Law firms work hard at doing the right thing.  We can see aspirations for this in their mission and value statements. We sometimes read about their innovative programs in legal journals.   They seem to be focussed on treating their lawyers, staff and clients well.  Then why is it that so few law firms end up on “top places to work” lists?  Why do law firms – and especially the larger ones – have such high lawyers and staff attrition rates and struggle economically despite their significant advantages (intellect, high value work product, economies of scale) over many other business types?

Well, it’s complicated and there are many reasons why firms fail or underperform. Some relate to the traditional law firm structure, some to the economy, some to changing client needs.  But there is one area that doesn’t rely on external variances and is completely within the power of a firm to improve: development and implementation of marketing strategy.

After years working as an in-house senior strategist with large Canadian law firms and as a senior member of the legal marketing profession globally, I’ve been aware of countless examples of “good idea death by leadership” that I believe small to mid-sized firms could learn from.

Here are a few examples of how, with the best of intentions, leadership can work against a firm’s best interests.   I’m not saying that all firms exhibit these behaviours all of the time.  I’m simply stating that I’ve seen them or heard about them enough to believe that such scenarios are common in the law firm environment.

  1. Leading Blindly (but with good intentions)

A firm decides that it needs to tackle an area of perceived weakness:  diversity, marketplace credibility, regional awareness, etc.   Or perhaps they are focussed on a more proactive marketing approach: expanding into a new geographical area, initiating a new program like a client team or client service process, creating a high profile charitable giving program.

There is usually someone or a group of some ones in the firm who are close to this issue, and can offer the best analysis and recommendations.  They are tapped to do so, or perhaps they voluntarily come forward with suggestions for improvement.  Once completed, their resulting document is passed up the food chain until (usually months later) it ends up on the meeting agenda for the highest leadership level in the firm.  It would be rare for any of the document authors to be in the room as it is reviewed and debated.  Instead, leadership critiques and debates the document freely, making what they believe to be logical assumptions and adding in caveats and tweaks without a thorough understanding of the ramifications of such changes.    If it is decided to move forward with the project, a lawyer (often with no prior connection to the document) is assigned as project leader.  They are given a timeline, perhaps a budget, and complete leeway to pursue the concept as they see fit.  It’s unlikely the project leader will seek to re-engage those responsible for the original analysis and recommendations.  Instead, they will work from the modified version of the project created by the leadership during their assumptions discussion, as well as their own research and gut feel.  By the time – months or even years later – such project implementation plans and budgets come back to firm leadership for final approval, 50% of them are found to be of insufficient value for pursuit.  And by then, that’s exactly what they are.

  1. Leading Cautiously

Here’s another example of how it can work:  a firm decides that an issue must be dealt with.  The partners hire a consultant to carefully review the issue within the firm (and potentially, with its client base), compare that information to industry standard, and provide analysis and recommendations for moving forward.  These reports are competently done and ably delivered.  The problem is that the reports are frank and honest, because the consultant was paid to be so.  Leadership may find it jarring to be faced with such frankness, and feel that unfiltered viewing of the document might alienate some of the partners.  So they begin the process of filtering – in part to ensure no feelings are hurt, and in part to add their own experience and gut feel into the analysis and recommendations.  As a result, the document gets watered down until it is a shadow of the honest and forthright analysis is was originally, and unfortunately, a shadow of the value to the firm that it once was.

The document is eventually shared with the partnership, perhaps six months to a year after the original deadline and by which time enthusiasm and momentum has waned.  The report is – understandably – seen as a weak response to an old issue and there is little support for its implementation.

  1. Leading Exclusively

Leadership issues such as this aren’t limited to specific programs and concepts.  I’ve also seen firms – throughout North America – that have developed a comprehensive marketing strategy and planning process without their CMO at the table.  Would Proctor and Gamble, Shell or MacDonald’s make decisions about a product line or placement without marketing being a key part of that decision process?  Absolutely not.  It simply doesn’t make sense for an organization to make any business/marketing decisions without input from the very people who connect the organization with the people who will buy their product or service.  Yet in law firms, it happens all the time.

  1. Leading Self-Centrically

While not as common, I have seen firms endure and even encourage a single lawyer or group of lawyers working on a pet project,  program or product with no client engagement, and no internal marketing or other It engagement.  Examples include a separate website from the firm, a separate logo and brand from the firm, even media positions that oppose the business interests of a firm’s major clients.   These programs can take up valuable firm resources, confuse the market place, and alienate members of the marketplace, members of a firm’s client base, and other members of the law firm.   Inevitably these behaviours are recognized as working against the best interests of the firm and are eventually shut down.  However, in a perfect world they should never have been allowed to develop.

The beauty of these scenarios is that they are fixable.   All of these behaviours stem from a lack of good business process and strong policies around program development, approval and implementation can go a long way to avoiding the pitfalls referenced above.  But over and above the obvious move of establishing (and adhering to) basic guidelines around project development and implementation, there are other simple lessons that can be learned her to alleviate these leadership failure traps.  Next week I’ll talk about how these tendencies can be easily fixed.