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Legal Practice Management

In the Current Crisis, Your Firm Needs You to be Both a Manager & a Leader

Bruce MacEwen  President / Adam Smith, Esq.

Janet Stanton  Partner / Adam Smith, Esq.

Bruce MacEwen  President / Adam Smith, Esq.

Janet Stanton  Partner / Adam Smith, Esq.

In the second part of their blog series on law firm management during this pandemic, the authors shift gears to discuss what it means to be a leader today

In the first installment of this two-part series, we talked about the qualities in a manager that are suddenly and intensely demanded in the face of this global pandemic.

Now, in part two, we shift gears to what it means to be a leader, which begs the immediate query: “Remind me of the distinction?”

Perhaps the simplest way to think of the differences between managers and leaders is this: Managers tend to rely more on the left brain, and leaders depend more on the right brain. These are tendencies and not black and white distinctions, but to elaborate, ask yourself which of these roles relies more heavily on:

      • Critical management skills that are objective, unbiased, “just the facts,” impersonal, rational, syllogistic, and IQ-based. What and how, a science. People are toolboxes full of skills and capabilities.
      • Leadership is more of an art: Why and who. Impressionistic, narrative, intuitive, aspirational, and highly personal. EQ-based. People are a team, a firm, a self-selected group of believers: Builders, not laborers.

Leadership, first and foremost, composes and delivers a compelling narrative: Who are we as a firm? What are we trying to create here? Why does this place matter?

In another context, we’ve written about “thin” and “thick” communities. This illustrates the difference:

law firms

Leadership builds, or ideally reinforces, your firm’s thick community.

If that’s the (unapologetically ambitious) goal, what are you supposed to do today? After all, if a global pandemic isn’t a crisis, we don’t want to find out what is. You need to act, and act fast — while still exemplifying and embodying wisdom.

We suggest you start with the truth: The whole truth and nothing but the truth, as they say.

Be brutally honest

Do not sugarcoat things. That’s a rookie (or a narcissist’s) mistake and one that people will see through before you’ve completed your first sentence. During the depths of the Nazi Blitz of London in the fall of 1940, Churchill realized he needed to set up a professionally staffed, apolitical Central Statistical Office (CSO) to gather and issue authoritative working data on the actual course of the war — bombing raids, targets, destructive results, casualties lost, and number wounded, RAF and Luftwaffe plane and crew totals, production rates, and combat losses, etc. Churchill feared his ministers, out of a misguided sense of loyalty, might not be entirely candid with him about the horror and devastation.

To reinforce the CSO’s independence, he ensured its headquarters were not in Whitehall (the set of buildings in Westminster including the War Office, Horse Guards, and Ministry of Defence that comprise the seat of the traditional government.) The CSO had to be insulated from lobbying, spinning, and bowdlerizing.

Churchill’s rationale was unforgettable: “Facts beat dreams.”

Ask yourself, what could be the worst possible impact of this current crisis? Plan for what to do if that happens. Then tell people what that eventuality is, and what your plans for it are. They might have some insightful and creative ideas of their own.

Craft & tell a story

We hope you already have a narrative surrounding your law firm, in which case now is the time to celebrate it by telling and re-telling it. If your firm doesn’t have a narrative, it’s time for some profound reflection on your part followed by the creation of just such a story. (See the thick/thin communities table again for some guidance on what the arc of that narrative should focus on.)

Why a mere story?


Leadership, first and foremost, composes and delivers a compelling narrative: Who are we as a firm? What are we trying to create here? Why does this place matter?


Because people don’t go to work, or more recent to work from home (WFH), primarily for the money or to keep themselves occupied during the day; certainly, compensation has to be fair (at least approximately market rate) and if each individual gets along with most of their coworkers and maybe even has a friend or two at the office, that’s great.

But the fundamental motivation for people who want to go to work is the belief that they’re part of something bigger — that they’re building something. There’s a shared vision and a widespread sense of stewardship. Thus, we realize what we owe to those who came before us at this place, and we want to leave it better than we found it. Instilling that conviction requires a story, not a deductive statement of positive logic.

Most importantly, your firm’s reason for being needs to address: i) why it’s relevant to the firm’s clients and how it’s improving their lives and businesses; ii) how your firm is unusually suited to fulfilling that purpose, and why its disappearance would leave a hole in the market; and iii) why your firm is the rightful owner of that purpose.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

You cannot tell the story often enough or in enough different ways. How the firm is responding needs to be woven into the firm’s overarching narrative. And firm leaders should do this in virtual town halls; in one-on-ones or in small groups; on the phone, over email, and through the firm’s website; and through brief written reports and updates.

And don’t worry that people will get sick of your message or think you’re repeating yourself. You may think you can recite the message in your sleep, and we devoutly hope you’re right, but remember the stress, anxiety, and grief people are experiencing now.

Whether they’re WFH all by themselves or WFH with a home full of preschoolers and pets and another WFH spouse, there is plenty going on in their lives. Even before the pandemic, we heard a managing partner ruefully recount that he had told his firm’s story “17 or 18 times” only to have a partner walk up to him and exclaim that the story was so inspiring, he wished he’d heard it earlier.

Act short-term, but think long-term

Act in the short-term: When your firm, your clients, and your colleagues are living through unprecedented ambiguity, stress, uncertainty, and almost total (if we’re honest) ignorance about what the future holds, the worst thing you can do is dither. Far preferable to make decisions now and modify or reverse them later as events unfold than to study matters.

If you’re waiting for certainty, or even 70/30 odds, you’re not going to get it now, not about this. Act on what you know and update your decisions later when you know more. Voltaire could be speaking to us today when he wrote, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”

Further, now might be a good time consider making several small bets. For example, what if you offered a dozen slots to associates who wanted to go part-time — first come, first served. Would your strongest or weakest associates take them? Or would they self-select in an altogether unforeseen way? If this works, extend the offer to staff, partners, more associates, and other business professionals. If not, don’t.

A good number of small bets are smarter than a few big bets. By now, decision theory has convincingly established that considering more options (certainly many more than the binary go/no-go) yields superior final choices. And according to Wharton: “A study of 8,526 potential National Football League draft picks over a 14-year period found ‘overwhelming evidence’ that teams that traded away one high pick to receive two lesser ones did better in terms of player performance in ensuing years.”

Think in the long-term: Will your choices burnish or tarnish your firm’s reputation on the other side of this pandemic? Will you have kept your precious talent, keeping those talented people enthusiastic, engaged, and committed? Will you have served clients well, even if it entails manageable financial sacrifice by the firm? Will competitors be secretly pleased at your miscues or secretly annoyed at your agility?

Rely on some of the smart lessons from the the Great Recession — the firms that sought to maintain cohesion via shared sacrifice generally fared better in the end.

Remember that this crisis will be over, but the impact it may have on your firm will endure beyond it.

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