The Vision Thing

Henry Ford had it. Margaret Thatcher had it. Nigel Knowles has it. Have you?

Vision is what distinguishes achievers from administrators, the great from the merely good. Vision is what gets things done. But people with vision are few and far between in law firms. A species of professional timidity seems to have taken hold of certain members of the profession over the last 5 years or so. Like rabbits caught in the headlights, managing partners see the market changing but sheer fright prevents them from doing anything about it.

By way of illustration, take the way in which a typical law firm deals with the issue of sinking profitability levels. It cuts costs: the administrator’s response. The fix works of course, but only in the short term. Over the longer term cost-cutting nearly always has a negative impact on a firm’s ability to deliver to clients, not to mention causing often justifiable dissatisfaction among staff. The latter is not to be dismissed when the true costs of departures (recruitment fees, partner and support time in finding and then incorporating the replacement etc.) and low morale (less readiness to work hard, reduced hours, disengagement with clients) are considered. More importantly, costs have a nasty habit of creeping back up again. If they are not absorbed by enhanced revenue (difficult to achieve if there is nothing to spend to get out there and generate new business), profitability slides even further.

The readiness by managing partners to treat just the effects or manifestations of a problem and not its causes is, without wholesale change, going to become a significant issue for the profession. As the market becomes increasingly commoditised, as heads of legal flex more and more corporate muscle and as firms struggle desperately to distinguish themselves from each other, what will be required is leaders with vision: men and women who can i) identify, and even create, rich new seams of revenue and ii) ensure that it is their firms, and not others, who are busy exploiting those seams. That is not to say that expenditure and costs should be ignored, to do so would be foolish in the extreme. However, there is no doubt that the legal market of today, and certainly that of tomorrow, will require managing partners to deal not just with the effects of a problem but with the causes of that problem. Profitability down? By all means look at where you can be more cost-effective (and law firms can be hugely wasteful) but don’t lose sight of what really matters – increasing revenue.

Your partners and staff need and want you to achieve, to lead. If you act as an administrator you are letting them down – your partners are paying other people to do that. Being a senior or managing partner is all about leadership, and leadership is all about people: your ability to communicate and inspire. All successful people share this ability to motivate, cajole and influence their peers and subordinates to do things for them.

How do they do it? Some managing and senior partners of course enjoy the natural and indisputable advantage of charisma. Some manifestly do not. But in any event, charisma only takes one so far, particularly in sophisticated professional service firms where bullshit is given very short-shrift. In our work with managing and senior partners, chief executives and other senior law firm executives who face the ‘loneliness of command’, we’ve noticed three ultimately far more important indicators that stand out as evident in all truly successful leaders.

First, the ability to articulate the big picture: the vision. Where do you intend to take the firm? Be bold, be proactive. Why not? You might just get there. True leaders aim high, and in doing so inspire others. You need to be prepared to be different and, in an increasingly tough market, distinguish your firm clearly from the competition. If you can’t, you can be sure your competitors will: and they are unlikely to offer the same analysis that you would.

Far too many managing partners seem happy to regurgitate, and too many of the partners that pay them are prepared to accept, a glib, homogenised big picture: ‘improve profitability/make this a great firm/become the best/serve our clients to the best of our ability’ (delete as appropriate). These ultimately meaningless and reactive aims are the statements of administrators or caretakers, the weak who have failed to step up to the leadership plate. They do not serve to distinguish one firm from another: which firm isn’t going to say ‘we want to be the best’? And which client or employee isn’t going to see through – and feel pretty disenchanted by – what is essentially a superficial branding exercise? Without more, most fee-earners, secretaries, IT and HR directors and even partners simply say in response to these grandiose mission statements – ‘so what?’ ( see

Which brings us to the second common trait of successful leaders – taking your people with you by sharing the vision. Different leaders do it in different ways but they all do it. As a managing partner, you can and should set the agenda but you can’t do everything on your own. A common fault in some of the bolder leaders in the legal market has been a failure to secure understanding of, and traction to, their vision by the rest of the firm. Often, the reason for this is not lack of clarity or determination, but failure to fulfil their part of the ‘communication deal’: the listening part. Great leaders show that they understand the views of others. That doesn’t mean they are democratic or even consultative, simply that they know, and are at least sympathetic to, what makes their people tick. The blunter style of ‘management by ego’ has led to many expensive mistakes in the legal profession: failed, secretive mergers foisted upon partners at the last minute, bottomless pit-style international expansion to name but two. And along the way, more than one firm has paid the price with its life.

