Stop Managing Like A Lawyer

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Although patience is a virtue, it can also be a vice. This happens when excessive patience is a mask for indecision or unwillingness to take risks. Lawyers love patience when it comes to the way they run law firms. We generally make decisions after a sufficiently large number of competitor firms go down one particular path — thus validating the merit of the course of action. This strategy is a sure-fire way to ensure your firm never differentiates itself.

The Legal Echo Chamber

Yet, despite the lackluster results reactive management inevitably brings, we lawyers just can’t seem to help ourselves. Most law firm leadership positions are occupied by full-time practitioners. They’re often successful attorneys with thriving books of business squeezing in management part time where they’re able. People billing thousands of hours per year need to find an efficient way to make decisions, and it’s often easiest to wait and see what other firms are doing before committing to a new course of action.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a game-changing company operated in the same way as most law firms. Breakaway success in business almost always comes from doing things differently — not following the pack. Bill Gates didn’t try to make a better typewriter. Elon Musk didn’t try to reinvent the gas-powered car (though what happens with his purchase of Twitter, assuming it happens, remains to be seen). YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki isn’t doubling down on bunny ears for TVs. All of these leaders and companies blazed trails in their respective industries.

So where does the idea for the next big innovation come from? To find it, law firm managers often circulate within their firm, seeking out perspective and ideas from their partnership. There is tremendous value in this exercise. Law firm partners are, in general, smart, driven, thoughtful people with good insights to share. In fact, law firm leaders would be making a huge mistake not to talk to and listen carefully to their partners.

At the same time, lawyers tend to speak with the same people, follow similar legal news sources, and think about similar problems. We often have a valuable but limited view of the world. And it’s often a view that most of our competitors share. If we want to find real opportunities to break out from the pack and differentiate our firms, we as managers need to be proactively looking outside of our firms — and the profession entirely.

It’s All About The Process

I’m currently finalizing a master’s thesis at Cambridge Judge Business School.  For a topic, I chose a problem close to home: how established law firms can use entrepreneurial strategies to infuse innovation. As part of my research, I’ve interviewed 26 business leaders, including Biglaw MPs, LegalTech CEOs, academics, legal futurists, and business leaders entirely removed from the legal realm.

Literally every conversation provided me with some valuable insight on how to build a stronger firm and business. I ended up with hundreds of pages of transcripts, notes, and actionable strategies from just a couple dozen conversations. Law firm leaders can learn similar insights by simply talking to leaders outside of the Biglaw bubble.

The goal isn’t to copy and paste concepts from one business to another. The real magic usually isn’t a company’s winning product or service, but rather the process it utilized to create it. The best ideas are rarely generated haphazardly. It’s the businesses that systemize innovation, experimentation, trial and error, and iteration that continue to crank out gold.

By learning how other industries are solving their unique problems, we build up our own toolbox of problem-solving techniques.  Heck, there’s even value in just learning what types of problems other industries face, because doing so helps us better anticipate and head off problems we might run into ourselves.

Lunching Your Way To Success

So, where does a law firm leader hoping to build their innovation toolbox start? Biglaw firms have one abundant resource by definition: clients. Many firms have thousands, or tens of thousands, of clients — all with their own ideas, challenges, histories, and successes to learn from. Tap into that resource. What client wouldn’t love to have their lawyer take them out to lunch just to show some interest and learn how to serve them better?

If you met up with one client a week, within six months you’d have conducted enough interviews to fill your own master’s thesis. It will take a lot less time than that before you start seeing your own firm and its challenges in new, unexpected ways — and you might even generate some new business for your firm along the way.

So stop managing like a lawyer and start setting up lunches. It might just be the first step toward your firm jumping ahead of the pack.


GoodnowJames Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at [email protected].

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