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Law Firm Management

All About the Lead Dog

Many years ago, the managing partner of my firm, who I will call Sid because that was his name, had on his desk a replica of a dogsled with a team of dogs in single file. There was a pithy saying attached to the sled which read, “if you are not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”  Think about that for a minute. No, I mean really think about it. Take a moment to focus on exactly what every dog following the lead dog had to look at for the entire trip.

From this I understood that Sid was the lead dog, and the other partners, including myself, would have to settle for the view that never changed.

They say that a leader has to have a vision for their company and that in order to achieve that vision, they have to obtain buy-in from the other stakeholders and ultimately from everyone else in the organization.

Sid did in fact have a vision for the firm, and it was actually a fairly good vision. He wanted to build a profitable and well-respected law firm in a rapidly growing city. For a number of years, Sid achieved a good measure of success in achieving his vision, taking the firm from four lawyers to twenty-four lawyers in a decade, and establishing it as one of the two leading firms in his city. However, before another ten years had passed, Sid left the firm, and moved on to other challenges.

I always thought that the reason that Sid left the firm was that he had given up because he just could not figure out how to make the firm as profitable as he and some of the other partners wanted it to be. Although Sid said that he left the firm to tackle the challenges of the corporate world, from my perspective the firm had stalled and Sid moved on because he did not know how to fix it.

I was one of the partners when Sid left the firm, and I believe that all of people who were partners at that time would agree with me that Sid was more intelligent than most of us (and possibly all of us) and that none of us came close to having his understanding of business, enterprising spirit, ambition, or energy. And yet the point came at which he could not move the firm forward.

Following the end of Sid’s tenure as managing partner, the firm once again started to grow and to become more profitable, ultimately becoming the largest law firm in the region, and has continued to succeed over the many years that followed Sid having moved on.

So, how did they do it?

It is axiomatic in business that different skills are required at different stages of the life of a business. It is a rare entrepreneur who, having had the skills required to start an enterprise from scratch, then has the skills needed to lead the firm at a more mature stage.

In the case of Sid, while there was likely no other partner in his firm who could have started a firm from scratch and achieved the growth that Sid achieved in the firm’s first decade, his leadership style of being the top dog and convincing his partners to all run behind him stopped the firm from moving forward.

After Sid’s departure, the firm had a number of managing partners, some better than others. However, with the founding entrepreneur no longer in charge, the firm never again blindly followed a single person’s leadership. The partners of the firm sought input, ideas, and inspiration from numerous sources, including each other, accountants, legal industry experts, industrial psychologists, facilitators, and marketing consultants, to name a few. They hired professional managers who knew much more about business than the partners did. The partners implemented many of the recommendations put forward by their advisors and professional managers, covering areas as diverse as accounting principles, marketing, branding, technology, human resources, team building and disaster planning.

The idea of having a single lead dog who everyone followed disappeared from the firm’s culture.

Entrepreneurs often have powerful egos which propel them to succeed, often by hands-on management of every aspect of their business, or micro-managing as we now like to call it.  However, building a successful organization is rarely a one-person job. Eventually the entrepreneur has to share the leadership role with others or give up and move on.

I have also seen this same phenomenon in my client base. Often, entrepreneurs start businesses and bring them to a certain level of success. They then bring in other people with the skills to move the business forward, or they hold on tightly to the reins and ride it into the ground.

Leadership skills matter. That is why they teach leadership in law school. Oh, wait a minute, they don’t teach it in law school? Am I wrong about that? Oh, that’s okay because law firms teach it to their associates. They don’t? Oh, my mistake.

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