So just as important as the big picture is the detail that fleshes it out: the roadmap. Someone needs to provide the information on how you are going to get the firm where you have said you want it to be. You lose control if that person is not you. George Lucas might have created Star Wars but he knew very well indeed that any lapse in detail on his part would have meant his project, or at least part of it, would become someone else’s. Managing partners who provide detailed, meaningful communication of their big picture to everyone in the firm create profitable, ambitious businesses populated by driven people. Managing partners who don’t, don’t. Disenchantment and disenfranchisement soon follow, manifesting themselves in costly departures, poor productivity and more fractious relations with clients. You need to be able to explain how your ultimate vision is connected to key success factors when it comes to operations and IT, clients, know-how and, crucially, people.

Research by Becker, Huselid and Ulrich at Harvard Business School has indicated that quoted companies which successfully communicate strategy to employees can expect a market to book value up to 3 times higher than those companies which do not. This is likely to be doubly true in professions like the law, where people are literally the only asset. A detailed and clear exposition gives others the information they need to help you in what you have set out to do. This is particularly so if such an exposition is cascaded down throughout the organisation into readily achievable, tangible tasks, individuated accordingly. This takes time but it works: providing each of your partners and members of staff with a clear idea of how they slot into, and can help bring about, overall firm strategy.

This detailed exposition also acts as a metric against which you – and others – can judge your performance. How else will they know whether or not your tenure has been successful? It might prove uncomfortable but any law firm that is not closely measuring the achievements of its managing partner is potentially wasting a great deal of money. As a managing partner, you need to report on progress or change, successes and failures. There is a simple and effective rule of management: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you can’t manage it, you can’t accomplish it. Those who set out their vision might not achieve everything, but they always achieve more than those who set out to achieve nothing. Beating out a roadmap and then weathering the inevitable storms that seek to blow you off course is one of the hallmarks of leadership:.

Third, those with vision take decisions – they do not dilly dally or prevaricate. This of course sounds self-evident but as a business we are continually amazed by the relative scarcity of managing or senior partners who are prepared to take decisions, particularly the more important decisions. Most lawyers are far happier consulting and then drafting and agreeing by committee, slowly and incrementally. This type of decision-making model is of course understandable – as lawyers we are trained to keep as many options as possible open, and not to make too many enemies. The difficulty is that this decision-making model doesn’t work for management. It takes too long and in any event one can never amass all the information one might need to make the ‘perfect’ management decision, if such a thing can ever exist. Leaders are expected to put their necks on the block from time to time and get on with things. If that means making the odd enemy along the way then that is simply too bad. True leaders are judged on results, not on whether they are perceived as being ‘nice’. Being respected is – as a manager – far more important than being liked.

One final note: successful leaders need to come from somewhere. Firms can’t simply keep crossing their fingers and hope for such people to turn up. Leadership and management skills are inherently learnable but only by those who are able to think for themselves. Law firms, in scooping up year after year the ever-higher volume of homogenised, spoon-fed graduates, need to be aware of this. Staff need to be developed and development programs need to be individuated – simply incorporating elements of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ MBA into the LPC or sending your partners to Harvard once every two years just won’t get you what you need. The ‘A’, after all, stands for ‘Administration’.

To meet the challenges that lie ahead the profession needs people with vision like never before. The bad news is that currently it doesn’t have nearly enough of them. The good news is that, with application, it can create and develop them. It’s just that it requires someone with vision to see that…

Nick Jefferson is a director of Couraud Consulting, the law firm people strategy experts.

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Copyright Couraud Consulting Limited, February 2006.