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Career Moves: What Lateral Partners Need to Know

“The candidate wants our position.”  Historically, it was thought that a lateral partner would move to another firm because they were disgruntled.  This basic premise is false. It is a lot of work to move one’s practice and simple unhappiness is typically not a big enough reason to make a move.  Rather, a lateral partner moves their practice to another firm because of the platform; the opportunity to increase one’s clients, expand services to current clients, and increased income.

With a common misnomer of “a law firm, is a law firm, is a law firm” how does a lateral even evaluate a “better fit” or better platform?  Many times an interview process consists of both sides putting on shiny faces and discussing or exchanging surface information. On the surface, firms can look similar.  By digging a little deeper it is easy to see that not all firms are alike. And, the fact is, some firms are a better fit for certain people than others.

Senior lawyers whose compensation is based on a combination of individual performance and firm performance, whose practices are portable and whose client relationships are strong, need to know a lot more about a prospective opportunity.  And it is okay to ask!

After all, the firm where the lateral partner candidate wants to be is one that values lawyers who make important decisions based upon gathered information at the appropriate time.  The firm where the candidate does not want to be is one that does not want to provide the information.

The lateral partner candidate does not need to produce a formal questionnaire to get answers to questions.  Rather, the lateral partner wants to pay attention to all of the conversations, as to pick up bits and pieces of information along the way.

Some information is time sensitive and the best time to exchange that information is when the firm serves up their Lateral Partner Questionnaire; in a sense an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”  exchange. In this way, the exchange of sensitive information can seem less awkward and continues the good faith effort and interest on both sides to continue conversation.

Here is the Lateral Partner Checklist; the questions that will ensure the collection of the relevant information a lateral partner will need to evaluate a prospective firm/opportunity:

Firm Governance/Leadership Structure

  • What are the committees?  How are people elected to the committees and are there term limits?  Is the firm organized by practice groups or locations? What and where are the profit centers?  What is the firm management structure (in addition to lawyer managers?)
  • Ask for information on the number of partners, associates and support staff.  How are people staffed on matters? What is the compensation structure including billable hour expectations for associates and staff?  What is the attrition rate/longevity of partners, associates, staff?  
  • What is the firm’s mission?  Core Values? Differentiators/uniques?

Growth Strategy/Lateral Hiring

  • What is the success rate in hiring laterals?  How many has the firm hired? What is the attrition?  Why?
  • What is the strategic plan over the next 1, 3, 10 years?
  • What is the potential/interest in merging?
  • What practice areas are targeted for growth?
  • What practices are of interest to add or contract within the firm?    

Financial Information

  • What are the firm’s liabilities?  (including debt and leases)
  • What is the make-up of the firm’s annual billings – what clients make up what % of the firm’s revenue/billings annually?  If there is a short list of clients that make up the majority of the firm’s billings, you may want to ask more questions.
  • What are the firm’s billing rates for all lawyers, associates and partners?  Review the billing rate differences for practice groups and locations.
  • Alternative fee schedules.  Is the firm using alternative billings for clients?  In what practice groups? With what clients? Do individual lawyers have flexibility to make these decisions in their own practices?
  • The following data should be collected for the current year and the last two years:
    1. Profit per partner
    2. Revenue per partner
    3. Average billable hours – partners
    4. Average billable hours – associates  
  • Ask for copies of financial statements for the last three years.

Partnership 

  • What is the partnership structure?
  • What is the retirement policy?  Is there a mandatory policy? Is there a payout?
  • What are the business development expectations?  How is business origination allocated (by client or by matter?)
  • Is there credit given to administrative duties?  Pro bono activities? Marketing activities?  
  • What is the compensation system?  Is it open or closed? How are decisions made?
  • What is the timing of payouts to partners (when draws are made, bonuses distributed)?
  • Is there and what is the capital contribution?  What is the condition of repayment?
  • How is succession planning thought of/practiced?
  • Ask for a copy of the partnership agreement.

Practice Growth:  Marketing/Business Development

  • What is the marketing support available?  Are their marketing budgets per partner? Is their internal business development support available?  Are there examples of marketing/business development success for partners?
  • Learn about cross-selling philosophies, practices, success stories.
  • Professional Development – What coaching/learning/training opportunities are available/supported?
  • What is the pro bono philosophy?
  • Community involvement philosophy?

Timing is everything.  It is easy to scare off or offend an attractive prospect by coming on too strong too fast.  Use your judgment in soliciting information. Prepare for meetings and ask good questions along the way.  Everyone’s time is valuable so use each visit, each conversation wisely. With each interaction, you want to come away with more tangible information that you can use to evaluate the opportunity and ultimately make a good career decision.  

Recruiting Strategy: Project Professionals and Client Retention

Recruiting Strategy:  Project Professionals and Client Retention 

One of the greatest impacts to a law firm or law department’s success comes from an increased focus on strategic lawyer staffing. According to a national legal survey, 77% of law firms that changed their strategic approach to lawyer staffing reported an increase in profits per equity partner, in the same survey general counsel reported greater agility to meet changing business demands.   

