Stephen P. Gallagher, President, LeadershipCoach.us
First published New York State Bar Association’s General Practice Section’s
First published in 2003. Updated on February 10, 2018. I added pictures for my family and friends. If you need friends or family, feel free to enjoy. SPG
Growth and change have been the major themes of my entire professional career. Much of my work has been about organizational development, and particularly about the correspondence between healthy individuals and healthy organizations. Since joining the staff of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) in 1990, I have had the pleasure of working with literally thousands of NYSBA members as they have sought to reach their own balance between family and career goals. As I prepare to refocus my own priorities away from the Bar Association, I’d like to take a moment to share some of what I have learned, and hopefully some of what I will leave behind.
The General Practice Section and the Law Practice Management Committee have served as my home base during my time with NYSBA, and I draw most of my experiences from working with these two groups. In looking back over my years here in Albany, I’d like to refer back to an article that I wrote in the New York State Bar Association Journal (1990) and later in a Technology and Legal Practice Symposium Issue of the Syracuse Law Review (2002). The article suggested that we were in the early, turbulent days of a revolution as significant as any other in human history. I’d also like to weave in thoughts from another popular business book affectionately titled Geeks & Geezers by leadership experts Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas.
Geeks & Geezers started out as a study of cross-generational leadership that looked at two groups of leaders—the youngest and the oldest, the geeks and the geezers. The geeks were young (35 and under); most of them were involved in the now-troubled but still vital New Economy. These young people had distinguished themselves by leading or building organizations at an early age. They had also proven themselves by leading people rather than having a good idea or a “killer app.”
The geezers in the study are the grandparents of the geeks. The geezers were widely admired for their wisdom and skill. The geezers were all 70 and over, and I had no difficulty recognizing the names and accomplishments of every geezer in the study. I must admit that I did not know many of the younger people who made up the group of geeks. One of the reasons I liked this particular book was because I do not fit comfortably into either one of these two groups. At times, I find myself thinking more as a “geezer,” but other times I take on a “geek’s” perspective as much as any 35-year old.
General Practitioner and Leadership
1. Establish a Sense of Urgency—In 2000, I began questioning whether senior management at your firm has a clear understanding of the dangers and opportunities posed by new, unconventional rivals. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad suggest that, in order to begin preparing for the future, you need to ask yourself: “Am I more of a maintenance engineer keeping today’s business humming along, or an architect imagining tomorrow’s businesses?”  I have written quite a bit about the changing business environment and how professional service providers need to realign their products and services in response to these new challenges. Firms that are unaware of what the competition is doing will find themselves unable to participate in the new competitive space.
I hope I was able to get you to think about these changes, but more importantly, I hope you were able to make some changes to your business that will better position you to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
2. Listen to the Revolution—Law firms have traditionally delivered competent legal services to clients who have contracted for those services. The legal profession must do a better job of listening to its customers, because the insights into the customer’s individual needs and preferences will become one of the most important business challenges facing lawyers.
There is no reason for law firms in the future to restrict their core services to traditional “legal self.” Although it is important to ask how satisfied current customers are, it is equally important to ask yourself which customers are not even being served.
3. Reshape the Legal Marketplace—Lawyers can no longer afford to wait to see what happens. Instead, they need to anticipate “value” as perceived by customers and provide new products or services based on an entirely new business model.
The challenging opportunities to reshape the direction of the profession and the legal marketplace will need a massive transfusion of talented individuals sensitive to changing consumer demands. Experience is showing that innovation and creativity take place when diverse groups of individuals get together to solve problems. Law firms need to learn from business partners to explore new approaches to problem solving.
There is a great deal of research from the behavioral sciences supporting the notion that people prefer to spend time with people who are similar to themselves. However, if your firm hires only new people whom insiders like and feel comfortable being around, you should expect to continue to rely on ONLY past history, well-developed procedures and proven technologies to grow your business. In these times when most companies are experimenting with new procedures—inventing and testing new technologies to satisfy customer demands, enter new markets and gain an advantage over the competition—hiring new kinds of people will be key for your firm’s survival.
4. Think Outside the Box—Take a close look at how other professional service providers are incorporating new strategies and techniques to gain competitive advantage. You need to be looking to establish a knowledge management system to collect and organize internal work product so that knowledge gained from previous experiences can be efficiently recycled for new applications. Knowledge management will be the salvation of many firms, while a deathblow to many others.
