Leading in a Time of Profound Change

Law firms, like any other business, must be effectively managed to thrive in the legal market. Law firm leaders must balance an already heavy workload with supervising other lawyers in the office, all while fostering a positive working environment. From business administration to client communications, firm leaders must fill a number of roles to effectively lead. What are some of the unique issues faced by law firm leaders, and how do these individuals become leaders in their firms? In this month’s roundtable, we hear from six veterans in the legal field and gain their perspectives on the multi-faceted nature of law firm leaders.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and a veteran public relations practitioner.




Our Panelists

Brigitte Herschensohn (BH) is global head of Corporate Practice Marketing & Business Development at Hogan Lovells. She has served as CMO of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, O’Melveny & Myers, and other global firms, as well as a consulting CMO to firms of 200 to 1,200 attorneys.
Julie Savarino (JS) holds an MBA in finance and marketing and is an internationally renowned, award-winning expert in client and business development for lawyers, law firms and other professional services entities. For over 28 years, she has helped thousands of lawyers and law firms generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new business by providing business and client development services. Julie is one of the highest-rated speakers in the legal industry, is widely quoted as an expert in leading publications and created the Rainmaker Coach™ app, the first-of-its-kind app that supports lawyers’ new business development efforts.
Daniel Kalish (DK), a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, is the managing partner at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP, a national law firm representing individuals and employees. An experienced trial lawyer who has tried more than 30 cases to jury verdict, Daniel’s practice focuses on complex trial work, and he represents employees in all aspects of employment litigation. Before joining the firm, Daniel was a felony prosecutor at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, where he tried several cases, ranging from identity theft to first-degree murder. Before that, he clerked for a federal judge and worked at Perkins Coie.
Kimberly Leach Johnson (KJ) presides over Quarles & Brady‘s executive committee and serves as the firm’s chair. A practicing attorney, she has worked as a respected trusts & estates lawyer for more than 30 years. Kim built her practice from the ground up, developing personal and professional relationships across Southern Florida until she accumulated not only an impressive client base, but a network of referrals that direct new clients to her due to her stellar work and reputation.
Allan Colman (AC), CEO of the Closers Group, is a business development executive, keynote speaker and marketing advisor/coach. He has spent more than 25 years helping law firms and professional services firms generate more new revenue. In addition to having three books published by Made for Success Publishing, Own the ZoneLead Like a Boss (co-contributor), and Crazy Impact (co-contributor), he has a periodic blog on Thomson Reuters Legal Solutions, is on the editorial board of Marketing the Law Firm (ALM Publication), and is a frequent contributor to other publications. Allan has master’s and doctorate degrees from New York University.
Johanna Calabria (JC) is the managing partner of Durie Tangri, a top IP litigation firm based in San Francisco, CA. During her tenure as managing partner, Durie Tangri has been included in such elite lists such as the National Law Journal’s Litigation Boutiques Hot List, Managing IP’s National Copyright Firm of the Year, a Leading Law Firm by Chambers USA, a Go-To Law Firm by American Lawyer Media, and the Top Midsize IP Firm in California by SuperLawyers. Johanna was selected by her peers for inclusion on Best Lawyers’ 2015 list for commercial litigation in recognition of her excellent litigation results.


NG: What special qualities and skills make a respected law firm leader? 

BH: Courage. Courage to take risks, to innovate, to stand behind other leaders when a difficult decision is made, and to support an unpopular but sage route through to the end, all for the long-term good of the firm, and sometimes at the risk of the leader’s popularity. But this also requires considerable openness, patience, and trust by the leader in others, and by others in the leader. True leaders lead towards legacy—they consider the impact of their actions in the long term.

JS: There are many obvious qualities that all law firm leaders should possess. The most important of which are commitment, competence, integrity, and vision.

AC: A “respected” law firm leader needs three skills: the ability to listen, the readiness to make decisions, and—one that is most often missing—holding people accountable for implementing the decisions. In addition, thinking about what their legacy will be for the firm must be clear, concise, and often courageous.

DK: For me, a strong leader provides the advice, the tools, and the resources to allow attorneys to be the best possible attorney. This does not mean dictating actions, but providing an environment where attorneys can take chances and learn from experiences.

KJ: The qualities of a good law firm leader are not unique to the legal field, but are the same qualities of great leaders in general. A leader must lead by example. The qualities I aspire to exemplify: integrity, to be both trustworthy and trusting, decisive, and open to differing opinions. In terms of skills, legal acumen and industry knowledge are obvious, but you must have demonstrated success in the practice to be taken seriously. It’s also important to really understand what drives the firm, its clients, and its staff. More listening, less talking.

