Management

Bruce Stachenfeld

Of all the regrets I have in life, one of my greatest is that I never had the chance to meet Peter Drucker before he died.

Drucker is one of my intellectual heroes. He was able to look at the same world that everyone else was looking at but see things that others couldn’t see. He literally invented a science. And like all science, it is around you from the start but you just can’t see it till someone shows you the way.

The science he invented was the science of “management.” Before Drucker, people just ran things and sometimes good things happened and sometimes bad things — no one really delved too deeply into the “why” of it all. But then along came Drucker, who made order out of chaos and realized that there were principles that, if followed, would increase the likelihood a business would be successful.

All those leadership books you sometimes read, all those “how to” books you sometimes read, all of that thinking evolved from his groundbreaking analysis into the science of “management.” Drucker’s books are utter masterpieces. Indeed, there was an epiphany for me on every single page of his amazing book Management (affiliate link). I think I learned more about how to run my law firm successfully from Drucker than from any other source.

Here are two thoughts from Drucker that hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read them. Honestly, my business — and even my whole life — was never the same again.

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I was 26 years out of law school before I moved in-house.

In those 26 years, I had never heard of “one-on-ones” (outside of the context of basketball). When I moved to a corporate job, folks were astonished by my ignorance. (A small part of that astonishment had to do with my unfamiliarity with one-on-ones.)

I’ve now been working for four years in what I take to be a typical (indeed, world-class) corporate environment, and I’m ready to declare the truth, thus offending every human resources professional who has ever lived: One-on-ones — individual weekly meetings between managers and each of the people who report to them — are generally unnecessary.

I know, I know: One-on-ones guarantee that the manager knows what’s happening in his or her department. And the meetings let managers give immediate feedback on how members of the team are performing. And there’s nothing like personal conversations to build relationships and esprit de corps.

Humbug!

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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….

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Meetings — you gotta love ‘em.

Especially if you go in-house.

I didn’t appreciate it before I moved in-house, but law firms are remarkably meeting-free. I suspect this is for three reasons: First, law firms are not public companies, so they aren’t obligated to perform many bureaucratic tasks the law imposes on public companies. Second, most law firms bill by the hour; when time is literally money, few people tolerate non-productive meetings. Finally, law firms have flat organizational structures. Although partners cooperate to varying degrees within firms, partners (or, at a minimum, partners who generate business) are largely independent actors. A partner is retained for a new piece of business, assembles a team to handle the work, and starts working. The team is typically fairly small (two or three lawyers are plenty to handle most legal matters; a team of 25 lawyers is large, even at a big firm; a team of 100 means you’re defending the largest of the mass torts). There’s no real organizational structure within the firm. A partner in charge of a practice or an office may technically oversee another partner’s work, but “oversight” in that sense means only making sure the partner’s bringing in enough business and billing enough hours. “Oversight” does not mean, for example, having weekly one-on-one meetings with the partner to manage his performance; no senior partner would stand for that nonsense (and waste of time).

Corporations are different. They’re publicly traded. They’re often much larger than law firms. They’re divided into operational divisions with pyramidal structures, with many people reporting to fewer people who report to fewer people still who report to someone near the top. Put that all together, and it means meetings. And meetings. And meetings. And meetings. In fact, to my eye, there are four types of corporate meetings . . . .

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Turnabout.

I recently wrote about how to demoralize, discourage, and disenchant top talent. This is about how to retain that talent. Like the prior column, this one is based on one of the top columns of the year from Strategy + Business, the Booz & Co. publication: Retaining Top Talent: Yes, It Really Is All About Them.

Prefatory clarification: What follows isn’t addressed to your inner circle of key leaders, or to the Super Rainmakers, all of whom you presumably know intimately, and with whom you talk about what follows all the time, in ways tailored to each individual. Rather, what follows is addressed to how you deal with all the talent that’s not at the tippy-top of your firm already.

Here’s how the Strategy + Business piece starts:

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That law firms are all about talent is a commonplace. Too bad that so many lawyers seem to have an uncanny knack for knocking the wind out of the sails of the most spirited contributors.

I dare you to tell me that you don’t recognize at least a few colleagues who exhibit some of the behavior described in The Three Habits of Highly Effective Demotivators, just picked as one of the top posts of 2013 on Booz & Company’s “Strategy & Business” publication. If these colleagues are at your firm now, you know what to do; if they used to be at your firm and you took the necessary measures, congratulations. (Just be on alert that you may have to do it again.)

The author uses the example of a real, but disguised, high-tech startup in the academic sector, whose CEO—otherwise brilliant—was referred to internally, sotto voce, as “the DM,” standing for “the DeMotivator”:

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

One of the thorniest issues any leader has to deal with is telling senior-level underperformers that they’d be better off elsewhere. It calls on every skill in the manager’s bag of tricks, from financial analysis to subtler cultural and personality judgments, and accurate perspective on the impact on the organization overall of asking a high-profile person to leave.

To be honest, it’s also one of the most difficult challenges we deal with in advising firms about their paths forward. Although at times it’s crystal clear what needs to be done, far more often you have no such luxury of being able to shortcut analysis and judgment, and you have to work through all the potential interactions and repercussions to decide with some degree of confidence what to do. Then of course you actually have to do it. You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — how often otherwise hard-headed and decisive leaders never quite get around to that part of it….

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Alright, alright: At one level, it is about the money.

If you’re saddled with $100,000 in student debt and you’re unemployed, some money would help.

But if you’re making $160,000 in your first year out of law school, it’s not about the money.

When I entered the legal workforce, the “going rate” and terms of employment varied regionally in the United States. I chose to work in San Francisco — earning less than the going rate in New York and being entitled to only three weeks of vacation each year, instead of the four offered elsewhere — because I preferred San Francisco to New York. It wasn’t all about the money.

I chose to work at a small firm (I was the 21st lawyer at the joint) — knowing full well that my annual raises would be less at my small firm than they would have been at a large one — because I wanted real responsibility early in my career. It wasn’t all about the money.

When I later moved to one of the biggest firms in the world, it still wasn’t all about the money . . . .

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I wrote several weeks ago about why I should waste time — why I should attend some meetings at which I’m not really necessary. I should do this to learn what folks on my team are doing on a daily basis, to have a chance to work one-on-one with more people who ultimately report up to me, and to improve employee job satisfaction by having a manager show interest in employees’ work.

To my in-house eye, that’s not “wasted” time; it’s “invested” time — time that improves our collective well-being, even though it doesn’t result in my having completed a specific task that the organization needs accomplished.

As I think about it, I see an awful lot of these things in-house that I would never have seen at a law firm. For example, several weeks ago, we decided to invite a junior in-house lawyer to attend meetings of our “Corporate Ethics Committee,” at which a fairly senior group addresses, among other things, important issues that arise through our corporation’s anonymous ethics hotline. We didn’t invite the junior lawyer because his or her attendance was important to the committee’s deliberations; rather, we thought that attending the committee meetings would provide helpful training and give the junior lawyer more exposure to senior people in the department.

At a law firm, everyone would spit in your eye if you suggested that a junior person should unnecessarily attend a meeting simply for the sake of training and exposure: This would constitute either over-billing the client or wasting potentially billable hours. . . .

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Partner, can you spare a dime?

Last week, we discussed the first part of an interesting essay by former managing partner Edwin Reeser that appeared in the ABA Journal. Today we’ll tackle part two.

Are you still depressed after reading in-house lawyer David Mowry’s recent reflections on the legal profession? If so, maybe stop reading here and come back later.

But if you’re willing to wallow, on this Friday the 13th and Yom Kippur, venture beyond the jump….

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