Strategic lawyer staffing is based on an organization’s mission, values and client demand. One of the more successful trends in strategic lawyer staffing is the use of project lawyers. Hiring project lawyers is now commonplace. Many firms and law departments realize if they are not employing project lawyers as part of their strategic hiring policy, they are probably over-staffed.

Here are the most common reasons organizations turn to project lawyers:

  • The workload has increased enough to make your team feel overworked, but not enough to justify hiring another attorney.
  • As corporate counsel, you assigned major litigation to outside counsel and were astounded when you received the first bills for discovery. 
  • You took on a matter that made such extraordinary demands on your time for several months that you felt you were neglecting other matters. 
  • An issue outside your area of expertise arose for a client and neither you nor anyone else on staff had time to explore it adequately.
  • You needed someone to assist you in a second chair role during a complicated trial. 
  • You (or co-worker) want to take parental leave, vacation or even a sabbatical. 
  • Your corporate law department or government agency does not have the budget for another employee, but do have discretionary funds available to hire temporary attorneys to handle overload work. 
  • You have a specific cleanup project, after a merger or a reorganization
  • You have a merger, deal, or contract where industry expertise is needed only until the matter is complete.

The use of temporary staff is a known concept for the legal profession.  Although a known concept, still prevalent are the long outdated myths, namely:

  • Temporary attorneys can’t find permanent jobs and accept temporary jobs as a last resort 
  • Temporary attorneys produce inferior work as compared to permanent attorneys
  • Temporary attorneys pose a threat to permanent staff attorneys
  • Temporary attorneys are not as committed to projects as outside counsel
  • Temporary attorneys don’t do anything to support the bottom line

Of course, successful firms and law departments know that all of these common myths are just that, myths, and all have been proven false.  After all, hiring a temporary lawyer successfully requires the same rigor one would use when hiring a permanent team member.  

Perhaps the myths linger due to the titles used to identify the temporary lawyer.  The title of Temporary or Contract or Project could be viewed as slightly demeaning and could support the mythical inference of lacking expertise, subpar, or not to be taken seriously.  As use of temporary attorneys becomes mainstream, more appropriate titles may be: 

  • Interim (a term commonly used in the C-Suite) 
  • Guest  (as in guest professor, or  guest lecturer) 
  • Adjunct (most lawyers speak highly of their former adjunct professors)  

What would it mean for an experienced lawyer who is choosing the professional career track of a project lawyer to be referred to as a Guest, Interim or Adjunct Lawyer?  Yes, the use of temporary attorneys is known, myths and all, yet the new norm is an individual choosing to work as a project lawyer as their professional career track.  

One reason the trend of using project lawyers is turning into the new norm is the economy.  Although the economy is and has bounced back, organizations are still aware of their bottom line and still want to run lean.  

The Hidden Potential of a Project Attorney 

The use of project attorneys can result in measurable cost savings to an organization.  Cost savings may include:

  • A retaining lawyer can charge the client the regular rates of the organization which are often more than it is paying to a contract lawyer 
  • There is no cost for employee benefits
  • A firm can keep work inside the firm vs. referring it out
  • A law department can handle work inside the department instead of paying outside counsel rates
  • Allows for agility and scalability – only paying for labor/work when it is needed

Also, organizations realize there is a tremendous amount of talent that is available in the career project lawyer realm.  

  • Baby boomers –seasoned professionals who may have retired from their long-time career positions but still want to work, provide value, contribute, and mentor in a more flexible manner.  These folks are experts in their field and expand an organization’s bench strength
  • Parents of young children.  Professionals who have earned their stripes and know what they are doing, but want to lead a more balanced and flexible life 
  • People who are experienced and enjoy travel or other hobbies to which they want to dedicate a significant amount of time
  • New generations (Y, Z) who “work to live” and do not want to work in the traditional “8 to 5” way

TIPS for SUCCESS

Clearly, the use of Project lawyers is a solution that makes sense in today’s economic climate. Talon recommends the following to ensure a successful experience when using project legal professionals:  

1) Hire the right professionals with the right background and training. Be clear on the expertise you need, and the background, training, and experience needed to get the desired work product.  Additionally, hire to match the vision, mission and values of your organization and your team.  

2) Integrate contract attorneys. Just as it’s crucial to orient and integrate all new hires, firms and in-house legal departments will likewise benefit from integration of project professionals.  

3) Have a plan. Determining the expectations of the project, the communication flow, and the report structure will help determine the project parameters.  This will help determine the expertise, the experience and the duration of the project.  

Project Professionals – A Differentiator

In today’s complex employment and economic environment, a permanent hire does not always meet your organization’s or client’s needs.  Firms and corporations need to think not only about how project legal professionals (attorney, paralegal, compliance) can help save them money, but also how they can start making them money.  Offering staffing that meets your organization’s needs is vital to client and talent acquisition and retention.

