One often hears partners or legal leaders mention ‘silos’ as an issue in their firm. Mostly, firms struggle to deal with this insidious threat that can, by stealth, undermine much of what is good about a firm and over time, cause extensive damage or block progress.

Also, once they are embedded in the culture and way of doing business of a firm, they are hard to eradicate. Often they arise due to simple failings around fundamental matters such as communication, consultation, trust and respect or lack thereof. Addressing them requires a direct interest and commitment from senior leadership. Failing this, nothing changes.

Silos are insidious; they can develop by stealth both vertically and horizontally and once embedded in your culture and way of doing business, can be difficult to dislodge. Left to mature they can be hugely damaging. The best bet is to recognise the danger, assess your position and start tackling the problem (Sean Larkan graphic – Edge International)

These silos, or what I have termed ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ silos, even rear their heads in the most successful of firms. Only last week while on assignment in New Zealand a senior partner in a blue-chip corporate firm commented in regard to horizontal silos, ‘it is an issue which seems to have crept up on us – too many of our younger lawyers mix and share very well amongst themselves, but mainly within their levels or hierarchies, not above or below. This holds them back and impacts the effectiveness of the group in servicing clients. The problem is that management don’t seem to recognise this and get defensive if it is raised’.

They can even arise in the smallest of firms – I encountered such silos in a highly leveraged and successful south-eastern Asian two-partner firm!

Firstly, Vertical Silos; what do we mean by them? Essentially a body of people within the firm that, notwithstanding position, role or seniority, tend to work somewhat alone and isolated from others. They do their own thing and are characterised by a lack of sharing and communication. This may apply to practice or industry sector groups, partner teams, offices or even floors within offices. We have all seen them and experienced them at some time or another.

Secondly, horizontal silos; these can develop when there is a lack of communication, sharing or interaction between groups defined by role or seniority. The most obvious examples here are when salaried partners say are not treated as ‘partners’ but as ‘glorified employees’ which causes resentment, a lack of sharing, under-performance, lack of recognition and file or client hogging.

In both cases there will be examples that I have not listed or thought of.

What makes vertical and horizontal silos a challenge?
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Law firms have become very effective in establishing functional marketing departments staffed by highly qualified and motivated personnel. All the usual categories can be ticked – communications, publications, client relationship management, events and social media. Why is it then that one is still left with the feeling that something is not quite right, something is not quite gelling? There is unrealised potential.

Getting partners or groups of partners in practice or industry sector groups working together to build practice areas, industry sector specialties or build interaction and relationships with clients can be the most powerful business building a firm does. It also has many off-shoot benefits. (Sean Larkan – Edge International)

Quite understandably, most marketing and business development efforts are focused externally – functions, publications, client visitations, media, relationship management and so on. However, as is so often the case , there remains real potential within.

Due to the nature of the profession and the professionals who people it, we tend to be competitive, individualistic and not natural sharers. We are usually of a fixed mindset disposition and to win is everything and we have an abject fear of failure. We play our cards close to our chest. But right here, amongst this partner group, lies the greatest potential to kick-start your marketing and business building efforts. Getting those self-same partners to start working together, sharing, swapping ideas, helping one another succeed.

Getting partners and groups of partners in practice areas or industry sector areas to start working together and to do so strategically and actively is not easy. But back in the time I was helping to run large corporate law firms this is where we got the most mileage. In in some cases it was startlingly successful. The good thing was that this success did not come from the leadership group – it came from the efforts and leadership of practice and industry sector heads. But, not alone, rather in conjunction with colleagues in other groups or sectors.

How to go about this? There are obviously various ways to tackle this but I have found the following framework helps things along:
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Alternative growth structures such as Swiss Vereins, global alliances, non-merger affiliations, expansion strategies and a great deal more is covered in the latest edition of the Edge International Review. It provides essential insights for legal leaders – in fact, just what legal leaders need to know about!

The latest edition

Lyda Hawes is the Director of Client Services at LexBlog, the company that developed this blog. From time to time she and I have discussed the topic of management and leadership and I asked her to share her thoughts in this guest post. She also writes for LexBlog’s Client Services blog, Please Advise. Apart from this, as all who deal with her will confirm, she is one of those special people you get to deal with in the business world from time to time – Sean

Leadership vs Management? In this guest post Lyda Hawes  reviews this age-old distinction. I always encourage managers to develop their leadership skills and leaders to exercise good management skills as and when that is required as part of their role – Sean

Comparing the difference between leaders and managers is a popular topic in the leadership blogosphere. In fact, if you do a Google search on “leader vs manager” you get over 30 million results. While I expect there are examples that extoll the virtues of managers buried somewhere in those 30 million sites (well, at least I am aware of one, the one I wrote almost a year ago, Managers are People Too), the general consensus is that leaders are where all the cool stuff like vision and strategy take place, and managers are often left to the less fun task of managing tasks. In the 1989 book, “On Becoming a Leader,” author Warren Bennis gave us these comparisons (cited from The Wall Street Journal):

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
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Again and again I come across senior law firm executives who are frantically busy with or concerned about their latest ‘big thing’ but who on enquiry struggle to relate this to the firm’s vision and strategy. Sometimes the latest item getting all the attention has arisen as a few other key competitor firms are doing

Salaried partners as a proportion of total partners in law firms are on the increase. However, there are good, bad and not such good things about many implementations of the salaried partnership regime in firms. It makes real sense to ensure that your salaried partner structure is working in the best way possible. This means putting it together well and managing it well with constant reviews and stress-testing along the way.

