Why law firms need a CLO (chief listening officer)

12 08 2011

When I started my legal career in the mid/late 90s, no-one ever talked of the CEO or the CFO. There was a Managing Partner, probably a Senior Partner, and a Finance Director.

Eric's campaign for Managing Partner was based largely on the popularity of his beautifully formed ears

While looking at job titles may seem simplistic, it actually throws up some interesting trends (and I’m not repeating my rant about putting the words “equity partner” on your business card). In some firms, the adoption of the CEO and CFO titles genuinely represents a shift to a more corporate structure, where the executive have more authority. This was required as firms became more complex and more distributed – the slow, consensual nature of partnership was hampering firms’ ability to move at the pace required by the market, and a changing governance structure was one response.

Another interesting change was the emergence of the COO, showing in many firms a need to separate the day to day operations from the other issues such as people, strategy and technology. Strange thought it may seem now, twenty years ago it would not have been common for a firm to have an HR Director, a Business Development Director or an IT Director. These emergence of these new roles is partly a response to the increased scale of law firms, but also a recognition that to be successful in law these days, there’s more involved in the business than simply providing legal advice.

More recently still we’ve seen the rise of the CKO (chief knowledge officer) and CIO (chief information officer) in law firms, and also the CLO (chief legal officer) as an alternative to general counsel in the corporate world.

And this brings me to the title of the post – an alternative meaning for CLO. The answer comes in a post (set out below in italics) from the prolific and thought-provoking legal blogger, Julian Summerhayes about the role of the managing partner.

To my mind, listening, the critical skill Julian references, is critical for all lawyers, not just in their legal work, but also in their selling (see number one in my list of top lawyer sales fails). So whether you’re a managing partner or not, read on and reflect on how practising and developing this skill might help you:

Most managing partners that I have met describe their role as like herding cats.

You know the score: two lawyers can’t agree the time of day. And you magnify that up to include the plethora of issues, including the big one – PEP – and is it any wonder that poor old managing partner feels like s/he is dealing with a swarm of angry bees?

What do you think is the role of your firm’s managing partner? 

  • Leader?
  • Visionary?
  • Communicator?
  • Motivator?
  • Political strategist?
  • Tough negotiator?

I’ll give you my view:

CHIEF LISTENING OFFICER (CLO).

And not the sort of listening you normally observe which, at best, skims the surface and never really understands the issue. No, someone who is so intensely focused on listening to you that it is scary.

Scary in what sense?

Scary in the sense that you know they deeply care about you and your needs. They are not constantly scoping the conversation to make their point, or talk in firm speak or make you feel (like a lot do) that you are inferior to them (or at least your ideas).

People skills, being human and wanting you to succeed should be the only selection criteria for managing partners.

The problem for a lot of managing partners is that they take on too much.  Their focus is ameliorated to such an extent that they never get time to address the fundamental people issue.

Of course most large firms will have a Human Resources department but my experience of such departments is that they are more focused on making sure the correct procedure is followed than listening to people. In fairness they don’t really have the power to make a difference – they know that any major decision will be deferred to one of the partners.

Without wanting to name any of the managing partners that I worked under, the one that stands out was the one who took time to stop by whenever he was in the office, put his head around the door and simply say “Hello Julian. How are you?”

There was no agenda. He seemed genuinely interested, and didn’t automatically jump the fence and ask “Are you busy?” As if I was going to confess to surfing the Net all day because I was bored out of my mind doing crap work!

No, this managing partner made me feel, dare I say, special.

Listening is a strategic skill.

It should be taught at every level from undergraduate to senior partner.

As a skill set it is matchless.

How many courses have you attended on it? I have been on loads where you are taught the art of speaking but not listening.

Isn’t it wonderful when you come across someone who intensely listens? Someone who focuses their attention on you.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post the people we find most interesting are the people who are most interested in us.

Try it for yourself. Next time you meet with someone just listen.

Don’t do anything else.

Try not to focus on what you think they are about to say.

Don’t steer the conversation in any one way.

Let one question follow on from the next.

Be humble.

Be patient.

And don’t finish the conversation until the other person has finished what they have to say.

Summary

If you still want a managing partner then fine but how about changing the job specification to include CLO?

Slow down and listen.

Find out something new about your staff and remember it. Better still act on it, if there is something to act on.