Effective Interviewing: New Interview Tips

You have made a good first impression with your resume and now have an interview. If you don’t prepare for your interview or arrive late or always cut your interviewer off, you could be cutting yourself out of the race before you even started. 

Effective interviewing merely requires you to prepare and practice. Basic interview tips are readily available, fairly simple to follow and yield strong differentiating results. So there is no reason for you not to be effective in an interview. And yet, you will be amazed at how often even basic interview tips are forgotten or overlooked. Don’t make that mistake. By preparing and practicing, you are setting yourself up to be present, less nervous and ultimately engaged for success. 

Here are the best interview tips, gathered from personal experience, friends/peers and scientific studies that when followed, can produce strong interview results.

1. Research.

If you want to impress prospective employers then be prepared and do a bit of research into the company you’re applying with. Find out what you can about the organization so you can tailor the interview answers you give to suit their needs and expectations. Doing this will also give you a much better idea of whether the company is a good fit for you.

2. Practice.

Answer interview questions out loud in front of a mirror, record yourself answering questions or practice answering questions in front of someone else. Practice gives you the opportunity to clarify and hone your message. It allows you to experience and adjust your non-verbals. It creates comfort when you are in the actual interview so you can be present and in the moment of conversation. 

3. Your Three Uniques.

Be prepared to give three examples that demonstrate both your technical expertise and show your strengths or differentiators. Craft the story to provide the situation, your role and the outcome. Practice saying each answer aloud.

4. Food and Beverage.

Eat protein ahead of time. Avoid sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine alter your body chemicals, affecting your blood sugar, exacerbating nervous jitters and can block access to the thinking part of your brain. Protein allows for a constant, solid energy so you can endure the length of the interview comfortably.

5. Dress Appropriately.

Think carefully about what you wear to interview. It’s safe to assume that in most cases business formal attire will be appropriate but make sure you feel comfortable or you won’t come across well.

6. Arrive on Time.

This should be obvious. Always ensure you’ve worked out directions and anything else you might need to know before you set off for your interview so there’s no danger of showing up late.

7. Paperwork.

Make sure you take any relevant paperwork with you that you may need at an interview, even if you’ve already sent copies with an application. This could include your resume, examples of previous work, writing samples, transcripts and references. Remember, just because you brought a lot of paperwork, doesn’t mean 

you should force them all on the interviewer. Show them only if they are appropriate and relevant to the interview. 

8. Ready your Body and Mind.

Write down why you are so great on a sheet of paper 30 minutes before your interview. Then, practice a power stance and say your strengths out loud so your ear can hear your voice. Standing in a dominant manner, for example with your hands on your hips with your head up, will actually change the hormonal balance in your body and make you genuinely less nervous, more confident and more leadership oriented.

9. Handshake.

Look someone in the eyes and grasp one’s hand in a web-to-web fashion, use a slightly firm grip and three up and down shakes. Done.

10. Pause and Breathe.

This is so critical and often forgotten because you are either nervous or too excited to take a pause or both. During your interview, wait until the interviewer finishes the question before answering and take time to think before you speak. If you give yourself a moment to gather your thoughts you’re much more likely to give a relevant answer than if you panic and blurt out the first thing that comes into your head. Pause for a moment before you answer questions and you’ll be calmer and much more coherent.

11. Show Enthusiasm.

Energy, enthusiasm and interest are important to show. Smile occasionally, make eye contact without staring, and lean slightly forward. Body language matters in an interview. If you often look away, lean back and/or cross your arms, you will look defensive and less interested even if you don’t say so in your words. On the other hand, showing enthusiasm also doesn’t mean you are bouncing off the wall or raising your voice. It’s a balance. It’s about showing you are a professional and very interested in this opportunity without scaring anyone. 

12. Prepare Questions in Advance.

Write down a few pertinent questions to ask at the end of your interview. By asking good questions, it’s your chance to find out what you can’t from your research, show that you are interested and know about the company. Whether you are a veteran at job interviews or new to it all, following these basic interview tips are key to giving yourself an edge over the competition in this competitive job market.

Top Trends for Legal Resumes

Every lawyer needs an updated resume. Why? A resume is your first impression, a chronology of your work history, and your lead into your career advancement. 

A great interview-generating legal resume is all about differentiating yourself from others competing for the same jobs. With constantly changing trends in strategic resume writing, new ways to accomplish this differentiation are always emerging. If you take advantage of the latest trends and keep your resume updated, you are much more likely to stand out, make a positive connection, and stimulate the attention you deserve. 

Here are a few of the latest trends:

#1 – Include a leadership/personal brand statement.

Begin to build a vibrant message highlighting your vitality, leadership strengths and unique value proposition by answering questions like these: 

• What talents and characteristics do you possess that represent the best in your practice? 

• How did you achieve the career successes that most benefited your firms/companies? What specific actions did you take? 

• What critical contributions did you make to past firms/companies that wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t there? You will further support your brand statement if you can quantify your actions and contributions. Acceptable quantifiers are accomplishments measured with numbers, time or dollars.