This increased use of salaried partners was one of the clear findings of the 2012 Edge International compensation system survey of leading firms in the US, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia. This is a world-wide trend and is a reversal of the position of only a few years back when it seemed the appointment of salaried partners was on the decline.

Putting together an optimal salaried or fixed share partnership regime can be one of the wisest moves that law firm leadership ever undertakes – it can result in countless benefits – providing for succession and the long term health of the firm, a happy and hugely productive group of salaried partners and properly managed, very profitable and satisfactory for the equity partner group. (Sean Larkan 2012)

I wrote an article on this subject in the ALMJ (Australian Law Management Journal) which is available for download as a PDF.  A precis of some of the key points follows:

I am a strong believer in appointing salaried partners and believe that properly structured and managed this structure and system has the potential for many benefits for all concerned. To name a few:

  1. it is a good way to show appreciation and recognition;
  2. it is a good testing ground before equity partnership;
  3. it is a confidence builder;
  4. salaried partners have the opportunity to find their feet and understand the partner culture;
  5. it provides status;
  6. it can be an ideal alternative to equity partnership for some;
  7. it is ideal for some who may never meet the criteria for equity;
  8. it can help out with tough decisions where realistically it may be “impossible” to appoint equity partners;
  9. it can provide a realistic buffer to poaching firms; and
  10. sometimes it is a counter to lawyers leaving for greener pastures.
Having said this, I have consulted to a number of firms where we came to the view that the salaried partner system within the firms had either not been implemented properly or was not being managed satisfactorily. The result was that the salaried partner group was so disenchanted and it had, quite unintentionally for all concerned, become the enemy within the camp.
This situation can arise when:
  1. salaried partnership is used simply as a blockage to equity;
  2. salaried partnership is used to “park” under-performing partners;
  3. they are not treated with respect or provided with opportunities in regard to communication, consultation, listening, sharing of information, access to clients and so on;
  4. salaried partners are partners in name only or as glorified employees (it is not unusual to hear equity partners call them just this);
  5. they come to be viewed as nothing but a “necessary evil” (believe it or not this does happen!);
  6. salaried partners have not had conveyed to them the true nature of the regime in the firm;

Some outcomes of this are:


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Law firms don’t recognise that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies not in their hands, but in the hands of their employees. To make matters worse, some of this power also lies in the hands of former employees, potential employees and other “employment stakeholders” such as recruitment agencies and digital media channels dedicated to commenting on the foibles of law firms.

Law firms don’t appreciate that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies with their employees, and even their former and potential employees, as well as with other parties like recruitment agencies . These other parties determine the brand. Firms assume it is what they offer that matters, but that is but one small component in the mix. (© Sean Larkan 2012)

This is because a firm’s employment brand is based on how the firm is perceived and experienced as an employer by existing employees, past employees and potential employees, as well as by other parties such as recruitment agencies and the media. Its employment brand is not what the firm thinks it is, but what these ‘others’ think it is.

This is a harsh lesson for most firms to stomach. It can be mystifying. Firms assume their employment brand is based on what they say in their recruitment materials, on their website, what they do, what they decide to offer employees as part of their employment package, and so on.

Instead, the power lies in the hands of others, the firm’s employees, past employees, potential employees, and others in the recruitment and media industries. What employers offer to their employees is merely part of what we call their employment brand offering. Firms still have a great deal of work to do to build their employment brand. For a start:

  • you must clarify your employment brand offering – identify, clarify and agree all the things you do offer to existing and potential employees and what makes working for the firm special and sets it apart. Bear in mind that standard features and benefits don’t make much of a difference; they don’t differentiate a firm as all firms offer them anyway – if they don’t now they can easily and quickly replicate them;
  • you must achieve Brand Fusion™ which is essentially ensuring that what you offer is actually experienced or has been experienced in the case of past employees. This is no mean feat given that you are largely dependent on the exigencies of individualistic, independent-minded partners to act as your front-line troops in making this happen;
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Like finding the toilet roll  empty, or getting a puncture, some things never come at a good time. But, of course, these things do happen so most of us have learned to respond with equanimity and of course maybe even do a little forward planning!

The same applies to losing a really top calibre lawyer or support staff member (especially to the dreaded opposition); just when you thought he or she was well settled and was going to be part of your landscape forever (‘even though I hadn’t told her, I thought she had ‘future partner’ written all over her’). It is always unwelcome, sometimes seems a bit unfair (‘we always treated her so well and she seemed so happy’) and the timing is always bad (‘I have just introduced him to the the new oil and gas matter and client loved him‘).

