Many law firm partners want their firm to either be pre-eminent or to seek pre-eminence. Few realise that there is a serious price to pay.

Look at the vision statements of most firms and chances are you will find words like ‘successful’, ‘leading’, ‘premier’, ‘top’ or similar. Nothing at all wrong with that. But the key thing to realise is that to seek and achieve such lofty visions takes serious commitment, both at the top and throughout a partnership. Without that understanding and buy-in from all partners, leaders and managers in a firm, any visioning or strategy process will be flawed from the core and likely be doomed to failure.

‘Pre-eminence’ – ‘yeah, that sounds good, let’s go for it’ one will hear law firm partners say, but how many realise that there is a price to pay for such lofty visions? The reality is that most firms seek pre-eminence or some version of it. However, if they are truly serious about such a vision, they must realise it takes enthusiastic and consistent commitment and adherence by a majority of partners to a wide range of key things. The firms that manage to achieve this rise to the top and stay there while others muddle along.  (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What then is this price to pay if you seek such status? In essence it goes to the heart and core of everything you do in the firm but here is a framework of some key things that I feel will be an essential part of any such quest:

  1. Leadership: strong, trusted leadership, not just at the top, but throughout the partners and managers, and a proper understanding of leadership and how it can be fostered and developed;
  2. Direction and Vision: clear direction from the key leaders and an agreed vision bought into and understood by all as to where they want the firm to go and what they want it to be. This takes a very clear understanding of ‘basics’ such as which practice areas, industry sector areas and geographic areas will be focused on and how the firm will differentiate itself through particular ways of delivering service;
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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

Like horse’s hooves, partnerships have to deal with different conditions throughout a year. There is a well-known equestrian saying: ‘no foot, no horse‘ which means keep the hooves in order or you don’t have a fit, usable mount.

No foot, no horse – like horses’ hooves, partnerships need maintenance and the fundamental building blocks for success need to be carefully thought through and put in place. One of these is clear performance and contribution criteria.

Similarly, successful law firm partnerships need to get the basics in order and thereafter ensure that they are functioning well. It still surprises me how many firms adopt a fairly laissez faire approach to these things and don’t address some of the basics around key partnership functions. In some cases I suspect it is simply that leadership do not wish to ruffle partner feathers and so allow some of them to slip into the ‘too hard for now’ basket. In other cases the firm is doing well so some of these essentials fall off the radar.

One of these is setting partnership performance criteria. When asked to advise firms on performance and growth one of the first things I ask to see is the criteria or key performance indicators (‘KPIs’) that the partnership uses to guide, encourage and measure partner behaviour, thinking, contributions and performance.

Frequently there isn’t one or it is a hotch-potch of half finished lists which have never been fully debated, agreed and not implemented or communicated in any meaningful way. In other cases, there is a list, but that is all there is. Partners do not react to lists of things to do – it takes a lot more. Sometimes new partners come into a partnership blissfully unaware of their existence. As a result performance and contributions can be variable and overall, not delivering what the firm is after.

What then are some considerations to bear in mind when putting together performance criteria or KPIs?

  • ideally these criteria should not be determined in isolation, but in the context of the firm’s core purpose (vision, values, cultural attributes), strategy and guiding principles. This stands to reason as the criteria should be one of the key ways in which the vision and strategy is achieved;
  • you need to get all partners involved in the debate. Communicate and explain. Ask them for input. Encourage their involvement and thinking. Make a genuine effort to do this. Get to the bottom of what truly makes the partnership tick. Done well, you will find a number of the criteria and other strategic key objectives for the partnership drop out of this process. It will also be owned by the partners which will make implementation that much more effective;
  • you are going to come across some opposition, some of it very subtle, but if you don’t anticipate it and are not prepared it can undo all your good efforts;
  • you usually only get one good shot at this – make it count by getting it right first time – if necessary get experienced external counsel, especially to deal with any ‘curved ball’ queries you may encounter in meetings;
  • be patient. Introducing such processes means a lot of change for a lot of partners and thus can cause fear and demotivation;
  • don’t however be patient at the price of inaction or unnecessary vacillation and delay. It is important to commence the process and maintain momentum. Partners need to know leadership is determined to see this through to a successful conclusion for the long term benefit of the partnership. This is everything;
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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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Last week I posted PART ONE of a short four-part series on the real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs, based in part on an HBR article (subscription required) of a similar title by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography. We continue the theme today!

A number  (but not all) of these provide great leadership and management pointers for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board but of course they should not be slavishly followed – maybe emulate some, adapt others for your needs, your leadership style and firm needs, or simply think deeply about them.

