Creating Better Law Firm Leaders: What Law Firms Can Learn from Google

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Jerome Kowalski

Kowalski & Associates

March, 2011

I recently attended a conference of managing partners in which one of the topics under discussion was “How many hats does a managing partner need to wear?”  The discussion was animated and the clear consensus was that an MP needs to wear them all: manager, strategic thinker, leader, psychologist, economist, parental figure, marketer, promoter, consensus builder, team builder, peace maker, visionary, piñata, the Harry Truman “buck stops here” hat, huckster, Indian chief, CEO,COO, CMO CIO,  and on and on.

As I relaxed in my easy chair on Saturday catching up on my reading, a piece in the New York Times about work performed within Google (clearly one of the greatest companies on the planet) to create better managers.  The piece, entitled “The Quest to Build a Better Boss,” describes Google’s detailed analyses and data mining to identify the definitive qualities of effective managers.  Remarkably, Google’s list is short and sweet. It identified “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Manager” and “Three Pitfalls of Managers.”

Among the reasons Google’s simple principles struck me is that they appeared as Bob Ruyback was being pilloried for his failed stewardship at Howrey by, among others, Professor Steve Harper and minions of anonymous Howrey staffers and lawyers on  a blog entitled “It’s Howrey Doody Time.” At the time of this writing,  that Howrey blog, which has been in existence for only a couple of months, seems to have received an astounding 262,000 hits.  And at the same time, Mr. Ruyback is also being criticized by his former partners (whom he said “abandoned him”) for putting them is serious  long term financial jeopardy.

Mr. Ruyack’s contentions, among other things was that partners jumped ship because they “had little tolerance for change” and the new free agency mindset of Big Law partners induced them to leave when there was a dip in revenues. Yes, lawyers do resist change, as I previously reported.  But that innate resistance to change must be overcome by leadership and sound management skills.

And in every study ever done on why people seek alternative employment, compensation factors rank at the bottom of the list.  Always at the top of the list for reasons for voluntarily leaving a job is a lack of job satisfaction.  I also previously wrote about how important it is for law firm leadership to concern itself with associate job satisfaction, even in an era when the supply of lawyers so far exceeds demand.  Certainly, the same principles of maintaining adequate job satisfaction is all the more critical at the partner level.  Maintaining job satisfaction is a critical function of management.

My own personal view, based on long tears of observation, is that successful law firm leadership is predicated on fairly few  building a team, developing consensus, avoiding hubris, and keeping lines of communication open and honest, giving deference and weight to all of a law firm’s stakeholders. Here, then is Google’s Rules, as reported by The Times.

 Google’s Rules –

As I said, Google is a great company and we, as a profession, should build on these principles to create better law firm managers, practice group leaders, office leaders and lawyers heading up particular engagements.

© Jerome Kowalski, March 2011.  All Rights Reserved.


Will Retiring Baby Boomers Burst Big Law’s Balloon?


Retirement (Photo credit: 401K)



 Jerome Kowalski

Kowalski & Associates

February, 2011


“My dad’s 65 and retired.  Lives in Florida. It’s a law, you know.”  Jerry Seinfeld



          Confession: I am a baby boomer. I am one of the 76,000,000 Americans who were born in the period between 1945 and 1964, which is generally accepted as the definition for the baby boom generation.

While I have previously questioned the wisdom of law firms having mandatory policies, and the legality of these policies have come under scrutiny, the fact is that too many law firms are adhering to mandatory retirement policies.  The various rationalizations offered, such as “making room for younger partners, “thinning the herd,” “passing the firm’s legacy on to the next generation” and the like may be debated, but the effects of large swaths of baby boomer law firm partners retiring during the next very few years can have very severe consequences for law firms.

Many law firms with whom we work have a population of baby boomer partners ranging in size from 15% to 35% of the partner headcount. Typically, approximately 15% of a law firm’s partnership are at the age in which they will be required to retire during the next three years or so.  These partners tend to be the most productive and are certainly responsible for the lion’s share of the firm’s client base.  They tend to be the most highly compensated and, quite significantly, individually and certainly as a group, have the largest capital accounts at a law firm.

These looming retirements require a great deal of advance planning by the law firm, most particularly in two areas:  Client transitions and financial planning.