#2 – Format your resume for the reader.

More and more hiring decision-makers are reviewing resumes on mobile-type devices when they are on the go. Brief, concise, brand-focused statements of value surrounded by enough white space to make them stand out will have the greatest impact. Long, dense paragraphs make it hard for the reader to quickly access and digest important make-or-break information about you. 

If one has to work at finding your skills and differentiators, it is easier to move on to the next person. Chronological resumes often make the reader work at finding your transferable skills. Functional resumes are difficult as they often lack context around when and where a skill was honed. Make it easy for the reader to review your resume and want to know more using a hybrid format. 

Experienced lawyers, lead with your strongest transferable skill and not your academics. What are they looking for in a hire? What problem are they looking to solve? What strategies are they looking to implement? This is the information a reader is seeking in a resume review and the reason they will want to know more about you.

#3 – Keep your resume to two pages.

To accommodate the need for brevity, pare down and consolidate all your great achievements and qualifications into a quickly readable communication. Provide deeper slices of success “stories” in collateral one-to-two-page documents – representative transactions, leadership initiatives, achievement summary, career biography, reference dossier, etc. These companion documents can be crafted to stand alone and to support your resume’s first impression.

#4 – Use the top of your resume’s first page to your best advantage. 

Since the top of your resume is the first, and possibly the only section that will be read, place your most important information here. It’s okay to move up to the forefront information normally found further down within the professional experience section – especially if it represents the best you have to offer. If you immediately capture your readers’ attention with vivid illustrations of your promise of value, employers will be more likely to read the entire document.

#5 – Highlight your key areas of expertise once. 

Instead of taking up precious space repeating obvious lists of responsibilities for each position you’ve held, consolidate them in the top part of the first page. For best impact, position them in nicely formatted columns or a shaded graphic box. Tailor your list of responsibilities to a position by listing the skills sought in the position first. 

#6 – Use Keywords. 

Use the same keywords as in the position description. If you are submitting a resume online, often the recruiting systems will search using keywords. This is also true if an internal recruiter is doing an initial resume screen; if the recruiter is not familiar with a legal practice, the review often consists of a keyword scan. 

Hiring partners and professionals want a more technical and specific description of your career than your bio provides—they want to identify attributes, gaps in your employment and your technical expertise. A strong resume is clear, concise and tailored to a specific position. Keep your resume updated and relevant so you will be prepared to take full advantage of an opportunity when it arises. 

Interviewing Top Talent

In today’s market, a successful lawyer knows there are many employment options available. A thriving legal market has made the hiring process increasingly competitive, as organizations vie for the strongest candidates. As a result, talented lawyers are often in the enviable position of being able to choose between several offers. 

Numerous books, articles and training materials have been written to advise lawyers on how to successfully interview for a job. However, the role of the interviewer is just as important to the success of the interview process. In fact, the more prepared an interviewer is, the more likely it is that an organization can hire the best and brightest talent.

The Goals of the Interviewer

Gather enough information to properly evaluate the technical and interpersonal skills of the candidate to determine if he or she will be able to perform successfully in their position. 

Effectively promote the organization in order to attract the best possible candidate for the position. The interviewer’s role in best presenting his or her organization to strong candidates is particularly crucial. 

Based on the experiences of Talon and feedback we receive from the candidates we represent, here are some pointers that we hope can help your organization when interviewing experienced lawyers.

Prior to the Interview

Establish an interview team. The team should consist of key stakeholders involved in the success or failure of the position. One person should be selected as the champion for the candidate – the person who is there to ask and answer questions for the candidate throughout the interview process. It is advantageous to select individuals who have both the time and the desire to conduct an interview, as well as the ability to accurately and enthusiastically present the organization’s true culture and differentiators.

Set the Interviewers up for Success

Provide interviewers with a description of the position and the qualities you are seeking in a hire. In order to choose the best candidate for the job, the interviewer needs to have a clear definition of the position the organization is seeking to fill. This includes information on the technical skill being sought as well as the interpersonal skills and be- havior traits being sought. This information may seem obvious and yet when people are busy they may not have the position top of mind when going into a conversation. So, make it easy for your interviewer and equip them for success. 

Provide interviewers with detailed information on the candidate. This may include resumes, social media bios, cover letters, writing samples and references. Interviewers should have access to and review as much information about the candidate as possible prior to the interview. This background information is very useful to interviewers as it can provide topics for discussion during the interview. 

Let the interviewers know what their role is in the interview process. Let them know if there are specific questions you want them to ask; if there are particular skills and traits they are watching for in the candidate’s responses or if there is specific information you want them to convey to the candidate.

During the Interview

Most attorneys and executives are not interviewing experts and could benefit from receiving some general guidelines on how to conduct interviews. Specifically, they should be encouraged to: 

Build a rapport with the candidate. At the same time that the lawyer is being evaluated, he or she is also evaluating the organization, its atmosphere and its people. A candidate who is at ease in an interview is much more likely to speak freely and share information that will enhance the information gathering process. 

Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions – typically questions that begin with why, how or what – are designed to allow the candidate to express themselves more fully, and enable the interviewer to gather more information on the candidate. The more interviewers can ask open-ended questions pertaining to the candidate’s specific background and achievements, the more the candidate will see a genuine interest by the interviewer and organization. 

Listen. If the interviewer speaks for 25 of the 30 minutes of the allotted interview period rather than spending a substantial amount of time listening, the candidate will likely come away from the interview feeling concerned about the interviewer’s apparent lack of interest in the candidate. At the same time, the interviewer did not gather sufficient information about the candidate to make an informed judgment as to whether the candidate would be the best fit for the job. While some sharing of information by the interviewer is needed in order to promote the firm, ideally the parties will engage in a back-and-forth discussion – allowing both parties the opportunity to speak and exchange information.

After the Interview

Gather comments from the interviewers as soon as possible. Interviewers should write out their notes and comments about a candidate as soon as the interview is completed in order to memorialize their thoughts in the most accurate manner. 

Follow up with strong candidates in a timely fashion. Momentum can be favorable to an organization and it is common for individuals to perceive any delay on the part of an organization as a lack of interest. It can be challenging for firms to ensure that lawyer interviews are accomplished as effectively as possible. Nevertheless, there are some steps that an organization can take to help ensure the success of the interview process. An organization’s ability to accomplish a prepared interview can be the difference between an informed hiring decision and a costly mistake. 

Recruiting Top Talent and Practice Group Leadership

Legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the longest-serving coach in the NBA. Under his leadership, the Spurs have won five national titles, and hold the record for the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons in NBA history. Coach Pop’s leadership, and his team-oriented approach to basketball, is the secret to the Spurs’ success. 

Thanks to having the right leader, the Spurs organization has consistently demonstrated strong management, a clear vision, and a winning record.  Good players know that the Spurs are able to foster both team and individual success. Success breeds success, water seeks its own level, birds of a feather flock together. Are law firms subject to the same phenomena?  Do lawyers seek the best team?  

With global firms getting larger and opening more regional offices around the country, an ever increasing number of niche boutiques with successful lawyers who want a different lifestyle, as well as all the traditional mid-sized firms, top talent is in demand.  But top legal talent (associates and partners) are free agents. They get to choose where they want to practice. Like athletes, they want to join a team with successful players, good management and strong leadership. Importantly, this includes within practice groups.  Strong leadership at the practice group level is a key differentiator for a law firm’s continued success. Because law firms compete primarily at the practice group level and outstanding law firm performance is driven by outstanding practice group performance, it is a business imperative for firms to improve the performance of their group leaders if they want to attract top talent.

Three Steps to More Effective Practice Group Leadership

  1.  Get the Right People in the Leadership Seats 

Gregg Popovich does not start the game with second-string players.  Logically, this is obviously not a winning strategy. Yet, historically, too many firms select or appoint practice group leaders for the wrong reasons, namely: 

  • Seniority or end of career   
  • Book of business/rainmaker   
  • Not enough to do/underperforming   
  • Ego need  

Wrong leadership won’t generate the right results. Practice group leaders should be selected based on ability to do the job. Put your best leaders in the practice group leader role.  

Examples of Right Criteria for Practice Group Leader Selection

  • Enthusiasm and vision
  • “Gets things done” – makes decisions
  • Leadership/management skills 
  • Gets along with people – likable
  • Excellent lawyer – technically skilled
  • Delegation skills – makes use of, and advances, all players’ skills 
  • Communication skills – calls the plays

The critical role of the practice group leader is to provide active and rigorous leadership of the group, helping it to achieve a higher level of competitiveness and market position or presence. 

  1.  Provide Continued Coaching 

Both All Star athletes and All Star lawyers need ongoing coaching.  Once you identify your practice group leaders, support them. Give them the training and the tools necessary to continually improve their game and the team’s game. Most practice group leaders have never received formal management training, have never operated a business, and have not read a leadership book.  Law school trained them to be lawyers, not practice group leaders. There is no reasonable expectation that they should walk into the job knowing how to do it. You must equip them to be successful. Examples include:

  • Regular group training on planning and implementation, business development, pricing and profitability strategies, evaluating associates, and motivating underproductive partners
  • Individual coaching to assess and improve strengths, weaknesses, and leadership styles
  • Regular meetings of firm practice group leaders to share experiences, best practices and seek advice

If you want practice groups to improve, you must take time away from billable hours to invest in developing the leadership capability of your leaders. Firms with the most effective practice group leadership invest the time and money necessary for continuous leadership improvement.

