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Written by Norman Clark
Published: 28 December 2020
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Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning

Ever since we formed Walker Clark LLC back in 2002, our firm has observed four core values that have guided our advice to our clients, many of whom have implicitly incorporated these principles into their professional cultures and day-to-day workplace environments. As we look ahead into the decade of the Twenty Twenties, we remind ourselves of them, remember how they have been reliable guidelines in rapidly changing legal markets and business environments over the past 18 years, and offer them for whatever inspiration and benefit they might provide in the future.

1. Listen carefully and patiently

Individuals and organizations do so much better when they resist the delusions of  "top-down" leadership. Strong, directive leadership is sometimes required, especially in formative days of a law firm or practice group, but sustainable achievements are the result of welcoming all points of view and patiently allowing them to be articulated completely. As one law firm managing partner once told me:

"The best ideas usually come from our associates and support staff. My job is to maintain an environment in which everyone is welcome to speak up."

2. Focus on the sustainability of your business

Sometimes urgent matters require prompt action, but always give priority, whenever you can, to solutions that are sustainable in the long term. In our experience and observation, one of the most frequent reasons for the collapse of law firms is a attractive-looking quick fix that was thoughtlessly adopted -- sometimes motivated by fear or greed and usually in the absence of any foresight or attempt to understand the possible implications  -- but left the enterprise unable to sustain a satisfactory level of business performance in the future.

3. Always choose innovation

The legal services markets are changing rapidly, and the pace of change is likely to accelerate over the next ten years to a point where large parts of the legal services industry in 2029 would have been unrecognizable to lawyers and clients back in 2019. Law firms should listent (carefully and patiently, of course) to their clients so that they can better anticipate and prepare for dramatic changes in clients' expectations of legal servicesf and evaluations of the value that law firms deliver. Never stop asking Is there a way that we can do this better?

4. Treat people decently

2020 was a horrible year for many law firms. Some of them had to make difficult choices about staffing levels and compensation. The firms that, in our obvservations, have managed these difficult choices most effectively -- both financially and in terms of employee relations -- are the ones in which partners and other senior leaders were driven by an overwhelming commitment to treat everyone respectfully, fairly, and with empathy. Partners who sacrificed their own compensation in order to minimize pay reductions or layoffs of junior lawyers and staff viewed these decisions not just as empathetic, but as wise investments for the future. 

In the legal services markets, as well as in the law firms that compete in them, the so-called "new normal" will not be good enough. These four values describe cornerstones on which "New Excellence" the leaders of the legal services industry will emerge from the pandemic.

Cornerstones do not mae a complete house, but without them no house will be able to withstand the storms that still might lie ahead.

Norman Clark