Transitioning client management and relationships to younger partners is a theoretically simple concept.  Theoretically.  However, effective transitioning client responsibilities presumes that the senior partner does indeed intend to hang up his or her spurs and disappear quietly in to the sunset.  But, lawyers approaching the second half of their sixth decade on Earth are a different breed than earlier generation.  They are healthy, vigorous and simply not interested in retiring.  This generation will not be retiring in the same numbers as in the past. Their decisions about continuing to work are also influenced by the diminution of their assets because of the market distress of the last three years.  Their nest eggs are simply smaller.

Accordingly, many, if pushed in to retirement by their firms, their intention is to simply pack up their marbles and move, clients in tow, to the law firm across the street, which does not have mandatory requirements.

Of greater consequence to the law firm is its requirement to repay partner’s capital accounts upon retirement. As I mentioned above, capitol accounts for partners of this generation are typically the highest within the firm. They often aggregate more than 30% of the firm’s capital.

In earlier decades, we witnessed the disastrous effects of unfunded pension plans at law firms, which quite literally caused the demise of many law firms. The unadorned fact is that a partnership’s obligation to repay capital accounts to withdrawing partners is completely analogous, with the only real distinction is that the capital accounts constitute a calculable number, while pension payments were only actuarially calculable.

Nonetheless, a law firm’s obligation to repay substantial sums to these retiring baby boomer partners is a daunting prospect, particularly given current market conditions and a fairly illiquid credit market, with bank lenders imposing stringent underwriting criteria generally, and most particularly with law firms.

Retiring baby boomers may very well be neutron bomb to many law firms.  The drain of capital will blow balance sheets to smithereens.  Clients following “retiring” partners across the street will have obvious consequences.

There is no quick fix here.  A great deal — and I really do mean a great deal  — of planning must be undertaken with a great deal of immediacy.  There are fixes available here, some problematical, some pragmatic, but the path ahead is fraught with real peril.

© Jerome Kowalski, February, 2011.  All rights reserved

Active Marketing of Legal Services is More Critical Than Ever; Each Lawyer Needs to Have a Business Development Plan and Relentlously Pursue it.

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Why Do Lawyers Wonder Why Their Telephones Aren’t Ringing?



Jerome Kowalski

Kowalski & Associates

November, 2010



How many times in the past week did you check your telephone to see if it’s still got a dial tone?

             By this time, two full years in to The Great Recession (with no immediate end in sight), I sometimes wonder why lawyers tell me that they aren’t busy.  Sure, long standing clients may not be sending as much work over the transom as they did just two short years ago.  The days of lawyers simply being order takers rather than active marketers are gone.

Law firms often require (and those who don’t, should require) that every partner have a business plan. Every lawyer having even a passing interest in earning a living needs to have such a plan.  Once you implement the plan, your telephone will return to its natural place crooked in your ear. Not every conversation will generate business; in fact count on 75% of the folks you call on or reach out to won’t be sending you some business.  But, each time you get yourself knocked down, pick yourself up and get back in the race. And, given market realities, devote at least two hours daily to implementing your plan.

Ideally, at the end of each month, partners should report in some detail to management on the his or her own prior months marketing activities, with a copy to the firm’s marketing director. Each lawyer, for his or her own sake, should review the previous month’s activities, make a list of where follow up is required and do so.  Study the results achieved, and continue to refine your plan accordingly.

The simple elements of the plan:

  1. List the clients who have historically retained you on a regular basis and call upon them, following the steps I previously outlined.
  2. Identify the clients who have retained you on sporadic instances.  Call them, following the steps in the preceding paragraph. Sort of like apply shampoo, rinse, repeat.
  3. Cross market. The most basic tenet of marketing is that your most receptive target for a successful marketing are existing clients. Law firm partners should regularly get together both in formal and informal settings, as well as in groups and in pairs, and explore cross marketing opportunities.
  4. Blog.  Blogging is quickly becoming the most potent force in driving new business in the door.  Since we started advising our clients about the effectiveness of blogging a year or so ago (and certainly since my first post on the subject in June, 2010, which has literally attracted tens of thousands of readers), those clients who jumped in to the blogosphere with both feet consistently reported remarkable and consistent production of new business.
  5. Roam through your Contacts list (we used to call them Rolodexes). Call lawyers around the country who served with you as co-counsel or even as adversaries.  Remind them you’re around and would welcome to work with them on new matters.
  6. Regularly issue clients and bulletins. We’ve explained the do’s and don’ts before.
  7. Become a master networker.  In my previous post on basic marketing, the importance and effectiveness of networking is outlined in some detail.

Take these steps, as we have been counseling our clients to do and you’ll stop checking to see if the phone is still working.

© Jerome Kowalski, 2010.  All Rights reserved.

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