The Leadership Role of the Law Firm Owner


Last week we had a Mastermind Group meeting in Ft Lauderdale and I was fortunate to take some time off while I was down there. Life is more relaxed now that I’m not running a multi-million-dollar law practice, day-to-day. But life is no less rewarding.

I’m not overseeing a company comprising dozens of employees, but I didn’t retire either.

With PILMMA and our Mastermind meetings, I lead a community of law firm owners who want to create something unique; something special.

They want to build law firms that provide the freedom to have a healthy work-life balance. Firms that provide for their families and their employees. Firms that are happy places to work and to be a client. Firms that take care of their clients’ interests.

Having built that for myself, I’m helping hundreds of other lawyers to now do the same thing, too.

What I realized this past weekend was that while I focus on the vital aspects of running a business that we never learned in law school – like marketing and management – I don’t often talk about leadership.

I know how to manage a law practice, I just don’t enjoy it as much as the marketing. That’s one of the big reasons I hired Cheryl Leone to be the law firm’s administrator.

What I was big on at my law firm was providing leadership.

The Responsibilities of Owning A Law Practice

A law firm owner, just like any other business owner, has to take responsibility for a whole bunch of things:

  • Legal compliance
  • Rainmaking – getting new cases – sales and marketing
  • Case management – looking after clients and working cases
  • Winning cases – legal excellence
  • Book-keeping – paying the bills, making payroll
  • Accounting – tax withholding, tax returns, tax payments
  • Staff management – holding employees accountable, providing support
  • Hiring & Firing – hiring great employees, hire slow & fire fast

Even if you’re a sole practitioner, you’ve probably delegated some of these tasks. Almost everybody has an accountant, for example, to shoulder some of the burden on book-keeping, accounting and tax issues.

The larger a firm becomes, more of these responsibilities get delegated out to employees or external providers.

But it’s always the law firm owner’s responsibility to make that happen in the first place.

All of that is the business of running a law firm.

The one other thing that’s also necessary is leadership.

I assume that law firm owners understand this. I assume they are providing that leadership in their practices and to their employees.

But I don’t talk about it enough.

So I really shouldn’t be making that assumption.

Implementing management systems and hiring managers is not the same thing as providing leadership. Now, maybe some law firm owners have confused the two. Maybe they think that crafting the right systems and hiring the right managers was the leadership that was needed.

“We have systems and managers, so we have leadership.”

It’s a bad assumption.

Here’s The Deal With Leadership

Here’s the deal with leadership.

You cannot just assume you are providing it.

Leadership isn’t just a one-time deal.

It’s a vital aspect of what only you, as the law firm owner, needs to consistently provide to your firm in order to truly succeed.

Not just once, when you build a system.

You have to be a leader all the time.

No-one else can lead your law practice for you.

Ask yourself, where is your law firm going if you are not providing the right leadership?

Nobody wants to admit they aren’t as strong at leading a business as they want to be.

But I’m not asking you to say it out loud.

Hiring the right managers only goes so far. It’s important, but it’s not being a leader.

We can all be better leaders, myself included. That’s why I still read books about leadership and listen to new interviews with new ideas. It’s why we’re trying the 12 Week Year at PILMMA.

So again, I’ll ask, where is your law firm going if you are not providing the right leadership?

When I talk about the importance of management systems and implementation systems for a law practice, those who don’t know or understand think I just want to hire automatons.

A production line isn’t what I want.

However, without leadership, what is a systemized law practice except a production line?

Where is the heart of that law practice?

Where is the soul?

It’s the leadership that elevates any business above the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.

The Leader

As the CEO and leader of your law practice, you’re responsible for all those management and implementation systems. You’re responsible for ensuring payroll, bills and taxes are paid. You’re responsible for ensuring you have marketing that brings in the clients. You’re responsible for hiring employees, case workers and attorneys to take care of those clients.

And the list goes on.

What transforms ALL of that is your leadership.

So now a longer list for you. All questions for you to really think about.

  • What standards do you demand from your employees?
  • What example do you set for your employees?
  • What do you expect of your employees?
  • What should your employees expect of you?
  • What is the bigger purpose or mission for you and your law practice?
  • How do you energize your employees to want to do a great job every day?
  • How do you encourage employees to pro-actively solve problems and provide suggestions for improvements?
  • How do you facilitate clear and regular productive communication, both among employees and management, and with yourself?
  • How often do you publicly thank employees for doing a good job?
  • How often do you privately work with individual employees to help them be more effective?
  • Do your employees see clear opportunities for career progression in your practice?
  • What community or charitable causes are important to you and your practice, and why?
  • When employees talk about your practice to their friends, how important is it to them?
  • Why do your employees want to help you succeed and your law firm to grow?
  • Why should your clients care about your law practice?
  • What makes your practice different from any other firm in your market?
  • What do you want your clients to say about your law practice?
  • Tell the truth: Do your clients and your employees say the same things about your firm?