5. Maximize Your Time at Bat—According to Gary Hamel, “Getting to the future first, and being first up on the scoreboard, requires that a law firm learn faster than its rivals about the precise dimensions of customer demand and required product performance.” Small firms can be much more responsive to changes in the “marketspace.”
To learn faster, Hamel proposes, “A firm needs to maximize its time at bat, rather than sit on the sidelines waiting for the perfect conditions for the home run attempt.” Law firms should begin rewarding staff for experimenting with innovative approaches to client services. Some of these experiments will fail, but others will exceed all expectations.
6. Develop New Skills and Competencies—The new practice of law must be crafted to anticipate and address what the consumer believes is valuable or quality work. Lawyers will need to reinvent the entire industrial landscape, and new core competencies will be needed to create new benefits. These new technical and entrepreneurial skills will be quite different from what has made their organization (and them personally) so successful, so many of you may need to look beyond the more traditional CLE programs to acquire these new skills and competencies. Law firms will need to look much beyond the top 2 percent of law school graduates to identify the individuals with the leadership skills and abilities needed to address consumer demands. Law firms will find some of these talents beyond the law school itself. Seeking diversity in your law firm is only the tip of this iceberg. If you have not taken major strides yet, get started soon.
7. Escape the Bonds of Legacy—The practice of law can no longer be seen as a regulated profession. Law firms will need to bring together widely disparate technologies, manage standards-setting processes and build alliances with suppliers to shape the direction of future legal services. As your law firm continues to measure individual timekeeper productivity and profitability, you need to begin exploring ways to replace hourly billing strategy before your clients start demanding this.
Law firms need to pay particular attention to what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton refer to as the “smart talk trap.” This is a syndrome where inefficient companies hire, reward and promote people for sounding smart rather than making sure that smart things are done. In such organizations, talking somehow becomes an acceptable—even preferred—substitute for actually doing anything. This particular syndrome can wreak havoc with billing hours and client services if left unchecked.
8. Think Beyond the Numbers—Compensation or performance-appraisal systems can force individuals to choose between the new vision of the future and their self-interests. If the firm is currently successful in terms of strong billable hours, complacency can be high; so change initiatives can take time. Price pressures created by new e-commerce business models will only accelerate in the years ahead. These changes will affect every sector of the economy, so the legal profession cannot afford to sit back while other professional service providers redefine their own new areas of practice.
According to David Maister, “It is the manager’s job to inspire, cajole, exhort, nag, support, critique, praise, encourage, confront and comfort as individual people struggle to live their work lives according to high standards. And, the primary quality required of managers is courage—the courage actually to manage and enforce the standards that are preached.”
9. Make the Internet Your Best Friend—Sharing knowledge with clients and maintaining closer, richer relationships with them remains a highest priority for all professional service providers. Although there is nothing new about this strategy, the Internet is providing clients with new tools to acquire knowledge, and using these tools has given clients a much higher level of sophistication.
Because the consumer is driving the direction of future legal services, and the consumer is demanding greater access to information, lawyers will increasingly need to become more comfortable with network technologies in order to be players in shaping future services. This has only accelerated in the past several years.
10. Create Practice Quality Standards—Any law firm’s competitiveness—and raison d’ etre—is based on its competencies and capabilities and their relevance to its business environment. As law firms continue to expand alliances and affiliations with outside service providers, the infrastructure will need to change to support the delivery of a consistent, high-quality legal work product. A law firm’s infrastructure will need to provide all professionals with the tools to work collaboratively among many offices. It will also require work habits supporting remote collaboration, a mutual understanding of the elements that define work quality and a set of common standards for satisfactory client service. Consumers will continue to demand high standards of quality, so law firms will have to develop the internal processes and controls to assure standards of quality are met.
11. Implement Knowledge Management Systems—Firms that are able to help clients make better decisions and enhance their business capabilities will flourish. In an era where information that once was sold on an hourly basis is now available free on the Internet, sophisticated clients are no longer interested in obtaining a lawyer’s legal advice—they want a lawyer’s assistance in crafting a solution to a business problem. The process has become as important as the outcome.