  1.  Expect Real Accountability

In a basketball game, statistics are kept both on the team and the individual. In this way, the players, the coaches, the fans all know who is performing well, and who is not. This information can be used to improve individual and team performance. Similarly, to get optimal performance from your practice leaders, firm management must communicate clear performance expectations and put accountability mechanisms in place.  Practice leaders must understand that their performance, and their team’s performance, will be evaluated, and how it will be evaluated. Firms must provide a clear job description with priorities indicated and regular performance reviews. Reviews can be periodic check-ins with the Managing Partner, Executive Committee, or Board to discuss progress against plan, resource needs, business development targets, recruiting needs, etc. The goals of these meetings should be:

  • To make sure progress is being made
  • To discuss resources needed to support the group’s efforts
  • To encourage (not punish) the group leader

The approach should always be, “How can we help you be more successful?” By fostering a spirit of collaboration and excellence – not by reprimanding – firms can empower their practice group leaders to raise the bar for their team’s performance. 

Conclusion

In free agency, the best players seek successful teams. Successful teams then put their best players in key positions and give them the tools and coaching necessary for further success. The same holds true in the legal field – the best are attracted to the best. Practice group leadership can help attract the best legal talent. If your firm follows these three steps (pick good people, provide continuous coaching, and ongoing accountability) the result will be more competitive, higher producing practice groups that attract more top legal talent to your firm.

Career Navigation: three common traps at all levels of success

Ronald Heifetz, the father of adaptive leadership, made the observation that organizations and their leaders “feel pressure to solve problems quickly, to move to action.” We live and work in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that demands our quick response. Additionally, our culture is driven by winning and achieving financial success. It is easy to see how we often find ourselves perpetually rushed and in a hurry to get to the next thing—there’s always something demanding our attention just around the corner.

The consequence of this constant going and doing is that we don’t stop and think. We get caught up in the action and rarely do we take a step back and examine our situation and diagnose where we are and what we need to focus on. This limits our ability to spend time on what matters most to us as leaders: driving better results in a fulfilling way.  

There are common challenges that I have observed in my work with leaders across a variety of different industries. Overwhelmingly, three themes emerged: Leaders are frequently unclear on strategy, victims of the superhero syndrome, and drifting into isolation. Let me explain…

Unclear on Strategy
Don’t we all just love the word strategy? Corporate strategy. Strategic thinking. Strategic planning. Adding the word strategic to any topic adds gravitas. And it should. Strategic generally means differential importance. However, “strategy” and “strategic” have become so commonplace for most of us, that they have become void of meaning. As it turns out, most people in organizations are unclear what the strategy is. This is partly because the leaders themselves are unclear.

In many cases, there is a lack of alignment around strategy because there is no strategy. Or, if there is, it is understood by a select few leaders at the top of the organization. Most leaders I encounter desperately want to know what the strategy is—it would drastically improve their engagement and performance. Others have very little concern or are even apathetic to strategy because they haven’t seen it impact their role.

There is much to discuss and uncover amid the whirlwind of uncertainty when it comes to strategy. Suffice it to say that many people are unclear on the strategic direction of their organizations. And, the overwhelming feeling and perception is that the leaders at the top of the house are just as unclear.

The Superhero Syndrome
Leaders have unrealistic expectations for themselves—and other leaders. We (and by “we” I mean the collective majority in today’s society) expect our leaders to be superheroes. We each have a unique set of strengths, what some call our “super powers,” but we often fail to remember that we also have weak spots. We have constraints—we are not limitless

When we are able to identify where we stop, it opens the possibility and clarifies where others start. We cannot rest in the false belief that leaders are capable of solving all problems at all times in the best way. We tend to set unrealistic expectations for our leaders—and in turn, for our organizations. And it doesn’t stop there. We are quick to say “yes, I can do that” to clients and prospects without stopping to think if we have the capability and resources to deliver on the promises we make. We fall into the trap of trying to become all things to all people. This inevitably leads to mediocre quality, disappointed customers, and compromised integrity.

Drifting into Isolation
The pressure for leaders to show up and prove their value comes with added pressure and responsibility. I have seen this lead to a tendency for many leaders to go rogue. We don’t want anyone to see our flaws or mistakes because, as leaders, we are more visible and we feel more vulnerable to scrutiny and judgment.

Emerging talent is given the okay to make mistakes. Trial and error is a part of the learning process on the way to becoming a leader. However, there is an unspoken assumption that plagues many of us: once you become a leader, learning ends and you are expected to have all of the answers. We often trap ourselves into thinking: I should be able to do whatever is asked of me. These are the very assumptions that begin to shut down our communication with others and drive us into isolation…and often into unnecessary failure. Over time, this cuts us off from learning, collective wisdom, and the very talent that we work so tirelessly to surround ourselves with, and we become susceptible to making even bigger mistakes.

We can each benefit from having our own “board of advisers”—others who help us check our thinking and assumptions and balance our behaviors and decisions. You’ve heard it said “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same goes for leaders—it takes a village to support and raise good leaders.

The challenges that I have outlined here are not mutually exclusive, and they tend to have a compounding effect on one another. Chances are, if you are struggling in any one of these areas, you are also struggling in others. Conversely, as you begin to improve in one area, you generally begin to see progress in the other areas as well.

