Failure of Leadership

The American Lawyer’s annual leaders survey reveals that most law firm managing partners are living in denial. When the changing world intrudes in ways that they can no longer ignore, another psychological state — cognitive dissonance — sets in as they try simultaneously to hold contradictory ideas in their heads. As a consequence, what is happening today at the top of most big firms is the antithesis of leadership.

Denial

In the Am Law leaders survey, 70 percent of respondents said that the sluggish demand for legal services in 2013 would continue through 2014. That’s not surprising. In 2012, only a fourth quarter surge saved many firms from the abyss. The unusual circumstances producing that phenomenon aren’t present this year.

If 2014 will be more of the same as firms compete for business in a zero-sum game, how do individual managing partners size up their situations? Unrealistically. Two-thirds of the 105 leaders responding to the survey of Am Law 200 firms were “somewhat optimistic” about the prospects for their firms in 2014. Another ten percent were “very optimistic.”

More than 80 percent expect profits per partner to grow in 2014 — and one-fourth of those expect growth to exceed five percent. They’ll use the same old model — 98 percent expect billable hour increases, even though three-fourths of respondents said their realization rates for 2013 are 90% or worse. They also said that only 18 percent of their matters include an alternative fee arrangement.

Cognitive dissonance

They can’t all be right about 2014 — for which an overwhelming majority say that “things will be tough for almost everyone else, but my firm will thrive.” More importantly, most of them won’t be right. So what are today’s leaders doing to prepare their firms for more of the harsh reality that they’ve already experienced for the past several years? Not much.

A staggering 85 percent of managing partners said they were somewhat worried (61 percent) or very worried (24 percent) about partners who are not billing enough hours. Almost 70 percent are concerned that some partners are staying on too long before retirement.

An Altman Weil Survey found similar results last summer. Seventy percent of law firm leaders said that older partners were hanging on too long. In the process, they are hoarding clients, billings, and opportunities in ways that impede the transition of firm business to younger lawyers. Yet the drive to maximize short-term profits led 80 percent of firm leaders to admit that they planned to respond to current pressures by tightening equity partner admission standards. Pulling up the ladder on the next generation is not the way to motivate the young talent needed to solve the transition problem.

Morale

All of this may be working well for some partners at the top of what remains a leveraged pyramid business model. But even among the partners, all is not well. The Altman Weil Survey reported that 40 percent of law firm leaders thought partner morale was lower than it had been in 2008. In other words, deequitizations and partnership purges during the Great Recession haven’t produced greater happiness in the survivor cohort.

The Am Law Survey confirms that this downward trend continues. In 2012, 63 percent of managing partners characterized the morale of their partners as “somewhat optimistic.” In 2013, it dropped to 56 percent — near the 2009 nadir of 54 percent.

Leadership lemmings

Every survey reveals that most big firm leaders have their eyes on a single mission: growth. Whether through aggressive lateral hiring or mergers and acquisitions, some managing partners are cobbling together entities that aren’t really law firm partnerships. They’ve forgotten that a sense of community and common purpose is essential to maintaining organizational morale. They’ve also forgotten that no law firm is better than the quality of its people.

Most leaders also acknowledge that a myopic growth strategy imposes significant financial and other costs on their institutions — overpaying for so-called rainmakers who are less than advertised; sacrificing the stability that comes from a cohesive culture in exchange for current top line revenues; incentivizing partners to hoard clients because billings determine compensation and client silos facilitate lateral exits; discouraging the development of talent that should comprise the future of the firm.

As managing partners build empires that they hope will be too big to fail, they might spend a little time considering whether their denial and cognitive dissonance are producing entities that are too big to succeed.

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