

For Australasian law firms the writing is on the wall for some or more of the following:

  1. Better service at lower fees: this is simply because clients have more choices, are more canny and have realised it is increasingly a buyer’s market. Even more challenging is that given market conditions this will be coupled with fewer and smaller transactions and disputes. The only possible exceptions will be in resource–rich states such as Western Australia.
  2. Fee estimates, fee capping and fixed fees will be the order of the day: on top of this clients will look for real value and will carefully analyse all charges to ensure they are justified.
  3. Quantitative leverage will be rejected: clients will accept leverage, but only qualitative leverage, in the sense of high calibre, suitable staffing on a team where work is pushed down to the lowest (highly)competent level and charge-out rate.
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In the recent WSJ article “Stark choice for lawyers – firms must merge or die  author Jennifer Smith reasons that due to client and competitive pressures law firms have a ‘stark choice:  to ‘merge or die’. As a result, she says, there has been a ‘flurry’ of merger deals.

A decision by a law firm to merge or not should ideally be the result of a carefully thought through strategy, and implementation of that strategy and the firm's vision, not a knee-jerk reaction to competitive and client pressures. It should certainly also not be because other law firms are doing it. (Illustration adapted from FT image, graphic artist unknown)

The author’s conclusions are hard to reconcile with the actual numbers relied on; only sixty deals world-wide last year (2011) which is understood to be based on the Altman Weil Mergerline. While it is hard to get accurate numbers of law firms per country, based on a rough guesstimate of close to 60,000 for the USA and say 30,000 for the rest of the world, this number represents a minuscule fraction. It leaves one to wonder what is happening to the other 99.9% of law firms?

Unfortunately headlines and statements like this appearing in a respected publication like the WSJ, when repeated, re-tweeted and commented on, can over time lead to unintended and unwanted trends in the legal profession. As I have written elsewhere, while lawyers are sometimes referred to as cats (the oft-repeated being hard to herd/manage etc.) law firms can be like sheep – if one respected firm does something (especially when the pressure is on) others are more likely to follow suit (remember the ‘wait and see’ attitude about staff cuts during the GFC?). It seems some firms will not do anything different until others have tested the water. We have all heard the question around the partners table “what are Able Bodied and Bloggs doing about this?”
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Employees own shares in this dynamic 105 year old Australian law firm M+K Lawyers, headed up by National Managing Director Damian Paul. M+K has embarked on a remarkable growth strategy around a unique business model and culture. Damian agreed to answer some questions:

Sean: Your business model is unique and was the first of its kind in Australasia – how has the firm grown since this model was introduced?

Damian: Somewhat late in our over 100 year history, the new model took effect in July 2008! Since then, over the past 3 years, the firm has grown in revenue by 150% to A$50m, in staff by over 100% to just over 300 and from one office to locations in all key east coast centres; New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.

Sean: How would you describe M+K Lawyers?

Damian: A national commercial law firm, operated in a corporate, businesslike structure.

Sean: How does it work?

Damian: An incorporated legal practice (ILP) in each of the 4 states in which we currently operate (News South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria), each 100% owned by a parent company which, in turn, is owned by M+K directors and employees.

Sean: Why did you choose this model?

Damian: We saw it as the model most suited to helping us acheive our growth ambition to become the leading law firm in Australia for middle market clients.

Sean: What take up has there been – from other firms and from staff ?

Damian: In a relatively short time since July 2008, seven law firms have joined us (including the foundation firm, Macpherson+Kelley). Senior employees have the opportunity to invest in the firm by buying shares in our parent company, thereby acquiring a stake in the national firm.
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