12. Form Alliances and Partnerships—Many corporate clients have become quite sophisticated consumers of legal services, so law firms find themselves forming alliances or partnerships to provide clients with highest quality services. As the managing partner, you will need to produce a working environment that is more tolerant of dissent, more supportive of experimentation and—at the same time—more committed to shared discussion and learning. Increasingly, managing partners have been finding out that, while money plays a part in the discussion to leave or stay, other factors seem to matter more. Law firms are beginning to look more seriously at career development, responsibility, professional satisfaction and atmosphere to supplement compensation packages.
Leadership Development and Human Development
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, much of my work over the past 13 years has been about organizational development, and particularly about the correspondence between healthy individuals and healthy organizations. After a quick review of my writings regarding changes in the profession, let me now turn to the book Geeks & Geezers to try to explore how and why some people are able to extract wisdom from experiences and others are not. Bennis and Thomas found that every leader in their study, younger or older, had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience. That transformational experience was at the very heart of becoming a leader. The authors called the experience a crucible.
World War II was a crucible for almost all the older male leaders, many of whom were transformed by the overwhelming responsibility of leading other men into battle. The younger people in the study (geeks) shared a variety of personal and professional crucibles. Your crucible seems to allow you to see the world in a new light.
Bennis and Thomas defined yesterday’s leaders as “specialists who sought and trusted answers.” They describe today’s leaders as more generalists who know they need to ask the right questions. The authors report that geeks often strain to grab the brass ring on their first pass rather than waiting a few laps to get comfortable in the saddle. Their impatience is palpable. They go on to report that many of these same young people thirst for “twenty years of experience in two years,” while reminding those who labeled them naive that, in reality, many people with twenty years’ experience actually had one year of experience repeated twenty times.
Bennis and Thomas found that adaptive capacity, which includes such critical skills as the ability to understand context and to recognize and seize opportunities, is the essential competence of leaders. They also found that adaptive capacity is also the defining competence of everyone who retains his or her ability to live well despite life’s inevitable changes and losses. The study found that flexible, resilient people are not repelled by problems; they pounce on them, determined to find solutions to the puzzle, however painful they may be. The ability to find meaning and strength in adversity distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. When terrible things happen, less able people feel singled out and powerless. Leaders find purpose and resolve.
I have always felt that leadership development and human development were closely intertwined. The ability to process new experiences, find their meaning and integrate them into one’s life, is the signature skill of leaders and, indeed, of anyone who finds ways to live fully and well. Leaders create meaning out of events and relationships that otherwise devastate non-leaders. I was pleased to see that Bennis and Thomas found that the very factors that make a person a great leader are the ones that make him or her a successful, healthy human being. They are the very factors that allow us to live happy, meaningful lives. I came to the same conclusion in my meetings with lawyers throughout New York state.
I learned that no issue or attitude divided geeks from geezers more dramatically than the importance of balance in their lives. Geeks place far more emphasis on achieving balance in their work, family, and personal lives than did geezers at a comparable age. Balancing family goals and objectives with career and law firm goals will continue to be a managing partner’s challenge in the years ahead.
Stephen P. Gallagher, Leadershipcoach.us
[i]. Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).
[ii]. See John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), p. 4.
[iii]. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, Competing for the Future (Harvard Business School Press, 1994), p. 2.
[iv]. J. G. March, “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” Organizational Science 2 (1991), pp. 71-87.
[v]. J. Pfeffer and R.I. Sutton, “The Smart Talk Trap,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1999, pp. 135-42.
[vi]. Telephone interview on “Performance and Pay” between Stephen P. Gallagher, Director of New York State Bar Association’s Law Practice Management Committee, and David H. Maister, the widely acknowledged world’s leading authority on the management of professional service firms.
[vii]. See E. Leigh Dance, “Delivering Seamless Service: Best Practices of Multidisciplinary Partnerships,” Law Firm Governance, Spring 2000, Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 6.
[viii]. See Bennis and Thomas, supra note 1, at 5. The American Heritage Dictionary describes a crucible as “a place, time or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting materials at high temperatures.”
[ix]. See Bennis and Thomas, supra note 1, at 13.
[x]. Id. at 64.
[xi]. Id. at 92.
[xii]. Id. at 108.
[xiii]. Id. at xii.