When something unwelcome happens, like losing high calibre staff, the challenge is always to retain some equanimity and try to understand it for what it truly is, and not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean not acting, or simply doing a few operational things as a knee-jerk reaction on the surface of things. It requires in-depth strategic analysis, careful review and thoughtful implementation with a view to re-building trust in your employment brand. (Sean Larkan 2012)

Especially for firms that put a lot of time and effort into their people, events like this can cut to the bone.  It can be very demoralising and quickly impact confidence. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible as you feel you are doing things right.

Real concerns should arise when it starts happening with some regularity and becomes a pattern. It is not just an isolated incident based on exceptional circumstances. Word about things like this – key staff losses – can spread like wild-fire, and this can have a severe impact on a firm’s employment brand and on engagement levels. Social media, Linked In facilities for recruiters, plus recruitment agency networks ensure the market knows about these patterns long before most firms even realise its happening. This is when leaders and managers need to take remedial action and get to the bottom of it.

As much as these events require a decisive response from leadership, the danger is that it can often cause knee-jerk reactions and the implementation of solutions which may seem okay on the surface, and may even appease (including one’s conscience), but in reality don’t do much to change anything substantive for the long term.

In the work I have done with firms around people strategy and we consider these strategic issues, two things come up as common threads:

  • when times are good – staff recruitment is going well, staff calibre is good and turnover is down – firms assume it is because they are doing a heckuva lot of things right (and have earned this status because of all the good things they are doing around people). Interestingly, dig deeper and you may find this is not in fact the case.  They may have hit a lucky streak (it happens) or be regarded as the ‘flavour of the quarter‘ in the recruitment channels (it happens). Further investigation can reveal that  many of the people fundamentals have not in fact been properly addressed;
  • when times turn bad (sometimes, unaccountably, not long after they were good), firms are invariably surprised and anxiously cast around for causes. They tend to hone in on what appear to be the obvious reasons (e.g. a few partners with poor records of managing staff, benefits needing tweaking etc), try to address these and too quickly conclude ‘job done‘. Unfortunately, superficial, knee-jerk responses usually achieve very little, even though they may keep a board and some partners happy for awhile. Chances are that down the line the same problems will still exist, the reason being that they are founded in culture and well established cultural norms which and run deep to the heart and soul of what the firm is or isn’t about. They therefore need much more thorough, thoughtful treatment.

When this sort of pattern arises around losing key staff it is a sure signal that firms need to take very careful and serious stock of what they are or are not doing in relation to their people. It’s a big job, it is complex and touches on so much of what a firm is or is not; it  should quickly becomes priority numero uno.

I would start by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • are our partners and managers more focused on meeting their own targets and performance criteria than they are on delegating good quality work and providing good access to clients, good feedback and other support staff crave and need to grow;
  • what is the state of our employment brand? Do we have a brand strategy? Do we understand brand and what constitutes our employment brand? Do we achieve Brand Fusion™ i.e. ensuring what we promise and say we do in regard to people, we actually do and deliver?
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I know that a managing partner is appointed to lead and run a law firm and should do just that – get on with the job. However, there are many things that a firm must in turn do, ideally up-front, to assist their newly appointed managing partner and to give him or her a fair shot at making a go of a very challenging and sometimes trying role. Leaders, particularly new ones, are real people and need real help and support. Wise firms put this in place.

A new managing partner and no doubt his or her partners will be raring for him or her to take up the role and ‘make a difference’. It is worth spending some time however  thinking about how to make it easier for him or her and to provide proper support – upfront.

The problem is that due to the strange animal that is the law firm partnership or equivalent, most firms don’t really get involved to implement just a few basic steps that can serve to make or break a managing partner, or at least increase the chances of success and his or her maintaining some semblance of normal life. The right steps taken up-front, and a few carefully thought-through foundation-stones laid, can make his or her life so much easier and get a much better outcome for all concerned.

Partnerships have this strange view that because they have chosen someone from their ranks who they believe has the credentials to lead (and usually does) that this is the end of the matter – the new incumbent can and will sort out any teething snags or issues arising in relation to the role and will simply work out work and time pressures and so on. The problem is that most new incumbents believe this as well. They don’t want to undermine the partners’ confidence in them or give any indication that they are struggling and need help.

It is not a good combination and can quite unnecessarily lead to a bad outcome, and be tough on the managing partner. It is fair to say that the root causes of many managing partner roles not panning out can be traced back to what is or is not done in these early stages.

What are some of the challenges faced when a new managing partner is appointed?

  1. a fear by the managing partner he or she will, over time, lose a highly successful practice;
  2. a fear (by the incumbent and the firm) that the managing partner may never re-build a practice after the role and may be left high and dry. This can cause all manner of defensive behaviours which can work counter to making a success of a leadership role;
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The story goes that you never quite get the veld dust off your shoes when you have grown up in Africa – good stories about Africa always get my heart pumping! And so it happened when I read an inspiring article by lawyer Greg Nott on some wonderful achievements, on and off the field, by