My Blog - Connecting the Dots

How to get lawyers to play ball (Pt. 4 of 4)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on Jun 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series described the initiative started by Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, to reposition his commercial real estate group to capture more premium work and to increase associate leverage. Both parts of the initiative are intended to increase profits per partner. The key elements of the initiative, summarized in Part 1 and discussed in Parts 2 and 3, were:  hiring lateral partners to supplement existing star partners in bringing in and handling premium work, training existing partners to handle the new premium work, training associates to handle more senior work and establishing a knowledge base.

In the last post (Part 3), Larry, the senior real estate partner Keith put in charge of the effort, laid out the steps to gain associate support for their training program and salvaged the knowledge base project. The first version of the knowledge base was dead on arrival, having been relegated to the IT Dept. with little lawyer guidance or participation. The final version, reflecting Larry's extensive involvement, quickly became a force of change within the practice group.

Two years in the future

If Keith could look ahead two years, this is what he'd see as he reflects on his efforts to upgrade the commercial real estate group's practice. Overall, he is extremely satisfied.

Lateral partners and partner training

The acceptance of new lateral partners has been excellent and the effort to obtain more premium work has been a resounding success. The group's reputation among commercial real estate clients has correspondingly improved.

The uptraining of existing partners allowed the group to take on premium work brought in by the new lateral partners and other successful business-getters at a much faster rate than if the work were handled by only the laterals and a few star partners. While a few partners quit or were encouraged to leave, morale and team spirit have improved and are quite high. The practice group is winning work from other established “premium work” firms. Profits per partner in the group are already up more than 25%, despite the substantial partner time investment in lawyer training. This beats the original 21% target in Keith's financial model, as discussed in Part 2 of the earlier post entitled “The Economics of Practice Management.” and shows every indication of improving further. Both Jeff's and Larry's stars have risen within the firm. Keith has already lined up several other practice group's that are enthusiastic to follow the real estate group's example.

Associate training

The associate training program was also successful, but progress has been slower than with the partner program. Associate leverage has increased more than enough to compensate for the training time, but not enough to improve profits per partner in the group by more than a couple percent. Despite Larry's efforts to get partners to support associate attendance at training, the press of work interfered with regular attendance for many associates. While partners were generally cooperative in providing classroom training, they were not as good at mentoring, which is an essential element of the program. Larry has told Keith he's going to reschedule many of the training classes to the weekend, which will be unpopular but has the potential to work. He will offer iPads to all lawyers with a 90% attendance rate. Larry will also bring in a consultant to assist in developing a more comprehensive mentoring program for the group. Keith plans to expand this modified associate training program to several other practice groups, and assess those results before making a decision to roll it out to the entire firm.

Knowledge base

The knowledge base has been an unqualified success. Many other practice groups have started similar initiatives, and some of those have already gone live. Keith is seriously considering establishing a full-time firm-wide position for a former lawyer to oversee development of knowledge bases and institute other knowledge-sharing projects. The dedicated HR lawyer is the leading candidate for that job, which would report to Larry.

Summary of key lessons

The success of Keith's initiatives depended on getting lawyers to do things that, for the most part, went against their personalities. His tactics included:

  • Apply basic managerial principles at all levels:  align compensation with the goal, grant authority to match responsibility, provide sufficient resources, establish a clear benefit to the individual or his/her group and remove disincentives. For example, provide billable hours credit to offset somewhat the pull of client work.
  • Install an accountable leader. Use the principles for leading leaders outlined in Part 1 to recruit and motivate that leader.
  • For day-to-day project management tasks, make those the primary job of an assigned individual. Don't ask a lawyer to handle those management tasks while simultaneously juggling a full load of client responsibilities, or expect a group of lawyers to self-coordinate.
  • Have lawyers, not administrative staff, lead and manage the project. The more senior the lawyer, the better.
  • Obtain visible support from senior management.
  • Make the participating lawyers, who are not naturally collaborative, feel like a team.

In the end, getting lawyers to do what you want requires liberal application of the secret sauce:  manage them by persuasion, by using their respect for their colleagues, by harnessing their sense of competition with other law firms, and by aligning financial and social incentives with the goal. Use those financial and social incentives to overcome their tendency to put client work ahead of all else and instead persuade them to apply some time to the important activities of the initiative.

In the next post

In the next post, we will explore why law firm lawyers and technologists typically have trouble successfully collaborating. We will also see whether understanding the underlying reasons can lead to a more successful approach.

[Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / wacker]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.


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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

Jack Bostelman, President

Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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How a practice management technique called knowledge strategy can help law firm leaders achieve strategic goals – ideas from a former AmLaw 20 senior partner.