Maister’s Plan for the Future

David Maister started out his ALM session for the Law Firm Leaders Forum by saying that all law firm strategic plans are the same! They’re all correct, but not unique. The bottom line problem is that, like a drunk, there is no will power on the part of law firm leaders to hold partners accountable for their failure to reach the goals of the strategic plan.

Business is not difficult. Harvard Business School, his former employer, is a rip off, he says. Everyone knows what is good for us, wants to achieve what is good for us and knows how to do it. Why, then, don’t we do it? For the same reason that smokers don’t quit smoking despite the fact they know it increases the risk of disease and death.

An interesting observation as to why strategic plans fail is that the benefits are not linear. Expending 100% effort does not guarantee success; it may take a little longer. But, unless lawyers see the linear achievement of their goals (strategic plan), they tend to give up and leave the plan in the drawer.

Neither a revised compensation scheme nor better hiring will achieve better results. Maister says that you need a firm filled with energetic, excited and enthusiastic people to be a successful firm. And you need a group/firm manager who can train others, has a track record of providing constructive criticism and who will be evaluated based on the success of the group, not on his/her personal record outside of the group success.

In other words, he observes that the successful professional services firms are team oriented. And, you need leaders who will manage. Personal production is not relevant. With many individual producers, even highly successful individual revenue generators, you have nothing more than an amalgam of sole practitioners, or a hotel for sole practitioners. Teams always outperform sole practitioners.

Being a group leader is not a reward. It is an opportunity; it is a responsibility. And if one doesn’t want to perform that function, one should not be the group leader. This is like an airplane passenger who sits in the emergency exit row and is asked if he wants to help the attendants in case of an emergency. If yes, great. If not, please sit in another part of the plane. If a lawyer can bring in $10 million and doesn’t want to manage others, that’s o.k.  Play to each person’s strength. This rainmaker shouldn’t be the group leader, but isolated so that he can do what he does best, bring in the $10 million. If not, what he brings in the front door in revenue will merely go out the back door in expense.

The manager should get paid for performance, just as everyone else in the firm does … but performance in this case is not his personal billable hours. Rather, it is the performance of the group, the success of the group that is important.  As in the rising tide metaphor, if the group does well under his leadership, the group leader will also be appropriately compensated.

These are values that, to be successful, must be enforced. Most managing partners don’t have the courage to enforce the standards of the firm, according to Maister.

When asked about how to start down this path of team building and move away from individualism, Maister responded by saying do one thing first, prove it works, and then go on to the next thing. The first thing he suggested was a simple client survey. He suggested that once every 3 months, the managing partner should send out a simple survey to all clients directly, not through the working, relationship or billing partner. The survey will have three buttons. The first, green, will represent satisfaction with work done and responsiveness of the firm. The second, amber, will mean that the client is satisfied mostly, but not all the time. In this case, the relationship partner will be instructed to visit the client and determine the cause of dissatisfaction. It might be a misunderstanding or something outside the control of the firm. The third button will be red.  This one means that the client is not satisfied at all; that there is a problem. In this case, the managing partner should meet with the client immediately. The survey note explains to the client that if red is selected, the managing partner personally will call the client.

And then, the kicker, is that the percentage results of client satisfaction should be published for all in the firm, attorneys, staff, et al. to review the results. Maister maintains that this simple procedure will cause a major shift in lawyers’ practices.

Another stimulating session. I had never listened to David Maister and was taken with his analytic review of law firm culture. His reputation is well-deserved.

P.S.  In addition to Maister’s books (12 he said), see Jim Collins’ book. The principles are essentially the same. Committed to consistent excellence (not sporadic excellence), with energy, enthusiasm and dedication, that’s how organizations succeed. And they are populated with people who do things that excite them!


Categorized in: