A WORRIED AND FRIGHTENED TEAM NEEDS INSPIRATION FROM THE TOP

The Coronavirus Crisis is unlike any other in our lifetimes.  As I wrote last week, how law firm leaders perform their duties will make a big difference in how their firms, and all who depend on them, fare.

What law firm leaders need to do can be short handed into three categories: Lead, Manage, and Learn.  This week I will address the first of these.

Law Firm Leaders Must Lead Through This Crisis

Leadership is a sometimes undervalued part of the role of the person chosen to head a law firm.  Their position has different titles: “managing partner,” “CEO,” or “chair,” but rarely has the word “leader” in it.  The role is predominantly regarded as responsible for setting and executing firm strategy. Performance is assessed by how the firm does, measured primarily by financial results.  The best law firm leaders care about much more than just financial results, but working toward them occupies most of their time and attention.  

That said, most law firm leaders actually are leaders.  They were successful in practice, in part, because of their leadership in advising clients.  They are able to get their partners to pursue a common mission by leading them. It is part of what makes them good at what they do.

Law firms need true leadership during this crisis.  Intelligent and accomplished as they are, nearly every partner and employee of the firm is worried and uncertain about the grave risks that they face as individuals, and the risks the firm faces as an organization.  No one knows what the future will hold, but everyone knows it could be bad.  They need and will welcome leadership.

I believe it is every law firm leader’s duty to prioritize giving people confidence in the firm and its future, and inspiring them to do their part to help the firm succeed, notwithstanding their anxieties.

Four Essential Elements of Leadership In This Crisis

Leadership is an art, not a science.  There is no blueprint or user’s manual for leading a law firm.  It is contextual, determined by the setting and the personal makeup of the leader.  

A useful exercise to understand your own concept of leadership is to reflect back on your life and bring to mind a person who struck you as an effective leader, and then imagine that person engaged in the act of leading.  It will give you an insight into your vision of leadership. If you do this as a group exercise, you will see that each of us has a different sense of what leadership looks like.  

Each leader must determine how he/she should and best can lead, given his/her own personality and the culture of the firm.  

I have thought a lot about law firm leadership over the years.  I regarded it as my number one job during my years at Orrick.  I created the Law Firm Leaders Forum 25 years ago because I realized from my own experience and that of many of my peers, we needed help in figuring out how to lead in the context of a law firm partnership. 

As leaders approach this crisis, I think there are four essential elements to consider:  vision, honesty, empathy, and inspiration.

          Vision

A compelling vision is a cornerstone of effective leadership, especially in a time of crisis.  Law firm leaders should share an outlook of how their firms will navigate the current challenges and achieve a positive future when it is over. 

Martin Luther King: “I have a dream . . . “

The vision must be based on a clear understanding of the causes of the crisis and its impact on the firm and its stakeholders.  The team must be confident that the leader grasps the severity and details of the crisis. This is particularly true for law firms, given the demanding and cynical nature of lawyers.  That’s why I began this series last week by encouraging law firm leaders to develop their own deep sense of these issues.

The vision must involve a plan.  How will we get through this? What role will team members play?  It must be grounded in the realities of the firm and the crisis. The team must be able to believe in it.

Finally, it must express confidence in the ability of the firm to surmount the current challenges and  achieve a brighter tomorrow.  As David Gergen, Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School recently put it, leaders do well when they combine a “stark realism” with a “sense of hope.”  “This is very, very serious, but we will get through it.”  

          Honesty

Honesty is another cornerstone of leadership.  Honesty builds trust. People follow the lead of those they trust.

In the context of leadership, “honesty” has two key dimensions. First, being straight with your team–telling them the truthHarvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein drew an informative parallel between FDR’s leadership in the Great Depression and leadership in the present crisis in a recent op-ed. He observed that in times like these “a leader’s first responsibility is to one thing above all: the truth.”

Second, being faithful to your word–doing what you say you will do. Once you have shared with the team your plan of action, live up to it.  That means both execute effectively, and also execute according to the plan you presented.

          Empathy

Law firm leaders should demonstrate that they are in touch with their people and what they are going through.  As Cass Sunstein wrote in his op-ed, “a leader needs to speak to people’s hearts, even more than to their minds.” 

No matter how team-oriented people are, they need to know that the firm and its leaders genuinely care about their welfare. Nearly every law firm prides itself on its dedication to its people.  This is the time to show it.

First and foremost, this means seriously considering the welfare of the firm’s people at each stage of the crisis.  As they approach each decision and take every action, law firm leaders should consider the impact on their people.

Frequent and candid communication will reflect concern and respect.  Taking the time and effort to share  with everyone the vision, and where things stand as the crisis unfolds, sends the message that the leader values their need to be informed in this time of anxiety.

At least as important is asking people how they are doing.  Establish mechanisms to assure that everyone feels “heard.” Virtual “town hall” meetings are better than surveys.  Make it as personal as possible in the remote setting we are in.

          Inspiration

True leaders inspire their people.  In one sense it is the definition of leadership.  In another, it identifies an element of what the leader must do day to day.

Each leader inspires in his/her own way.  Inspiration will naturally flow from the vision, honesty, and empathy discussed above.  But there should be more.

The leader should call people to action.  Ask them to do their part.  Encourage them to embrace their responsibility to contribute to the common mission of the firm.

John Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”

In turn, everything the leader does should reflect a mutuality of commitment.  The firm to its people as well as the people to the firm.

It is this dimension that most calls for law firm leaders to internalize their leadership responsibilities.  I mean this literally. As leaders take stock each morning of what they are going to do that day, they should have in mind that the answer is, in important part, to inspire.  Not just to manage, but do so in a way that inspires people to move in the chosen direction.

 

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Photo of Ralph Baxter Ralph Baxter

Ralph Baxter is a strategic advisor to law firms, legal technology companies, and corporate law departments, and a podcast host, writer, and speaker at events and private meetings, regarding the modernization of legal service.