Resilience has become a big buzz-word in the business world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the legal services industry is not immune from it.
But what does resilient leadership look like in a law firm? How do the leaders of a law firm -- both the titular ones and the de facto ones -- successfully guide their organizations through bad times?
This article, first published in Walker Clark World View in 2015 and updated for the current crisis management context, offers six actions to build resilient leadership in a law firm. Remember, the goal is not just to get through the current storms, but to emerge from them stronger than before. To do this, everyone in a legal services organization -- but especially in law firms -- need to deal with some very disquieting questions.
A large part of it is basic leadership in times of change.
And make no mistake: Your law firm will be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its business and personal consequences. So, some of the conclusions from past crises resonate even more loudly today, for example:
We have to make our law firms more capable of changing, not just once, but again and again.
Our law firm leaders have to be able to give people the right guidance so they can and will adapt and innovate, so the necessary changes will be successful.
Continuing to deliver elite quality and extraordinary value in a single package will require internal capabilities and resources that are aligned with new business realities.
The better our law firm can handle change, the more freedom we will have to respond to these new realities in our client base and in our competitive environment.
We need a longer-term investment mentality, rather than solely a short-term focus on money in our pockets. In a crisis, it is easy to forget this.
Finally, the biggest obstacle to sustainable recovery will be the natural tendency, once the crisis is over, to return to the old, comfortable ways of doing business. Sustainable success will require that law firm leaders challenge old paradigms and assumptions about what "the business of practicing law" means.
Was your law firm already trudging silently into oblivion?
But, does the culture of traditional law firms make them incapable of fundamental change, as some might assume? What are the qualities and characteristics we can observe in those law firms that are trudging silently into oblivion, compared to those who are turning their lives around?
Just as banks did prior to the 1980s and again before the global financial crisis of 2008-2010, many "traditional law firms" hold onto delusional notions that clients will simply keep coming to them for their needs because of their name and past glory. Their leaders are committed to maintaining the status quo and waiting for a return to the "good old days" when they took growth and revenue for granted.
Resilient law firms are ones that figure out how to be nimble. They learn how to examine openly the complex conditions around them - internally and externally. Armed with a thorough knowledge of their clients, their competition, the economic realities of their practices, and a sound grasp of their internal capabilities and assets, they develop clear priorities and actions.
Being resilient sounds relatively straightforward. So, why don't more law firms act on these common sense practices? Why is the prognosis so bleak for many law firms?
playing a poor hand well
As noted Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote "Life is not so much a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes of playing a poor hand well."
The firms that will thrive in the 21st century are not necessarily the firms who have "held good cards" in the past. They are the firms that already know how to "reframe" the risks and adversities of today in new ways so they can play their hands well.
How are they doing that?
1. Raise the bar for leadership.
No more "shooting the messenger!" Quality practices do not thrive in professional work places that discourage innovation. Nor do they prosper when partners fail to seek out diverse viewpoints and new ideas.
There is an adage, "Old dogs can't learn new tricks." While I don't necessarily subscribe to this limitation on older partners' capabilities for learning new skills of business acumen, emotional intelligence, and managing change, they do need to make a decision according to another old adage, "Lead, follow or get out of the way."
When law firm leaders can't give their people the right guidance, change will fail. Alternatively, if the next generation of leaders in law firms fail to "lean in," change also will fail.
Being able to select and develop lawyers -- the future leaders of the firm -- requires more than administering a personality test to determine eligibility. Nor should the professional selection and development of lawyers be delegated to talent management staff. If they are going to be "change ready," law firms need qualities in their lawyers and leaders that go beyond traditional skills sets.
What evidence do the partners have in answering these types of questions about lawyers whom they are considering for selection or promotion?
- How have individuals overcome adversity in their own lives?
- What has been their typical reaction to negative stress or adversity?
- To what extent do they attempt to confront emotional challenges or are they more likely to respond passively to change?
- What is their approach to getting things done and solving problems and what skills do they demonstrate in doing so?
- To what extent do they anticipate obstacles or roadblocks?
- How sound is their judgment in evaluating and responding to professional and client service risks?
- To what extent have they learned from their mistakes?
- How well can they assess their own strengths and limitations?
These are all indicators or clues about whether lawyers have the resilience, self awareness, self confidence, optimism and skills to manage their own performance and work together with others in the firm to make changes successful – not just once, but time and time again.
2. Get back to basics.
At every level in the firm, members pay attention to the basics. This includes everything from revising strategic priorities, confirming the fundamental purpose of the law firm's services, and updating partnership agreements to developing core business values and skills, writing realistic business plans, analyzing and responding to client feedback, clarifying performance expectations and managing underperformance. The day-to-day discipline of observing the basics provides the stability and flexibility needed to react swiftly to changing dynamics.
3. Analyze the external environment as closely as the internal one.
To be resilient, a law firm must be aware. This requires closer attention to the economic, political, and social trends that are changing clients' businesses and, with them, their needs for legal services. One can always respond better to challenges that are anticipated, or at least foreseen as possibilities, than to outright surprises. Too many traditional law firms are being surprised.
4. Integrate strategic goals and professional performance expectations with business and competitive realities.
Planning and performance take into account the changing realities of the economic environment in which the firms practice. Law firms that continue to follow a "do it yourself" approach, conjuring up strategic plans and performance goals internally, without any relevant external input, become more and more isolated from reality. Ignorance of the changing realities is bad enough. Being aware of them but denying that these forces somehow will affect your competitors but not harm a "fine old legal institution like ours" is like signing your own death warrant.
5. Anticipate changes.
Seek out new information from many sources. This includes:
- Listening to the younger lawyers and lawyers with diverse views;
- Generating client feedback and market intelligence; and
- Aggressively linking external economic conditions and internal profitability data to business planning.
Resilient law firms test their own assumptions and take nothing for granted. If partners wait for the consequences of not acting, it will be too late to act.
6. Provide firm members with experiences of significant and meaningful change.
Previous positive experience with implementing change builds confidence, skills and trust. Firm members may still find they get frustrated or even overwhelmed by new expectations, but they rebound more quickly, which increases the odds of successful change in the firm. When team members have mastered a new process for sharing client information, for example, they can build on this network of relationships and information for the next change requirement.
Resilient law firms also have learned that partners reward committed and innovative efforts, even if the net results fall short of the immediate target. They know that attempts at continuous improvement are almost always better than behaviors like finger pointing, running for cover, or "hiding below the radar" when things go wrong.
Lisa M. Walker Johnson
 Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)