It is not often in one’s life-time that one gets to experience, read about and learn from a unique character and leader of the ilk and achievements of Jobs. In his life-time he made no bones about pinching ideas and inspiration from others – I don’t think it is an opportunity any of us mere mortals should miss!  I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

Of reading things not yet on a page, reality distortion fields, avoiding bozo explosions, making products feel friendly and casual and staying hungry and foolish – some of the many lessons from the business genius that was Steve Jobs, and what it can mean for law firm leaders (image compilation by Sean Larkan with thanks to the folk at Google Images)

6   ‘As leaders we need to read things that are not yet on the page

Jobs felt very strongly about understanding deeply about what clients want. However he regarded this as completely different to asking them what they want – simply because he didn’t feel they knew until they were told! He felt one needed to exercise and use one’s intuition and ascertain and nurture the desires of clients. As he said “our task is to read things that are not yet on this page“. He developed his intuition when studying Buddhism in India and felt it was a lot more important than intellect. Eknath Easwaran, mentioned in my last post, would have said the same.

There are lessons here for law firms as most like to follow what others are doing and not necessarily take the lead.  This is due to the prevalent fixed mind-set and passive-defensive styles of avoidance, oppositional and conventional behaviours, thinking and interaction that prevails, governed in many cases by an innate fear of failure. There have however been some wonderful examples in recent years, particularly in Australasia and Africa, of law firms doing some very innovative stuff!

7   You don’t have to be the first cab off the rank, but when you do go, you better offer something unique.
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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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Lex Africa, the first and largest network of African law firms, is holding it’s annual general meeting in April 2012 in Maputo, Mozambique. I thought I would mention Lex Africa in case readers ever need assistance in Africa and want a referral to a reputable firm. I am also delighted to be attending the

Challenging one’s vision and strategy somehow seems counter-intuitive, especially when so much time, effort and thought has gone into putting it together. But strategy is about achieving a competitive, and ideally a dominant positioning, and challenge it you must.

Stress test your strategy during formulation, prior to finalisation and regularly during the implementation phase, with semi-formal and formal reviews at designated times. Do this and strategy quickly alters from being an annual 'necessary evil' to an essential and practical process which is key to your business success.

Professional Service Firms (PSFs) find determining and reviewing vision and strategy a real bind. A necessary evil that has to be done each year (or every so often). Unfortunately it does not often get the real attention and passion it deserves. For this reason it is also often not properly stress-tested and reviewed.

Address the basics: I often come across firms which have completed their strategy but are still not clear on basics like:

  • what category of clients they will focus on?
  • what industry sectors will they concentrate on?
  • what geographic areas are relevant for them?
  • how will they deliver service (in a unique and differentiated way)?
  • what cultural attributes or guiding principles do they need in place to ensure they will achieve this strategy?
  • what is their people strategy and focus to deliver on this?
  • what is their brand strategy and level of understanding around brand?
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Questions on thought leadership, pricing, knowledge management & future challenges for lawyers were put to fellows of the College of Law Practice Management for the COLPM Futures Conference in Chicago recently and published in a special issue of InsideLegal’s Thought Leaders Digest last week – below are the questions & my responses:

Chicago – a city of art and architecture – the venue of the Futures Conference of the College of Law Practice Management in October 2011 (Photo triptych by Sean Larkan MPh)

Q1 – Thought leadership is the core theme of our Digest, but the term “thought leader” is often misused and/or overused. In your opinion, what makes someone a thought leader? [Provided by JoAnna Forshee, InsideLegal]

  • I think a thought leader (TL) is someone whose stature or the respect with which they are held is such that they are regarded as an authority, pathfinder or even futurist.
  • The most important thing about whether one is or is not a TL is that it is determined by what others think not what one thinks oneself. The key is “have they led your thoughts?”  If so they will be regarded as a TL.
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At first blush social media would not seem to be the domain of leadership. It is however important that leaders understand enough about such developments, particularly where growth has been explosive and the impact wide-ranging, to appreciate potential strategic implications for their firms.

In this third Leadership Frame (introduced a few posts ago), I talk to my partner in Edge International, Jordan Furlong, a lawyer, writer and speaker based in Canada whose specialty is analyzing the changing state of the marketplace and forecasting its future. But in addition, as a former journalist – he served as editor of three of Canada’s foremost legal periodicals – he also consults to law firms on content, communications and social media in conjunction with Canadian company Stem Legal Web Services. It’s in that latter capacity that I recently engaged him in a conversation about what law firm leaders need to know about social media.

For social media to really catch on within a firm, there has to be clear buy-in from the top — not just from the managing partner, but to the extent possible, from senior rainmakers and other influencers (Sean Larkan graphic)

1.      It seems many leaders regard social media as something that should be left to ‘marketing’ or ‘communications’ – what role if any should leaders play?

Leaders who regard marketing and communications as matters not meriting their attention are either too busy for their own good or don’t fully appreciate the degree to which a law firm’s reach and reputation is linked to the firm’s business success.
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