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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.