JC: There are many, but three in particular come to mind: 1) discern and then prioritize the firm’s collective interest above your own; 2) seek out and embrace different ideas, even if you disagree with them; 3) have relentless emphasis on communication—both your own and ensuring that good communication practices are happening at every level in the organization.

NG: Are different leadership styles necessary for different-sized firms? What about in different practice areas?

BH: More important than the size of the firm is for a leader to adapt to the firm’s zeitgeist and personality, while also setting an example of the culture the leadership hopes to create. A forceful, no-nonsense leader of few words may need to stretch his own style to communicate and influence most effectively with a partnership that is mostly easygoing and consensus driven. However, that partnership elected the chair with full knowledge of his style, so they were probably seeking a decisive kind of leadership. A listening tour during a campaign, or after earning the leadership position, will help uncover the kind of leadership the firm desires and needs. Whether across a firm or a practice, a leadership style that is enduring is one that is inclusive in the information-gathering and listening process, even if the final decision isn’t strictly consensus based.

JS: The refrain, “managing lawyers is a lot like trying to herd cats” is not said in vain; it rings true. All law firm leaders need to be able to adapt their style to effectively lead a firm of any size and/or any group of lawyers. A main factor to any law firm leader’s success is their ability to adapt, especially when confronted with difficult/hard/demanding situations and/or circumstances.

AC: Heading a practice area is often a non-position. All too many firms designate someone to lead a group, provide no support or direction, and expect results. But for those who actively work to improve the services provided by the practice group, and work at cross marketing with other specialties, the results can be powerful.

DK: Most likely. At a smaller law firm, you know everyone, and get a much better sense of the needs of each attorney at your firm. At a larger law firm, this is more difficult and you will need processes in place to ensure that the attorneys you do not know have the resources and firm support to succeed.

KJ: One must consider culture when leading by example, regardless of the size of the firm. It may be easier to invoke “your way” in a small firm, but I don’t see that as an effective leadership style as it does not create a cohesive, inclusive working environment. Rather, a leader’s “style” is embodied within the relationships built over the years and how you go about forming new ones with clients, your partners, staff, and the community. Whether you are a trust & estates attorney like me or if you are representing a large corporation, there’s someone who has entrusted you personally with helping them make critical decisions. As I’ve said before, it may be good to be a large law firm, but it’s still better to think like a small firm.

JC: Not having managed a firm above 20-some lawyers, I can’t speak from experience, but I would think the above three qualities would serve any organization well.  You’d just have to scale it which seems increasingly more challenging—but not at all impossible—the larger the firm gets.

NG: How have advances in technology impacted law firm leadership?

BH: Advances in technology now help law firm leaders to share information, influence opinion and provide perspective. Financial reporting tools and client relationship dashboards are some of the obvious resources, but other examples like internal videos and blogs for chairmen and practice leaders to communicate their thinking, progress and news have dramatically extended the voice and presence of the law firm leader. Internal blogging from the chair not only informs but can galvanize the entire firm, which is especially helpful for teams that are geographically dispersed or for those who are not members of the firm’s largest practice groups.

JS: Technology continues to change at an increasing rate, which has not only had an impact on law firm leaders, but the legal profession as a whole and every single lawyer. One of the greatest impacts is the regularly rising costs of keeping a firm’s technology up-to-date/competitive.

DK: It helps, as you can interact with more attorneys in different offices much easier than before.  I can Skype or IM with other attorneys very easily now.

KJ: Technology has allowed me to interact more seamlessly with my partners, staff and most importantly our clients across the country. I am much more accessible and I have more channels by which to communicate. I’m now sending video messages to staff, I’ve got my Apple watch—and yes, I’m even tweeting! The incredible amount of data has been a blessing and a curse. I have up-to-the-minute statistics on everything from billable hours, realization rates, staff ratios, website traffic, and now social media analytics. It’s fascinating, but you have to maintain a healthy perspective on all of the data and lock onto the figures most important to your business.

JC: Technology has made communication both easier and more difficult—easier in that there are many more relevant ways to communicate both internally and externally, but also harder in that each of those modes of communication carries with it a particular culture and tone that is easy to botch if you’re not careful.

NG: How can law firm leaders train younger generations to effectively lead to ensure firm longevity and sustainability? Would firms benefit from instituting mentor programs to cultivate leadership qualities early on in young lawyers’ careers?

