Taking Care of Business: Raise your game with 'virtuoso' leadership

Issue September/October 2016 By John O. Cunningham

Law firms of all sizes need strong organizational leadership and management to thrive, but law schools don't provide this education, so most practitioners learn these skills on the job.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of published instruction on the subject of leadership, including a great book co-authored by Andy Boynton, the dean of Boston College's Carroll School of Management, and Bill Fischer, former president and dean of an international business school. The book is entitled: "Virtuoso Teams: Lessons from Teams that Changed the World."

These authors delved into the leadership and inner workings of super-successful teams from various disciplines, including:

  • The Thomas Edison innovation team;
  • The Manhattan Project team;
  • The NASA lunar team; and
  • The Miles Davis ensembles.

The authors discovered that virtuoso leaders set goals and communicate differently from ordinary leaders in several ways:

Virtuoso leaders are hungry for new ideas and the next big thing. Ordinary leaders focus on "real work," paying no attention to untested game-changing ideas.

Virtuoso leaders envision what a project can be, incorporating the brain-power of others to achieve loftier goals. Ordinary leaders accept projects as given, focusing on pedestrian goals only.

Virtuoso leaders create an environment where people are passionate about learning. Ordinary leaders shun the "distraction" of ethereal ideas that are not proven.

Virtuoso leaders take a passionate interest in the work of others, playing a central role in motivating teams to go beyond their limits. Ordinary leaders focus only on their own ideas and traditional limits, showing little interest in changes proposed by others.

Virtuoso leaders encourage debate within their teams in order to seek constant improvement. Ordinary leaders insist on superficial harmony and will sacrifice disruptive ideas to preserve "order."

So how can law firms adopt the principles of virtuoso leadership, which have generally been substantiated in other business studies? Here are some examples:

A number of firms around the country have abandoned "we know what we need to know" attitudes about client service, engaging the services of hospitality industry experts, asking them to teach both lawyers and staff to do the little things that deliver uniquely pleasing personal service, raising client satisfaction and loyalty.

A large labor law firm has worked with clients to develop a CaseSmart system, providing them with a management dashboard to track all their labor and employment actions in real time, while enabling managers to identify particular locales affected by repeated workplace complaints. The system also generates reports that compare case performance by hours, results and other metrics.

A one-time regional firm, before it took off on an international growth tear, sent its team leaders to Wharton Business School so they could learn from leaders in other industries how to inspire and motivate people to give their best to clients and the firm.

As general counsel for a large retailer, I challenged my own legal team to get involved with and learn from other departments, seeking ways to save money. One paralegal discovered a multi-site landlord overbilling the company, based on review of our lease agreements and accounting records, resulting in a recovery of more than $500,000.

A once small trial boutique that grew into national prominence was founded on a culture that reportedly encourages healthy debate on trial strategies and tactics, especially encouraging young lawyers to take on larger roles at earlier stages in their careers rather than climbing a hierarchy.

These examples show how virtuoso leaders develop the culture, vision and energy of their teams, inspiring them to stretch for ambitious goals. These leaders know they are energy conduits, and they know how to get the best out of their teams by empowering everyone to participate.

Now more than ever, law firms need virtuoso leadership for the bright talent they have within their walls. Clients are increasingly concerned with legal service costs, and they have a growing abundance of non-traditional solutions to their legal problems. They can and do seek out alternative dispute resolution, online searches for legal answers, online providers of legal forms and other non-traditional assistance.

Even among AmLaw 200 law firms, a shrinking number are still enjoying steady profit per partner increases, and for many, those increases are driven by higher billing rates. Roughly 25 percent of large firms have recently experienced decreasing or flat profits on a per partner basis and more are losing revenue.

The message should be clear by now - clients are searching for both results and value. Firms must get the best possible performances and innovations from their people in order to meet demand. Firms that can do so will survive and firms that can't will be in trouble.

John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as general counsel to a publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company. For more information about his work in legal service, marketing, communications, and management, check out his website and blog at: https://johnocunningham.wordpress.com.