Food for the Soul

by La3-Con5-neT

In this article Simon argues that law firms need stronger leadership and meaningful values if they are to adapt successfully to change.

Recently, I had the privilege of addressing the Association of Legal Administrators’ Convention in Texas. As I prepared for the Convention, I took the time to survey a group of law firm CEOs and administrators, both in the US and in Australasia.  I asked them what was one thing they would like their lawyers to do in order to become more effective. Here’s a sample of some of their replies:·       To make better use of sophisticated electronic systems that the firm has invested in;

  • To plan and anticipate better;
  • To pay more attention to the economics of the practice;
  • To bill throughout the month, not just at the end of it;
  • To think like business managers not project managers;
  • To act like regular people, rather than attorneys in their dealings with staff.

These responses are indicative of a widespread managerial frustration: ‘why is it so difficult we get our lawyers to change?’  American leadership guru John Maxwell suggests that up to two thirds of change initiatives fail to achieve the desired results because of ‘deeply behavioural’ reasons, not from a lack of ‘technical smarts.’

Some of the behavioural traits I have experienced working with lawyers over the years include:

  • Disrespect for the people making the big decisions – ‘why should I listen to you?
  • Anarchy – ‘I’m a partner, I make my own rules’;
  • Fear – ‘what will this mean for me?’
  • Lack of understanding-  ‘what’s the purpose of all this?
  • Arrogance – ‘There’s no need to worry, we’re making money.’
  • Complacency -‘It ain’t broke so no need to fix it’
  • Closed minds – ‘I don’t want to know, I’m busy meeting my budget’
  • Ignorance – ‘I’m a lawyer, I know about management and marketing’
  •  Complacency about learning and development  – ‘I’ll attend for the CLE points but don’t expect me to learn anything!’

There is a saying that you can manage things but you cannot manage people; you have to lead them.  To encourage new behaviours, law firms need to address their leadership rather than relying on a carrot or stick approach to fix the problem. That’s like putting a band-aid over a cancer.

Over the past twenty years, there is no doubt that the legal profession has managed itself well. Firms have had to re-invent the way they operate to compete and sustain profit margins. Management restructuring, strategic planning, quality standardisation, process re-engineering, information technology, and performance appraisal have all played their part in transforming legal practices. Yet there is plenty of evidence that leadership is a rare commodity in legal practices. The distinction between management and leadership needs to be made. Leadership is not about status or seniority.  It’s about the power brokers having a shared vision for the future and a passion for their work so that their people are inspired and motivated to work with them.

Steve Keeva, author of ‘Transforming Practices’ writes about the ‘rising misery index’ in the legal profession. He maintains that the way of life for many lawyers is ‘toxic’ leaving them depressed, unhealthy and unhappy. His book is well researched and the statistics back him up.

There may be many causes that contribute to this ’way of life’. One argument is that the profession has lost its sense of purpose and values. It seems to be in danger of completely abandoning its ‘professional’ roots altogether and of becoming indistinguishable from any other industry. In its drive for efficiency, it seems have cultivated a treacherous work culture in which ethical and strategic decisions are now determined primarily by economic factors. Few jobs are safe any more.  Loyalty and service are now redundant concepts.  Some firms won’t hesitate to lay off staff to preserve the bottom line blaming the latest ‘economic downturn’ (even when their promotional literature states that their people are their greatest asset!).  The spirit of service which was characteristic of the profession just a few years ago is gradually being replaced by the spirit of self-service as firms strive (many successfully) to turn their organisations into efficient money making machines. ‘Forget whether this is good for the client or not, is it making us money?’ has become the ethos of the day.

Over the years and on both sides of the globe, I have met many frustrated CEOs, practice managers and managing partners who are trying to deal with change. The following sentiments are typical:  ‘We’re successful’, we’re making money for the partners and that’s what matters round here.  We’ve got some deep-rooted problems though. Partners still follow their own individual agendas, there’s little consensus about direction, staff are not adequately rewarded and consequently cynicism among them is rife’.

There is some hope on the horizon. Respected Australian journalist and author David Leser writing in his latest book Somebody Save Me asserts that many businesses globally, (and not just the legal profession) have lost their way or as it he puts it ‘their soul’. They are now realising it and are asking themselves ‘why are we in business and what do we stand for?’.  He quotes ‘the vastly experienced’ Ian Buchanan of Booz Allen and Hamilton, probably the world’s largest management and technology consultancy:

“If I look at the firms I respect and who are the most highly successful, they are led by people who are focused on the being the best they can be rather than beating or screwing the other guy.  The firms that win consistently are the ones that put those values forward.  And that is the fundamental paradigm shift that is taking place. Values and profits are not incompatible.  They are, in fact, interdependent.”   (Not exactly the sort of thinking you might generally come across in a litigation firm!)

