If You’re a New Law Firm Leader, Avoid Making These Mistakes

New law firm leaders often tell me they operate in a bewildering environment where little is certain, the tempo is fast, and the dynamics are far more complex. They worry it’s impossible to stay on top of all the things they need to know to do their job. Some quietly admit that they “feel overwhelmed.”

I’ve learned that new law firm leaders need to navigate their way through the transition and avoid some common missteps in their earliest days in the role. Here are some that pop up again and again.

Thinking this appointment is about you when it’s all about them

As you begin your new role, it’s seductive to take to heart all of those best wishes, congratulations, and accolades that you were grateful to have received. And suddenly, your jokes have now even become funnier.

However, you’ll only succeed when you recognize the hard truth—you may be the firm’s leader, but your partners do not work for you. You now work for them. And those partners have just become your most important, and demanding, clients.

Hitting the ground running before hitting the ground listening

You come to this position with lots of ideas about what you want to do and several goals you want to accomplish. Your natural temptation will be to hit the gas pedal, but you need to slow down to go fast.

Take time to visit with each partner and better understand their thinking, especially about the important issues of the day—as they see them. You might ask, “What do you most hope that I do as the new firm leader?” and “What do you think that I need to hear that many may be somewhat reluctant to tell me?”

You may think you already know how many of your partners will respond, but I guarantee there will be unexpected surprises. Solicit advice, absorb insights, and see what themes emerge. You must always remember that you can only move your firm to the outer limits of your partners’ collective appetite for change.

Forgetting to inform people about how best to work with you

As you take charge, you’ll be working with an established team, most often including the members of your management committee, your chief operating officer, your practice and industry group leaders, your office heads, and your various professional support staff. These colleagues all have their own work patterns and entrenched habits. They want to learn how you like to operate.

You need to outline your specific expectations to help others who may report to you learn how to work with you. It’s a good idea to be proactive and give them some guidance on:

  • How do you prefer to receive information—in person, by phone, or in writing?
  • How might it be best for someone to communicate bad news?
  • Is your door open, or do you prefer that people arrange appointments?
  • Do you have any pet peeves that people should know about?
  • What specific operational or management issues do you hate having to deal with?
  • Under what circumstances might it be acceptable to call you at home?
  • What kind of regular progress reports might you be expecting to receive?

Confusing change with transitions

change is external; it happens to you. While transitions are internal, they happen inside of you. Change starts at a beginning and will be remembered by the date you assumed office. Transitions start with an ending—a process of letting go of the way things were.

Pay conscious attention to how you manage this transition—from honoring the past with a symbolic ritual or ceremony and thinking of ways to bring the best of the past into the future, to communicating frequently about what is and isn’t changing.

Overlooking the power of a small, quick win

One firm leader I worked with began her term with an initiative where numerous of the professionals and staff throughout the firm collaborated in small task forces to identify what she called the firm’s “sacred cows”—those things being done internally that made absolutely no sense, frustrated clients, and impaired delivery of good service.

She then moved to empower those same task forces to “kill those sacred cows” by proposing ways to effectively eliminate past procedures, change behaviors, and adopt new approaches.

Don’t ignore the power of accomplishing a small, early, quick win to build credibility. Listen, look around, and find some positive changes that you can easily help realize.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Patrick J. McKenna is an author, lecturer, and strategist who has worked with some of the top 10-largest law firms in over a dozen countries. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including “Industry Specialization: Making Competitors Irrelevant.”

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