As you kick off 2020, do you find yourself thinking about any one or all of these areas? Have you stopped to think how you might jump off the carousel of going and doing and invest in yourself to figure out how to navigate these challenges?

Law Firm Leaders – Effective Leadership Through Crisis

Leaders of every business, including general counsel, are focused on mitigating business disruption and economic impact, all while navigating unchartered territory during the current pandemic.  Law firms and lawyers can differentiate themselves right now, and this is how. 

At the end of Q1 of 2020, lawyers and firms are most likely thinking about their individual numbers and goals.  Under normal circumstances, that would be encouraged.  During this pandemic, however, it is short-term thinking and could hold long term consequences.  Don’t make the mistake of only thinking about how you can benefit due to increased client demands or needs.  You will lose that valuable relationship.

Business leaders and general counsel are looking to trusted advisors.  They need to act quickly with good information.  Their workload has not decreased; more than likely, it has increased as they find themselves short-staffed and with fewer resources.  Their focus now has shifted to essential urgencies often involving supply chains, cybersecurity and their workforce.  As a firm, or as an individual, how can you help your clients right now?  How can you be a resource to them?  Not by billing more hours and increasing your rates. Rather, think about what value you can offer to the person and to the business – working out the hours or the money secondarily.    

For example, how can you help them shift their non-critical work out further down the line without putting them at a disadvantage?  And, can you do this proactively before they reach out to you?  So, instead of reacting to their call or requests, reach out to them with the situation, the suggestion, and your advice or counsel.  This is the time to demonstrate your core values, to be of service and to build relationships for the long haul. 

Although there will be many unexpected needs in a variety of practices, we can anticipate increased demands in the following practice areas:

  • Labor & Employment
  • Bankruptcy
  • Insurance
  • Litigation

Law firm lawyers – don’t make the mistake of seeing this pandemic as a short-term opportunity.  Instead, invest in the long-term relationships in a thoughtful and helpful way.  Put yourself in the shoes of your in-house counsel: be proactive with your clients, take something off of their plate, maybe it makes sense to proactively offer rate discounts.  Don’t think about your own hours and numbers.  Instead, think about investing in the long-term relationship you are building with  your client.  People will remember the law firms and the lawyers who helped them in a critical time of need.

Jodi Standke is the CEO of Talon Performance Group, Inc., a comprehensive talent alignment firm that provides leadership development, communication effectiveness, presentation coaching, business development training, executive search services, and project staffing. She can be reached at 612-827-5165 or at jstandke@talonperformancegroup.com.

Resignation Basics: The Professional Way 

For many professionals the resignation process is a time of great distress as they dread having to tell their current employer, their peers, their partners that they have decided to part ways.  This is especially true when one has worked with and at the same organization for a substantial period of time or when a lawyer leaves one type of organization for the same type of organization.  i.e. law firm to law firm or in-house to in-house. Even when you know the career choice you are making is the best decision for you, human nature can cause emotion on both sides of the table whenever a relationship ends.

How does one part ways appropriately, professionally and efficiently?  Many people approach this critical career juncture flying by the seat of their pants and mimicking what they have seen others do incorrectly. Never use the resignation process as an opportunity to “get back at” or “let them know” all that is wrong. It just doesn’t matter, and your reputation is far too valuable to risk for the one moment of satisfaction in bringing up all the seeming injustices you suffered.  

Giving your resignation should be simple, thoughtful and carefully planned. This will reduce your stress and cause you to focus on the one and only thing that is really critical: Making the transition of your departure as smooth as possible for everyone involved.  Your only focus should be leaving your old organization in the best position you can while you mentally begin to focus on your new organization.

Before exploring best practices in resigning and transitioning, one helpful fact to remember is that people and organizations tend to follow a predictable, three-stage pattern when faced with a resignation:

1. They’ll be in shock. This can often take the form of surprise and anger.

2. They’ll start to probe. “Who; What; Where; Why” 

3. They’ll make you an offer to try and keep you from leaving. 

It may take various amounts of time for the three stages to run their course, but most of the time; these steps will run their course.  Knowing this pattern can help one prepare for effectively handling the resignation process.

What Must Be Considered?

The Counter Offer.

First, remember that giving notice means you are crossing a point of no return. Your decision should be final and non-negotiable if you want to maintain your credibility.  Whatever reasons had you explore opportunities outside your organization in the first place still and will exist during and after your departure. Don’t waste your or their time by giving false hope that they can do something to get you to stay.  Once you give your notice, the relationship dynamic has shifted and trust is lost.  

Timing.

When do you give notice?  The general answer is as soon as possible after you have tendered an official acceptance of a new offer of employment.  It is worth strategically considering the timing of your resignation. You may consider: What matters are you involved in that need transitioning?  What events are happening at the new organization? What is happening with your clients? What is the time of year? Make sure your resignation properly coincides with your start date at the new organization and allows time for you to take a break in between positions should that be desired.

Whatever the timing factors, follow your organization’s exit protocol.  This is true no matter how close you are to some of your co-workers, peers, subordinates; Don’t leave a bad impression by ignoring this rule and talking with people out of turn.  Be prepared to be exited out of the building upon tendering your notice.  