Buchanan’s sentiments were echoed recently byDr Simon Longstaff the Executive Director at Sydney’s St James Centre For Ethics. He believes the legal profession has to confront the challenge of how to ‘create a group of professionals operating in a competitive, commercial environment where they do more than pay lip service to the ideals of putting the interests of clients and the community before their own’.

Professional service firm guru David Maister has also thrown his hat into the ring arguing that law firms need to have an ideology. ‘They need to know what they stand for. They need to have non-negotiable minimum standards.  They need to be able to say, ‘we will not accept work that goes against our standards because it’s not who we are’.

‘Being the best you can’, ‘putting the interests of clients and community first’, ‘non-negotiable minimum standards’. Are these the sort of values that drive the typical firm?  In my experience, generally not. Certainly, many firms recognise the need for a vision of its future and the need for articulated values, often displaying them prominently in their reception areas.

Words like ‘Communication’, ‘Respect’, ‘Integrity’, ‘Excellence’. They sound impressive and possibly resemble your own firm’s values. If so, you should be concerned. These are the corporate values of Enron, as claimed in its 2000 annual report. And they’re absolutely meaningless. According to Patrick Lencioni writing recently in the Harvard Business Review most values statements, are ‘bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest’. He maintains that they can create cynical and dispirited employees and undermine managerial credibility. They need to be deeply ingrained principles that guide all the organisation’s actions. They should inherent and sacrosanct; they should never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term gain.

I recall a situation many years ago in my own legal life where I was asked by my then employer, a partner in a small litigation practice to compromise my own values to pursue a course of action that to him was commercially expedient. To me it was dishonest and possibly criminal. I followed my own values and I resigned.

The moral of the story should be clear. Firms need to have a set of values that are true and transparent.  Lip service won’t do.  If those values are not consistent with those of your employees (and vice versa), then you will never win over their hearts and minds – something that is critical when implementing change and fostering growth. Conversely when they are, your will attract likeminded people who are motivated to work for your firm and support those values rather than people who chose to work with you because it’s another job that simply pays the bills and adds to the resumé.

This is not so much a moral issue as sound professional practice. Successful global organisations such as Fedex and Virgin are examples of organisations with strong leadership and values, reflected by their ‘People, Service and Profit’ philosophy (in that order).

Closer to home, a smaller and lesser know company offers another great example of values in action. Hubbards Foods of New Zealand is a growing and successful company employing approximately 100 people. They make great breakfast cereals.  They are driven by the Triple Bottom Line, a concept that recognises that there are three legs to the measurement of an organisation’s performance – these being financial, social and environmental. Put in a more friendly way it is about  ‘People, Planet and Profits’.

The company’s website, (, offers a completely transparent view of what it stands for – its philosophy, financial performance, various stakeholder perceptions, employee attitudes and remuneration, ethical dilemmas, community contributions and the results of an environmental audit.

Its founder and CEO, Dick Hubbard, explains this innovative approach:

‘First and foremost, we are a company with a soul. By this, I mean that we have a collective set of beliefs and more importantly, a collective set of values. We are an integral part of the social structure of our local community.

We like to treat our customers as we would like to be treated, and look for “peoples’ consent” for what we do. We do this, in part, by making products that meet the expectations and aspirations of customers who share the same values as we do.

We have a philosophy of trying to create as many jobs as possible. Wherever we can, we like to provide work for those who have been long-term unemployed. We believe that work provides not only money – it is about self worth, self-esteem and social development. Having said that, don’t think that we create “soft options” for people. We run what we believe to be an efficient ship. Everyone here at Hubbard’s works very hard. We believe in the old fashioned work ethic, and we don’t have a “padded” work force.”

Many lawyers and law firm managers might argue that managing a courier company, an airline or a breakfast cereal company is very different to running a legal practice. It may be, but that misses the point. While their product and respective management systems might be different, their respective values and philosophies should be applicable to all industries and professions.

The following sign, which you can see in front of Hubbards’ offices really says it all:


This is a “no nonsense” management zone. No management excesses, corporate ego trips, committee decisions, inter-company memos, buck passing, back stabbing, or any other dubious management decisions allowed on these premises.’

Now, imagine a value statement like that hanging from the walls of your legal practice!

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by La3-Con5-neT




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