Leading On Things that Matter

Over the weekend, I left the family room computer screen open on Hugh MacLeod's Gaping Void cartoon that I linked to last Friday. My wife walked by, glanced at the screen, and then turned to me and said "That is a great quote." I put my coffee down and looked over to see what she was talking about, and re-read Hugh's title for his November 10th post:
"if you want to be more successful, you have to take a leadership position on something that matters"
My wife jumped back in and told me a story of a proud parent that came into the elementary school and bragged about how her child was "a leader" in the classroom. It would have been interesting to ask that parent if she believed her child took a leadership on something that mattered… or if the child was just the "alpha-dog" of the class?

It made me think of the legal industry and the common approach that many firms take when something "new" comes into the picture. The "new" could be anything from technology, to business models, to opening new markets, to merging or acquiring peer firms. In an industry filled with extremely talented and smart individuals, the common approach to handling a change in the common approach is to ask "What are our peer's doing on this issue?" It appears to be a "let's chase each other's tails around" industry more than a "let's lead on something that matters" industry.

Let's take something that people in the legal industry are talking about lately — Legal Project Management (LPM).

As I sat through a day-long session at the Ark Group Conference in New York, I listened to speaker after speaker talk about LPM and how law firms need to implement these ideas that other industries have adopted for years now. In fact, one speaker told that crowd that the legal industry "has to implement" LPM because every other industry has already adopted it, and therefore, legal must adopt it.

After listening to a number of these cheerleaders, I turned to Toby and joked that the speakers seem to have forgotten the two most important reasons that a firm needs to answer in order to adopt a new business strategy:
  1. Is my client demanding that I make this change? (does LPM matter to my client?)
  2. Is my firm loosing money/business because our peers have implemented this change? (does LPM matter to my firm?)
Now, I could be wrong here, but as far as I've seen, the answer to both of these questions is "no."  Or, perhaps we've taken the wrong "leadership position" on finding that "something" that matters. For example, firms that have adopted LPM strategies, such as when Seyfarth Shaw's adopted "Seyfarth Lean" (Lean Sigma), they seemed to have used it more for its "public relations" effect more than because it was "something that mattered." If implementing Lean Sigma procedures really mattered, and the firm was taking a leadership role in implementing Lean Sigma as a business model that mattered, then they would list "Seyfarth Lean" front and center in their services or commitment goals. Instead, it appears to be hidden on two attorney bio pages and three old press releases.

Then maybe we are asking the questions in the wrong way. Perhaps the powers-that-be in a law firm should take a more proactive approach to the issue and ask these questions in the following way:

  1. Would making this change fulfill the needs of my clients? (would the results of implementing LPM procedures matter to my client?)
  2. Would implementing LPM procedures make my firm more competitive in keeping existing clients and attracting new clients? (would the results LPM procedures matter to the business development and client relations of the firm?)

By asking these questions in this way, you're taking on the proactive role as the leader, and not the reactive role of the follower.

I picked on Legal Project Management, but there are multiple examples of firms taking leadership roles on things that make for good PR, but that really just don't matter (to their firm, or their clients). In fact, as I was writing this post, the ABA Journal  listed five traits on "What Future Law Firm Leaders Will Need." I point everyone back to MacLeod's quote, and remind them that "if you want to be more successful, you have to take a leadership position on something that matters."

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Ayelette Robinson said...

I think you make a great point here. Speaking stereotypically, I think many large firms don't spend enough time asking their clients straight out what they want and what they need. There tend to be a lot of political and marketing issues with approaching clients directly, and while this certainly makes sense to a degree, sometimes those issues can hijack the process so that the decision is made not to approach the client at all. And that seems unfortunate, since it means the firm is missing out on critical business information.


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