Major law firms select their leaders in different ways. Some have a committee of partners do the picking, for example, while others have the outgoing leader designate her successor.
Rank-and-file partners often have little to no say in the selection. And, perhaps because the process is frequently run by a small group of people at the top, it doesn’t often come with much public drama. Yes, some firm leadership struggles boast intrigue worthy of Game of Thrones, but it’s generally kept under wraps.
At one prominent law firm, though, the entire partnership selects the managing partner in a firm-wide vote. This year’s election was contested — and not everyone is happy with the results….
As discussed last week, I agreed to answer some questions from Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of law in exchange for his kind agreement to be interviewed (parts 1 and 2 of that interview available here and here) for this column. This week, I conclude our exchange by answering his final three questions. In so doing, another year of writing for ATL will come to a close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank everyone who interacts with this column, whether as reader, commenter, interview subject, or editor. May 2014 be a year of success, health, and growth for us all.
BH: You have chided your fellow lawyers to give back to the next generation of lawyers. I certainly agree. However, between moral exhortation to do the right thing, or changing incentives within law firms, where should we focus our efforts?
I went through my first 360-degree review — where those above, beside, and beneath you in the organization all anonymously evaluate your performance — two years ago. Never one to shy away from abject public self-humiliation, I shared the result of that review in this column. I revealed that my biggest “blind spot” two years ago was in the area of celebrating the accomplishments of folks on my team: I thought I was pretty good on that score; those who worked under my supervision begged to differ.
I told you that I would fix that problem, and I did. During this year’s 360-degree review, my score for celebrating our accomplishments was a solid 4.0 — 0.9 better than two years ago, and precisely how I’d graded myself this time around. It had actually been pretty easy to solve this problem: I distributed emails celebrating our victories more often and to wider audiences; I stopped by folks’ desks to congratulate them on wins; and I was otherwise more sensitive to letting the world know when my merry gang of litigators did nice work.
Now that I’ve solved one management problem, however, another one naturally reared its ugly head during this year’s 360-degree review . . . .
Every Biglaw firm has a leader, or at least a public face — sometimes the chairman, sometimes the managing partner. At some firms, one boss is actually two, co-managing the firm into a future of profitable bliss. Nowadays, most of these “personalities” undergo serious media training, so that the firm’s most recent “report card” can be spun to the legal media in the sunniest of fashions. For some unfortunate firms, frequently mentioned on ATL (whose logos Lat has bookmarked for easy cutting-and-pasting), the head honcho is also a crisis-management aficionado.
And in today’s age of the global Biglaw firm, the boss is well-informed regarding the business-class product of various airlines. They probably have a favorite seat on well-traveled routes. “United to San Francisco from Newark? You definitely want 2B, and tell the stewardess right off the bat that you want the coffee hot when you wake up from your nap.” It has become a Biglaw tradition for the head of the firm to visit every office on at least an annual basis. For the boss, it is a chance to give a nice state-of-the-firm pep talk, and spend some quality time with the one or two partners in that office who really matter. For everyone else, these visits mean everyone needs to get dressed up, look enthusiastic at the partner lunch or post-work cocktails in the conference room, and try to look alert in your office (all day long, unfortunately) in case of an unanticipated visit….
Folks (including those who wrote the Federal Sentencing Guidelines) think that “tone at the top” matters. And those folks are right: If senior executives include the words “with absolute integrity” in their elevator speeches about the company, other people in the organization will catch on. People will come to believe that ethics matter, and ethics will thus come to matter.
But there’s another aspect of “tone at the top” that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines don’t compel: What are we trying to achieve as an institution? What’s your organization’s “tone at the top” on issues apart from obeying the law?
Does a drug company want to “discover and manufacture new substances to help people live longer, healthier lives”? Or does it want to “deliver maximum return to shareholders”?
Or maybe it’s all the same thing. As the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes: An interviewer asked Itzhak Perlman what he wanted out of life. Perlman said he wanted to play the violin. The interviewer was shocked: “Don’t you want to be happy?” “I want to play the violin. If I play the violin, I’ll be happy.”
Maybe if you develop drugs that improve and prolong lives, your shareholders will be rich. (And you’ll probably be happy, too.)
What’s the goal of your professional services firm: Do you want to strive for perfection? Or do you want to generate revenue? Or do you bill by the hour, so it’s all the same thing?
In-house promotions are tricky. There are so many different kinds of companies, and so many things that can go wrong when you’re looking for a promotion. Some companies are upfront about the process: they’ll inform you if you’re being considered, let you know which committees need to approve, etc. Others are kind of like, “Uh, promotion, what’s that?,” and then they’ll just drop one on you when you least expect it, and run away (not that you’d complain about it).
Here are a couple of the obvious considerations that the powers-that-be will take into account when deciding whether you are worthy of attainment of the next level:
1. Do you do good work (i.e., do you have good legal/technical skills)?
2. Do you have good soft skills? Remember, from my last couple of posts — this covers everything from effective communication, to leadership, to being tasked with convincing your peers that going as breakdancing elves to the holiday party can show the rest of the company that Legal can be fun, too! Soft skills make or break a lot of promotion opportunities, and your superiors are looking for them. For example, one very senior in-house attorney mentioned that having courage of your convictions — to speak up (in an appropriate manner and in the appropriate venue) when you think a strategy is flawed, or when you think you have a better idea — is what distinguishes a leader from the rest of the pack.
Alright, so let’s say that you have #1 and #2 covered. And you’ve made it absolutely clear that you want a promotion (and “I was wondering if, uh, you noticed what a good job I did on that contract the other day” doesn’t count). You should start evaluating color schemes for that larger office you’ve been eyeing, right? Well, don’t switch your name plate over just yet. As far as your company’s concerned, “yes” answers to the above questions are great, but they just mean you’re performing as expected for your level. Here are some of the less obvious questions that they’ll also be thinking about….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s that time of year again when JDs are starting to apply for 2L summer jobs and 2L summers are deciding which practice area to focus on.
For those JDs with an interest in potentially lateraling to or transferring to Asia in the future, please feel free to reach out to Kinney for advice on firm choices, interviewing and practice choices, relating to future marketability in Asia, or for a general discussion on your particular Asia markets of interest. This is of course a free of cost service for those who some years in the future may be our future industry contacts or perhaps even clients.
For some years now Kinney’s Asia head, Evan Jowers, has been formally advising Harvard Law students with such questions, as the Asia expert in Harvard Law’s “Ask The Experts Market Program” each summer and fall, with podcasts and scheduled phone calls. This has been an enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.
Whether you’re fresh off the bar exam or hitting your stride after hanging a shingle a few years ago, one thing’s for certain: independent attorneys who start a solo or small-law practice live with a certain amount of stress.
Non-attorneys would think the stress comes from preparing for a big trial, deposing a hostile witness, or crafting the perfect contract for a picky client.
But that’s nothing compared to the constant, nagging, real-life kind, the kind you get from the day-to-day grind of being a law-abiding attorney.
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Additional information can be located on our website, at www.sgtlaw.com.