It is the small detail (if you can call listening ‘small’) that can often make the biggest difference.

 





Partner Smackdown!

25 04 2011

Admit it. All of you who have worked in law firms have met one.

The head of Squiman's corporate team was not to be messed with

The partner you want to avoid in the lift. Perhaps she’s the one with the really (really) bad temper. The table thumper. Maybe he’s the one who makes trainees cry. Is it the one who seems to have avoided any sort of diversity training at all?

Lots of law firms have at least one of these stereotypes. Hell, maybe you’re one yourself!

What I’m investigating today is bad partner behaviour. I don’t think the behaviour really needs much in the way of explanation beyond that in the paragraph above – let’s just define it as behaviour which is inconsistent with the firm’s values and which most people would view as unacceptable.

But this isn’t unique.  This behaviour happens in corporate life too, and the public sector, so why focus on law firm partners?

I believe there are a number of factors that make this type of behaviour harder to stamp out in law firms than in other organisations, and that’s what I’d like to explore.

Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, cultural change can be particularly hard in law firms, and many of the reasons why organisational change is difficult apply equally to changing individual behaviour.  However, when it comes to large scale change, it maybe that to effect change firms dedicate resources and engage particular external expertise if they don’t have it in-house – This type of focus is unlikely to be applied to changing the sorts of behaviour we are looking at here.

But perhaps linking this type of behaviour with culture change is too abstract. Maybe it’s just a simple people management issue? Call in the HR team?

Alas, this is often not as straight forward as it is in a corporate environment. Firstly, the partnership structure of the majority of law firms means that the problem partner is likely to be an owner of the business, and as a result have a certain amount of weight (actual and perceived) that comes with ownership. By contrast it’s unlikely at the moment that the HR Director will have equal status, although this may change in the years to come.

In practical terms this can mean firstly that junior lawyers and support staff might be less likely to report the unacceptable behaviour. Secondly, it may mean that the HR team are not as empowered as their peers in corporate environments. One structural observation I’ve made in larger firms is that often the HR Director is a relatively senior professional, brought in to advise on strategic issues (such as talent management), but that they are supported by a relatively junior team on the operational side of matters. Thus the HR personnel at the “sharp end” of behaviour complaints can often be outgunned by the partner in question.

So if the HR department has challenges, how about peer group management? Surely the partnership as a whole will quickly identify and deal with the problem behaviour?

Maybe, maybe not.

It certainly depends on the firm (which circles back to the earlier link to the firm’s culture), but in my experience this is something that partners find very difficult. Perhaps again the partnership structure and the idea of relative equality among the equity partners plays a part, but I suspect more likely it’s that a large proportion simply prefer to avoid the conflict and hassle associated with peer-group people management, and critically that they haven’t been given the skills and tools needed to do the job effectively.

Given that exiting a partner does typically remain more complex than removing an employee (particularly if the law firm want to avoid any subsequent legal action and bad publicity), the last factor should not be underestimated. Law firm partners, even in the biggest firms, have often received a limited amount of management training, particularly when you consider that managing professionals is known to be among the most challenging categories of people management (good reads here are “When Professionals Have to Lead” by Delong Gabarro and Lees, and “Aligning the Stars” by Tierny and Lorsch).

The lack of training and reluctance to head into what might be a difficult conflict (another great read is “Difficult Conversations” by Patton, Stone and Heane) can be compounded by the fact that resolution may not be swift, and often partners get little credit for this type of non-chargeable activity, no matter how valuable it is to the long term health of the firm.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not overlook the elephant in the room. Economics. In reality, the reason the unacceptable behaviour has carried on for so long is often that the perpetrator is a rainmaker. Huge billings = lots of power. While this may seem cynical, it might be that the firm management are aware of the behaviour, and are prepared to tolerate it to realise the revenue stream from the partner in question. In other firms it may be less overt, and the problem simply manifests through the fact that the high billing partner just has a lot of power.

Plenty of reasons not to deal with the issue, but I think we all know that’s not the answer. Aside from all the direct consequences of this behaviour (potential claims, loss of productivity, morale damage etc), it maybe that the junior assistant who walks out of the door, is the managing partner of the future.





Can you quit your job?

