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.

 





So you’re an equity partner – big deal!

22 06 2011

Last week I was given a business card by a lawyer I was talking to. On the card, underneath their name, was written “Equity Partner” in a fairly bold, not-to-be-missed font.

Tony showed the proof of his "Legal Jedi Master" card to the managing partner more in hope than expectation

It struck me, that were I ever to hit those heights in a law firm (I bailed out of private practice before putting those magic words in my email signature) I’d probably be pretty pleased with myself. And rightly so. It’s a position many people strive for and certainly for those in the upper tiers of the legal world, can be very lucrative and rewarding.

The title marks you out as an owner of the business and as a result conveys a certain status within the firm which undoubtedly provides very practical assistance in getting things done quickly through the firm’s support infrastructure.

But, the question that troubled me was the message that the title communicates to someone outside the firm.
I posed the question on Twitter, and got some fascinating comments back.

adds pomposity and confuses clients

I think it’s wrong. Many clients don’t know what it means, in the real world.”

It’s a badge of seniority but non-lawyer clients might not know what it means. Also = unlikely to do much of your actual work.”

” It would make me think, “Ah, so you’re the reason for my large bill”

The theme that stood out strongly for me was the internally-focused nature of the title.

Of course for fellow lawyers in private practice, and for in-house lawyers, the title and connotations will be understood. However, aside from the fact that there a huge number of purchasers and influencers who may not know what it really means, I wonder if there is an opportunity lost in not using a job title that is more aligned with the lawyer’s actual role.

There are a number of ways that could be approached. For a start, as I’ve discussed before, a market strategy that is structured around a client’s vertical industry sector is quite common. Would reference to specialism in a vertical sector as well as a practice area (or even instead of…) make sense? What about an alternative based on a description of the relationship with the client, so for example separating out relationship managers (I know the “s” word is maybe a step too far), technical specialists, project leads etc. For large scale project work this delineation of responsibility could also add credibility to the project management ethos espoused by many of the top firms.

Another driver that could force to revisit job titles is the changing career structures that have been emerging over the past five years or so. Many firms now have a senior designation for those lawyers who want to stay with the firm long term, but do not want the additional commitments (time, financial or management) that go with partnership. As the next generation of lawyers move through the ranks with their different cultural approach to work, life and career, will the old hierarchical, largely tenure-based titles still prove effective?

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for fresh thinking in this area (at least here in the UK) comes from the influx of new competitors into the market when the winds of deregulation blow through the profession over the coming months. Much has been written about the potential impact on law firms serving consumers, but make no mistake change is afoot in the world of commercial law too.

Aside from further consolidation, which I believe will be driven globally as well as in response to our own market conditions, the emergence of the LPO model and flexible resourcing models such as those from Axiom or BLP‘s lawyers on demand, will challenge incumbent firms to revisit their business models. This will invariably have implications for resources and career paths, and presents the perfect opportunity to revisit job titles.

While it may seem trivial, job titles do usually matter both to the holder, and in some contexts, to clients and prospects. A new entry to the law firm market will have the chance to think about this afresh, not restricted by history or tradition.
My sense is that these organisations will not default to titles like “Assistant”, “Associate” or “Equity Partner” and in using something a bit bolder and more relevant, will be able to send a signal to the market, both to potential clients and potential employees!