BH: At the center of early training is the introduction and consistent reinforcement of a business development and client service mindset to accompany the legal expertise that new attorneys develop. Teaching and mentoring younger generations about how to provide added value to a client beyond the legal task at hand and to be a creative solutions-oriented partner with the client will lead to loyal client relationships and consistent work flow.

JS: Too few law firms have institutionalized, repeatable training and coaching programs offered within their firms. Most law firms tend to reinvent-the-wheel by creating new, “one off” and/or “point-in-time” programs on topics that are somewhat standard. Instead, to be more efficient, some law firms have created customized, on-demand video training modules (that grant CLE credits for attendees) and posted them on their secure intranet on such standard topics as: “How to Work a Room,” “How to Make Client Development a Habit,” “Keys to Client Service Excellence,” etc.

AC: The most effective training should involve a comprehensive professional development program, including client management, relationship building, business development, understanding business financing, etc. And it should be set up in increments, based upon years of practice by each attorney. The firm should also pay close attention to identifying future leaders and at some point, assign mentors to them. But the mentor role must be clearly defined and a contract made between the mentor and mentee.

DK: Law firm leaders can guide the younger generation and teach them how to manage others—a skill never taught in law school.

In terms of firms benefitting from instituting mentor programs to cultivate leadership qualities early on in young lawyers’ careers, it depends on the mentor.  If the mentor assists other attorneys in learning how to manage others, and how to serve as a leader, this could be invaluable.

KJ: Leadership training and mentoring at every point in one’s career continuum is very important. I attend a half-dozen leadership events and training sessions every year, particularly since taking on the role as firm chair. We have a very strong mentorship program at Quarles & Brady. In fact, we have a full-time business development and leadership coach on staff. We’ve taken it a step further and invested in management training with several of the more prominent business colleges. Several of our partners recently received master’s degrees in executive management.

JC: Good leadership doesn’t happen automatically or overnight when, for example, an associate becomes a partner. It is a learned skill which requires consistent practice, which means that law firms have to invest in this skill as much as any other. And because much of it involves human interactions, it is always imperfect. Just about any law firm lawyer can benefit from management and leadership skills training throughout her career. That has been said many times before and it seems a no brainer. The challenge is how to make practicing this skill a recurring emphasis against the press of all the other commitments law firm lawyers have. And the answer has to be, like anything else, you have to make time. At our firm we assign “managers” at every level of the organization.  We have partner managers assigned to each associate and we have partner managers assigned to each partner. Each manager is responsible for making sure that her “managee” is thinking about her professional goals and how to attain them.  Managers rotate every year so that everyone can benefit from a new person’s style each year. For me personally this process has been as interesting and helpful both as a “managee” and as a manager and having a forcing mechanism to spend time thinking about how to manage other people and how someone is managing me has been terrific.

NG: How do law firm leaders deal with high-stress situations and problems that arise? What are some pressing issues for law firm leaders, both within their firms and outside of the firm environment?

BH: How someone deals with stress and problems is as unique as each person’s style and the situation, but I think the most successful approaches have been to draw on patience, openness, courage, and tenacity. It’s also important not to deal with tough situations in a vacuum. Law firm leaders have their “kitchen cabinets” of advisors across the firm, and they should be consulted and their opinions weighed.

One of the most pressing issues for law firm leaders externally is certainly the eternal struggle to create a truly differentiating brand promise that the firm delivers on, and in turn to retain and gain market share. Competition will get fiercer every day, and law firms will look very different in five years. Laying the ground work now, and thinking ahead how to be at the forefront and to lead the firm in that direction, is the most important issue and responsibility of any law firm leader today. Talent, tenacity, courage, and foresight would pretty much sum up all the skill requirements for tomorrow’s law firm leader.

JS: A key to successful leadership in any profession is personal discipline. Maintaining a semblance of work-life balance, proper sleep, regular exercise, and a good diet are major factors to any leader effectively handling their demanding and high-stress jobs in the short and long term.

DK: There are short-term problems and long-term problems. You handle the short-term problems instantly, and then think hard on how to change something to correct the long-term problems. To me, the biggest issue is to never forget the people working for you. At my firm, we have amazing, fantastic people at my firm, and I sometimes take them for granted. Leaders should never take for granted the quality attorneys at their firms.