(I’ll give you a heads-up right now. All those questions are about how effective your communication is as a leader.)

Don’t Take Your Leadership For Granted

There’s all the nuts and bolts of running a law practice. You can build a system that lays out how cases should be handled and who does what, for example.

But what dictates the standards you set in your system, the reason why you chose to process court filings within 30 days instead of 60 days is because of your leadership.

It’s easy to take your leadership for granted, and assume that it’s all-present and pervasive, within all your systems and procedures.

“You don’t need to be at the office,” you might tell yourself, “because the system TELLS them to file within 30 days. So, of course they know it’s important, and they know why it’s important. And they know why that’s how I feel.”

A perfectly natural assumption.

An assumption.

But without getting back to the “shop floor”, without checking for yourself, you won’t know for certain.

Even if your team is in fact following your system in your absence, it never hurts to go back and see them once in a while. To provide a quick check-in. “How’s things? Where are we on our 30-day target? All good? And you guys know why it’s so important, right?”

That would also be a good time to ask for feedback.

“Anything we can do to make this a better process? Anything I can do to help you guys be more awesome at your jobs?”

That’s what a great leader would do.

No matter how great your systems and management, no matter how amazing the legal mousetrap you built as a law practice, it’s missing something if you’re only gonna sit on the beach, drinking cocktails, relying on your systems and managers.

Without your leadership, everybody is just going through the motions.

Sure, clients will get signed, represented and settled.

Employees will get paid.

You’ll make a profit.

But there will be something hollow about it.

Being The Leader

Being the leader of your law firm is about more than just building the perfect legal mousetrap of systems and procedures.

To be the leader of your law practice – of your business – you need to create and stimulate its heart and soul.

That means leading your team. Your employees.

You need great employees to build a great law practice.

Great leadership will help you keep great employees, inspire greatness in them and encourage others to want to join you.

When you’re a great leader – even when you make mistakes – your team are there for you.

They want to work with you. They want to work for you. They want to tell people about how much they love their jobs, their co-workers, their managers, their boss – and yes, the clients too.

They tell people about how they should choose your law firm. About why they should choose your law firm. They actually work there; they’re on a mission and they mean it.

Management vs Leadership

You’ve got to have strong management in your law firm if you want to be successful. Strong management is essential if you’re going to grow and scale up your practice. (Same for great employees.)

You can’t be everywhere all of the time.

Management and systems will give you freedom.

But management isn’t leadership.

You are the number one leader in your business. You can hire and empower other leaders within your business, but it starts with you.

You need strong leadership alongside strong management.

You need the balance from both, as these statements will show you:

  • Managers have employees. Leaders win followers.
  • Managers react to change. Leaders create change.
  • Managers implement good ideas. Leaders come up with them.
  • Managers communicate. Leaders persuade
  • Managers direct groups. Leaders create teams.
  • Managers try to be heroes. Leaders make heroes of everyone around them.
  • Managers take credit. Leaders take responsibility.
  • Managers are focused. Leaders create shared focus.
  • Managers exercise power over people. Leaders develop power with people.

Or, to use the words of Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.”

As the leader, it’s your job to inspire your team to help you achieve your dream.

And that’s why what this really all boils down to is effective communication.

Everything that a leader needs to do for their team, you can either make it or break it, depending on how you communicate with your team.

With a 30-second pep talk, you can inspire your team to greatness – or you can drain their very will to live. It’s all about communication.

So while you’ve got to have your systems, your procedures, your managers – everything that keeps the business running – you’ve got to provide that strong leadership too.

But you’ve also got to focus on communicating effectively with your employees.

Building the perfect mousetrap isn’t enough. You need to lead and communicate effectively.

When you’re an effective communicator and you provide strong leadership, it’s amazing the things that can happen.

Bring Everybody Along For The Ride

In any business, a change in leadership can mean big changes for everyone, both employees and customers.

Few would argue with my view that Apple isn’t the business it used to be since the death of Steve Jobs. The same can be said about Walmart since the death of Sam Walton.

Both Walton and Jobs were inspirational figures, not just in their own businesses, but in the wider world too. They set standards. They inspired people to do their very best, with their words and with their actions.

They provided the heartbeat of their businesses, even as they scaled massively.

The provided strong leadership but they were also effective communicators.

They brought everybody along with them for the ride.

That’s your role.

You’ve got to be around to provide leadership and to communicate with your team.

You may not be CEO of Apple or Walmart, but your leadership of your own law practice – your own business – is no less important.

And to your employees and clients – and to your children’s future – it’s everything.

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