Presenting the Resignation. 

With few exceptions, you should do this in a face-to-face meeting. Thus it is your responsibility to arrange a meeting, and if you arrange the meeting, it is your responsibility to have an agenda for it. Short and sweet messaging at this point is appropriate.  “I appreciate the opportunity I have had here. I have made a commitment to join another organization and will begin working with them in three weeks. Let’s discuss how we can make my transition as smooth as possible.” It is beneficial if you have created an agenda which outlines 3-8 items that need to be wrapped up during your transition and your plan to get them done.  

Exit Interviews.

For some, it may be tempting  to lay it all on the line as they have long dreamed of doing.  Should you be asked to do an exit interview, be polite and answer the questions in a simple, fair and true manner with short answers.  After all, what is in it for you if you air your grievances?  

Additional Tips  to Support you during Your Transition

  • Call a close friend and let him or her know you gave notice. It is often beneficial to talk to a welcoming voice after this stressful interaction. Don’t talk about your resignation with peers.
  • Consider the timing of removing your personal items.  It is much easier to remove your personal items early in the process, rather than leave this task to the last minute.
  • Make sure that you have ALREADY removed any personal items from your laptop or PC, and have taken home those files in some manner – remember copies of all your reviews, testimonials and recommendations. Only take what is rightfully yours.
  • Focus on legitimately wrapping up your business and/or transferring your projects or responsibilities to your co-workers or replacement as assigned. Even if you don’t get much direction, at least write it all up and document your work so that it can easily be understood once you are gone. 

Do not change your professional manners as you transition.  Think about your future network, references, and what people will say about you.  For the experienced professional, the last impression can be more important than the first impression.  

*Note:  Group and portable practice moves may require exception to the timing aspects of a transition.

The Lawyer Plateau

In volatile situations, size and strength are not advantages – speed and agility are. As globalization and uncertain economics continue, law firms and law departments must develop highly nimble operating models that enable them to respond to new opportunities and new competition. Firms that try to maintain “status quo” will be on the plateau and then left behind.

A key ingredient in any model is the talent; both the “seats” in the firm/department and the talent in those seats. One of the most obvious places to see the lawyer plateau in our current day is in the partnership ranks – partner plateau. The partners who rose to partnership via academic year, supporting the firm’s rainmakers, are now, suddenly, expected to have their own clientele. A common firm point of view is that these lawyers are taking up expensive production seats and limiting the firm’s ability to recognize high producing associates via partnership. Often, the partner’s point of view is “What happened? – the game has changed.” Just as an organization must change to meet demands, so too, must the individual lawyer.

Survival of the fittest is happening in our legal profession. Action, training, and tools can alter organizations and individuals at the DNA level. Talon has measured results of lawyer plateau clients over the years and we have seen acceleration like these examples:

1) A partner client with $200k in portable business moved to a firm where it was a culture fit and went through client builder training to triple her practice in 18 months.

2) A law firm client, selecting a specific person in a specific practice area to be the succession leader of the practice area that lost the confidence of the partnership, clients were be referred out of the firm – turned the practice around and brought current client business back to the firm, making the practice one of the top profit areas of the firm.

3) A corporate legal department client: constant, yearly, turnover in one AGC position was blamed internally and externally on bad leadership from the GC. Hiring the right person for their seat at the culture fit level had the CEO praising the GC for the hire that has now been there three years.

An organism must adapt to be able to fulfill the needs of an ever-changing environment. Until recently the legal profession has been fairly sheltered from this requirement. Now the economy is forcing the profession to change and adapt.

Signs of being on the plateau:

• Attrition of associates is par for the course

• We have always done it this way

• I figured it out and look at me, they can figure it out like I did

• Just ignore them, they will figure out they don’t belong any more

• Th is origination is mine and I am not sharing credit

• The only measure of success that counts is the billable hour – that’s 2200 by the way

• They have been here for 20 years, we can’t let them go now

• Every law firm is the same, my only option is to go in house

• I don’t like sitting in front of the computer, that is not what I signed up for as a lawyer

• I want to collaborate instead of fighting to win

• I don’t trust my partners

Solutions to evolution, moving beyond the plateau and continuing to advance:

• Organizational transformation at the DNA level – hard examine of what is working

• Measures of success include more than billable hours

• Origination is shared when earned, promote development of the next generation and collaboration

• Diversity is practiced organization wide, not just discussed at the diversity meetings

• Professional development training is a recognition for high potential performers

• Emerging leaders get training on emotional intelligence and practical leadership readiness

• Communication effectiveness training is conducted regularly and used to attract and retain

• Client support via collaborative teams, expectations on roles, rewards and consequences

Now is the time to look for ways to leave your comfort zone and confront these new challenges in your practice – this leads to invigoration, renewal, energy, reward and intrigue. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will guarantee success. What is certain is that in 2020 and beyond, old models must make way for new solutions.