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Legal Practice Management

Practice Innovations: Why lawyers lack an “ownership mentality” and what to do about it

Sharon Meit Abrahams  Legal Talent Development Expert / Legal Talent Advisors, LLC

Leslie Packer  Managing Partner / Ellis & Winters

· 8 minute read

Sharon Meit Abrahams  Legal Talent Development Expert / Legal Talent Advisors, LLC

Leslie Packer  Managing Partner / Ellis & Winters

· 8 minute read

What does it mean to have an "ownership mentality" as a law firm lawyer? And, more importantly, how can firm leadership promote that idea?

At a recent meeting of managing partners there was a discussion, more like a grumbling, in which each participant said they felt as if their firm had partners who fail to exhibit an ownership mentality. As a managing partner and a consultant, we set out to interview managing partners, firm leaders, and partners from a variety geographical regions and practice areas in order to find the reasons why this lack of ownership mentality is present and offer some remedies. This is what we learned.

The number one reason for this lack of ownership mentality is that “most lawyers aren’t raised to think of the practice of law as a business,” says Elaine Fitch, of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. “They become lawyers because they want to be lawyers, not business owners.”

This in turn leads into the personality traits of the kind of people who select law as a career. Many lawyers become lawyers precisely because they do not see themselves as future business owners, but rather as practitioners of a craft. “Their personal commitment to their craft is what often allows them to be great at what they do,” notes Joshua Driskell of Lagerlof. “When stepping into an ownership role, they might often feel as though they have a less intimate connection to their practice.”

Another obstacle to developing an ownership mentality is lack of training. Most law schools do not include any education or training in the business of law, and that is unfortunate. “The consequences of the lack of this training often shows up down the road,” says Brian Temins of Minden Gross. “Making the transition to owner isn’t as easy as just changing a title — training and preparation need to go into it.”

Indeed, adds Bijal Vakil of Allen & Overy, having business acumen “is just as important for obtaining work and retaining it.”

“Most lawyers aren’t raised to think of the practice of law as a business. They become lawyers because they want to be lawyers, not business owners.”

Often firms are not intentional about exposing their lawyers to the business side of the firm. And this problem starts early because many law firms encourage young attorneys to focus on developing their legal skills, rather than on developing a book of business. As their practice builds, these lawyers tend to focus on getting their legal work done, and perhaps never develop and understanding of why they do what they do. Instruction on why the work matters to the client, and how lawyers’ time is billed and collected, as well as how new work comes to the firm, may broaden attorneys’ focus beyond the day-to-day legal work.

Another possibility to consider is that an attorney may, in fact, already have an ownership mentality, but the more senior attorneys are not allowing him or her to express that. If senior partners insist on doing things the way they have always been done, or are not welcoming toward new ideas, other partners will have little incentive or opportunity to demonstrate an ownership mentality.

What’s a firm to do?

Many law firm leaders that were interviewed emphasize “drawing back the curtain,” and involving more attorneys in the business of the firm. This approach requires transparency and education at all stages. Tom Segars of Ellis & Winters recommends starting early by “involving young lawyers at every step of the initial client intake and billing processes, including conflicts checking, initial consultations, discussing terms of engagement, preparing an engagement letter, and editing invoices.”

David Lackowitz of Moses Singer, agrees, saying that transparency means sharing information. “Just like in other industries, [the attorneys] should be provided with data about lawyer productivity, revenue, expenses, hiring and firing, strategy, goals, etc.,” says Lackowitz, adding that such information given to attorneys at the beginning of their careers is the first step in creating an ownership mentality.

Too often, however, firms keep financial information within a small, tight circle. In some larger firms, even seasoned partners may not have access to important financial information. Instead, firms should share as much information as possible to encourage ownership mentality among their lawyers. “When people understand the mechanics of the business and feel like they have skin in the game, they are more likely to work harder for [the firm] rather than just themselves,” observes Sean Dolan of Evans & Dixon. Information is power and can lead to open discussions and improvements to the overall firm.

Law firms should start this process early by involving associates in the client relationship. This simple commitment goes a long way towards instilling an ownership mentality. When associates see how clients use and value their work — including knowing that the client has paid the bill for the work — associates then feel a sense of ownership to the client relationship.

Involving associates in the entire project creates a sense of ownership, while simply assigning tasks insures they develop purely a task orientation, explains Mickey Maher of Hecht Solberg. “If a younger lawyer hasn’t experienced the opportunity to take ownership of matters or some piece of client relationships, the lawyer will be less likely to take ownership in the enterprise of the firm over the course of his or her career,” Maher adds.

Indeed, firms should take this one step further — let younger lawyers play significant roles in hearings, depositions, trials, and more, especially as they become more senior. Introduce them to clients and encourage clients to contact senior associates directly with questions.

Heather Linn Rosing of Klinedinst observes that “the things that law firms can do to instill an ownership mentality in those up for partnership are the same things that firms can do to promote retention.” These include fair compensation, wellness programming, a commitment to the community, and a mechanism for employees to express their opinions and participate in the betterment of the organization.

Many of the leaders interviewed also emphasized the importance of active mentorship by senior lawyers, as well as active sponsorship for attorneys, and especially for women and diverse attorneys.

Promoting teamwork

While it is often challenging to motivate lawyers to participate in activities beyond their normal billing hours, firm activities that promote bonding, teamwork, and cross-selling are valuable in reinforcing ownership mentality. Involving lawyers on firm committees, such as recruiting, can help to instill an ownership mentality within them, says Heidi Yernberg of Jayaram Law. This activity brings “[the] entire team into operational issues from the beginning, involving associates in a wide range of areas, from project management and workflow to reviewing bills and budgets, to fostering business development relationships, encouraging thought leadership and more,” Yernberg says, adding that group activities, no matter what they are, instill a connection and sense of responsibility to others in the firm.

Developing a strategic plan, with the input of all attorneys and staff, is a way to encourage involvement and ownership. The plan should be consulted and reviewed on a regular basis, so that all stakeholders can see how it is being utilized to determine the direction of the firm.

“When people understand the mechanics of the business and feel like they have skin in the game, they are more likely to work harder for [the firm] rather than just themselves.”

Indeed, Mary Vandenack of Vandenack Weaver encourages her lawyers to develop their own practice plan and “that plan should be incorporated into the firm plan.”

At Ellis & Winters, a North Carolina-based litigation and commercial real estate firm, they take it further by having their director of Client Services & Business Development work with each attorney to develop an individual plan for business development, focusing on the lawyer’s interests and strengths, while holding each lawyer accountable for implementation.

And finally, accountability is a large part of this process — and often, it is the hardest part of the equation as managing partners often have difficulty holding their partners accountable. “I would give them actual business responsibilities,” says Marco Antonio Gonçalves of Veirano Advogados in Brazil. “A make them accountable for [those] responsibilities, as well as for what is expected from them as a firm partner in the long run.”

To reinforce what it means to be a partner, Fairfax, Va.-based patent law firm Harrity & Harrity conducts partnership skills training that requires new partners to meet with the managing partner on a bi-weekly basis to review scenarios, such as hiring or firing an employee, or how to deal with a potential malpractice issue. When a partner has an ownership mentality, they hold themselves accountable because they want their firm to improve and succeed in every way possible.

Clearly, creating an ownership mentality among firm partners is not easy. Often, all a law firm can do is provide training, resources, opportunities, and support. It’s up to the individual lawyers and partners to fully embrace being a law firm owner and all that it encompasses.

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