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.

 





Super Mario Lawyer – How to gamify a legal career

2 08 2011

There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about “gamification”. Now before you choke on your cornflakes and wonder what anything that has the word “game” in it has to do with a serious business like the law, let me first explain what it is.

This was a part of the partnership assessment centre that Simon wasn't expecting

The best definition I found was in a white paper from a company called Bunchball (which is well worth downloading if you want to find out more), which says:

“At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behavior. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement”.

Cool huh?

Now while the gamification of legal services may be some way off, and undoubtedly there are certainly a load of “distress purchase” type services that it would be inappropriate to build some fun into, I can see the application of the concept working in some areas.

Could it be used to make a huge due diligence exercise more engaging for junior lawyers? What about a firm that works with clients on repetitive, volume instructions?

However, I suspect the serious business of injecting fun into legal work needs a little more thought, so for the blog I’m going to explore how a legal career might look as a video game, and in doing so, introduce some of the key concepts of gamification.

So learning, plus a little fun. Fits with the theme of the post?

So let’s start with some game mechanics. These are the triggers and actions that drive behaviours and contribute to motivation and engagement. Thinking about this in the context of a legal career is pretty important, because let’s be honest, there are plenty of easier ways to earn a living.

Starting out at University, the first game mechanic you’d encounter would be challenge. This is manifested in a number of different ways, from the intellectual horsepower needed (I remember thinking I’d never “get” trusts and equity!) to the maturity needed to start planning your career early, challenge is a dynamic which is likely to continue throughout a career in the profession, and in my view one of the reasons that being a lawyer can be such an enduring vocation.

Even before you get to university, you’ll have met another game dynamic which may also continue long into your working life – the concept of a leaderboard. Does law attract competitive people, or is it simply that you need to be able to survive (thrive?) in a competitive environment to succeed in the profession? The nature v nurture debate isn’t for this blog, but aim for a career in law and soon you’ll be stack ranked by A-level grades, outside interests and other achievements. The leaderboard continues through law school as the competition for training contracts and then jobs continues, at which point the challenge ramps up as you realise you need a whole new set of skills and competencies.

Being a gamer myself (first game console was an Atari with Space Invaders, Pacman and Asteroids!), the concept of “levelling up” is one that’s familiar to me and I absolutely get how addictive that dynamic can be. The concept of levels translates pretty well to what has to date, been a fairly linear career path followed by lawyers.

–          Get law degree (level up!)

–          Pass law school (level up)

–          Qualify as solicitor (level up)

–          Promoted to associate (level up)

–          Make junior partner (level up!)

–          Make equity (level up!)

Now I do think that as the profession changes at a structural level, this will change, but I think the concept of levelling up in some form or other will remain very applicable to the legal profession.

An interesting set of questions to ask, is then: what level do you want to get to? Why? What will it cost you? What are the benefits?

Shifting focus then to the game dynamics, the elements that drive motivation and reward, the application of these to a legal career is arguably even stronger.

Top of the list are reward and status. Two words often associated with the profession by non-lawyers, but also two words that many lawyers openly acknowledge as key drivers for them and dynamics that do keep them focussed on progress and continuing to work serious hours as they strive for partnership.

Aligned to that drive, and the fascination with the state of the profession’s leaderboard (just read the legal trade press to see how fascinated we all are with how firms are doing, how much other lawyers earn etc) is the competition dynamic.

I’ve written plenty about the competitive nature of the law firm market, and how that competitive intensity is growing as a result of the political, economic and forces now shaping the future. However within the firm is another hugely competitive environment, with players seeking to level up and accumulate points, often at the expense of their peers.

Much of this behaviour, which can often negate many of the benefits of collaboration which are critical to optimising a knowledge based organisation, are driven by the fact that there are limited opportunities to level up to equity partner.

Finally, there are some other game dynamics that also play a part in the lives of many legal professionals – achievement, self-expression and altruism, but these challenge many stereotypes that surround the legal profession, so I’ll leave those for another post.