KJ: We work together as a team, which includes our staff, to find out the facts and explore a variety of options to make the best decision we can for the institution. Some of the issues we face are very challenging and delicate. As far as pressing issues, at the top of the list is meeting client needs in a highly competitive market. Clients across the board want value. They want predictable budgets and they want us to share the risk. The entire legal industry has changed from even a decade ago. We need to make sure our entire organization appreciates the changes in the legal field. We must be proactive, creative in finding solutions for our clients and to find ways to add value for the client. Even the way we produce the work needs to be more efficient. Retaining talent is also a very high priority. We have to actively and continuously be mindful of creating an environment in which people feel important, heard and respected for their contributions.

Currently, outside the law firm environment, cyber security is a big issue. We seem to be ahead of the curve in this area as many of our financial institutions require an in depth audit each year. Technology has taken away some law firm market share as some companies are turning to the internet and software programs, rather than calling their attorneys. This trend will continue in the future and we need to embrace the change and adapt.

JC: The specific responses are as varied as the problems that arise but in general, I have found that the best way to deal with problems is, well, to deal with them, rather than to avoid them or pretend they don’t exist. If you mess up, own it, try your best to fix it and then move on. All too often problems get worse because people either don’t deal with them or try to sweep them under the rug or worse yet, try to blame someone else for their own mess. You don’t gain a whole lot of respect that way, and you don’t get a lot of sleep either.

In terms of pressing issues for law firms, law firms need to figure out ways to better integrate with their clients’ in house legal departments almost to the point of becoming an extension of those departments. This is a different model than even 10 years ago when law firms were simply be hired as outside counsel for a particular case and, for the most part, “called the shots,” so to speak.

NG: Is it difficult to balance the responsibilities inherent in law firm leadership with maintaining a heavy workload? What are the benefits associated with being a law firm leader? 

BH: It is difficult to lead a firm or large practice and also maintain a heavy workload; either the firm or the client—and possibly both—will suffer, so a balance must be struck. When one does decide to accept the mission of leadership, the benefits can be considerable. But, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: “with great responsibility comes great reward,” and I can think of no better example than the opportunity given to a law firm leader. A law firm chair is essentially running a billion-dollar business that is at the inflection point of some of the most critical business decisions and changes of our times—groundbreaking deals, seminal cases, innovations in the way business works. The chair is ultimately leading all the people who together will make those changes and innovations possible. The same holds true for the leader of a firmwide practice group or industry or other key initiative. Today, law firm leaders are shaping minds and markets. Being a leader is also an eternal growth and enrichment process for the leader himself or herself, if the leader is listening, encouraging and learning from the contributions of others.

JS: Yes, it is extremely difficult. Many of the most profitable law firms have their leadership on a reduced workload schedule, knowing that effectively leading and running a law firm is beyond a full-time job in and of itself.

AC: The answer to this gets back to the question of firm size.  With smaller firms, the administration, personnel and management tasks tend to be less interruptive.  As in any organization, the larger it gets, the more bureaucratic it becomes.  Bringing in a sophisticated administrative officer, designating key leadership responsibilities to members of a management or executive committee, and holding them all accountable for results will enable the leader to maintain key client relationships, become a recognized figure-head in the local business community, and set an example as part of their legacy.

DK: Yes, it can be difficult to balance.  To be a good law firm manager, you need to spend the time to do it, and do it right. One of the main benefits in being a law firm leader is the satisfaction of seeing people and the firm grow.  There’s nothing more satisfying.

KJ: The short answer is yes but this is an issue not unique to law firm leadership. Balance is a challenge for most everyone whether it is work/life, billable/non-billable, management/client work. I constantly strive to maintain balance by staying mindful and organized, being very deliberate with my time. As a leader, I am fortunate to have quite a bit of help. I rely on the team that surrounds me and delegate whenever possible. I don’t know what I’d do without the dedicated people close to me from my assistant, my husband, the marketing team, the attorneys who support my clients and our finance staff.

Being a law firm leader in a rapidly changing environment is difficult but very interesting. I’m fortunate to be actively involved in trying to understand all the changes and help create the solutions.

JC: I think it is extremely difficult to maintain a heavy lawyer desk and simultaneously manage a law firm.  All too often, in fact, just about every time, the lawyer work has to take precedence over the management work, which often means that management becomes reactive rather than innovative.  Just this year I decided to take a full management load for a period of time and although I miss the lawyer work, I have found management far more gratifying than ever before because I spend all of those moments when our brains consciously or subconsciously process the things we’re focused on, on management issues rather than thinking about the cases on which I’m working.  I’m very lucky to be in this position at a relatively new firm with an incredibly talented, intelligent and kind group of folks, at a time when law firm management is rife with opportunity for innovation.

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