24 01 2011

I got an email from Linkedin last week, letting me know that 80+ people in my network had changed jobs last year. Now aside from the fact I love these type of analytics, the email made me stop and pause for a number of reasons, not least because I myself shifted jobs.

The revolving door at Thatchwick & Partners saw lots of action last year

The trend that most intrigued me when I looked more closely at the email, was that although lawyers are undoubtedly the biggest single group of contacts I have (having worked in the profession for almost 15 years), they represented a relatively small proportion of the 80 or so people that changed job.

Why is that?

I then started to mull over why people leave jobs and why they stay.

I’d love to find some attrition statistics for the legal profession, and find out if there is less mobility than within comparable industries.

Around ten years ago, I recall there was a huge demand for mid-qualified associates (with around 5 years of experience) because this group had been the target of much of the cost-cutting that had been a feature of the previous economic downturn. As the market picked up (particularly in corporate, driven by the dotcom boom) it seemed that wages shot upwards and opportunities for lawyers in this category were plentiful.

There was much talk about how the traditional law firm model of working your way up from trainee to partner was on its way out, and the market would never be the same again. Much has been said and written about the erosion of loyalty in the workplace and the changing nature of the “psychological contract” between employer and employee generally, and although lacking hard data, I’m sure lawyers do move around far more than they used to which seems to me to be following a basic social trend in the Western world.

But is this all relative? Compared to other industries, is the legal workforce still pretty stable?

It strikes me that there could be some sensible reasons why this might be the case. Firstly the partnership model, while constantly evolving, still maintains some fundamental differences from a corporate structure. With the owners of the business able to dictate who joins “the club”, assessing potential candidates in the workplace over a sustained period of time offers the partners a way of ensuring the culture and profitability of the firm are maintained, and provides an incentive for the senior assistants to stay at the firm.

If the assistant knows they are on the partnership track, the associated rewards (be that higher remuneration, the ability to have a say in decisions, or simple status and prestige) may provide a powerful incentive to see the process through. Moving firm could simply be a passport to start that process again, but at an earlier stage.

Moving also involves risks for all concerned. The lawyer may move firm and find the grass is not always greener and not settle in the new firm. The firm might find that a new lawyer is competent, but just doesn’t fit with the culture or values of the firm. While it is certainly an oversimplification to say that lawyers are risk averse, there’s no doubt that lawyers are often immersed in risk assessment and management (of a sort) as part of their job, and decisions like career changes will undoubtedly be well thought through before being finalised.

The other angle that I wondered about, was the degree to which specialisation in large law firms works against job mobility. My own personal experience (particularly the move from private practice to in-house) made me see how the transferable skills that lawyers develop can be used effectively in many different ways in a commercial environment.

However, in private practice, the trend to specialisation usually starts right after qualification (if not during the training contract) and I can certainly understand the reason for this. If for example you are an employment lawyer, the law is so broad and so fast moving, I for one would certainly have struggled to keep at the cutting edge of a practice if I was also trying to keep abreast of changes in other areas of law (like IT/IP for example).

A consequence of this is of course that when a lawyer has been doing one type of work for five years or more, they will tend to define themselves as a particular type of lawyer (rather than look at their skills and competencies) and look for similar roles. This doesn’t cause a problem if the lawyer is happy doing this type of job (and of course many have very fulfilling careers in a single specialism), but if not, I suspect it does hamper job mobility.

The credit crunch has led to firms showing much more flexibility in retraining staff to help retain and manage their workforces, which given the cost of recruitment and the investment in training lawyers, is understandable.  It will be interesting to see if this shift has any long term impact on lawyers moving firms – perhaps working in different areas will open up new career avenues for lawyers, both inside and outside their current workplace.

With the profession facing real change from deregulation, commoditsation and globalisation, law firms are going to change and new competitors will emerge. As a consequence, new legal roles will emerge and perhaps some existing ones will change or disappear.

For what it’s worth, I think that for most organisations, getting the right balance of stable, trusted employees, and new blood with new ideas is challenging. Too much of either causes problems. Mobility within a firm can help provide flexibility here, but will be more difficult for some organisations than others.

From an individual’s perspective, I’ve always taken the view that a person’s career is their own responsibility, and it is for them to find the roles that will both satisfy and grow them.

So with that in mind, what do you think you will be doing next year?