Strong leaders voluntarily initiate their own performance feedback. The benefits of doing so are enormous.


[Editor’s note: Given the time of year and the topic of Patrick’s essay, this monthly leadership column is being published two weeks early. Enjoy! wdh]


There is an old adage in managing a client’s expectations that states, “whether we like it or not, we are going to be measured by our clients.”  If we take a very passive approach, the measuring stick against which we will be measured will be exclusively a creation of our client.  Alternatively, we can be proactive and help identify and shape the scorecard.

The same principle is equally true for law firm leaders (FL), especially in dealing with your elected board or executive committee (EC), as the partners and the EC become your expanded client constituency.  Working with your colleagues, especially early in your tenure, to formulate a proper feedback or evaluation process presents a terrific opportunity for you to manage everyone’s expectations.

This issue is especially timely in light of predicted declines in law firm profits.
Continue Reading Should firm leaders take the lead on their own performance review? (343)


To break from the pack you have to be willing to break the rules.


A few years back, together with colleague David Parnell, we interviewed and surveyed 68 AmLaw firm leaders on their firm’s approach to strategic planning and their responses to 18 specific questions in preparation for a conference presentation we were delivering.

The overall results were startling in that despite months of preparation and thousands of dollars invested, less than 10% of these leaders were able to confidentially admit that they might have implemented “ALMOST all of their last strategic plan.”  Our presentation at the time was covered in Law360:  “Your Biz Strategy: Where Time and Money Go To Die” and the Global Legal Post: “Firms Spending Millions Writing Biz Plans That Just Gather Dust.”

We regrettably had to inform a room full of attendees at a New York Summit on Law Firm Strategic Planning that our research indicated that far too many firm leaders suffer an infliction that goes by the technical term of seeing SPOTS, with SPOTS being an acronym for Strategic Plan On the Shelf!
Continue Reading 10 fatal traps that explain why law firm strategic plans are DOA (339)


Smart lawyers face hard questions.


After reading the recently published Servants to the Damned (2022) by investigative reporter David Enrich, which chronicles the role of large law firms in today’s political polarization and wealth disparities, I revisited some earlier psychology materials to consider whether a lawyer could find meaning while pursuing a career in Big Law.

Servants offered two questions in the context of trying to understand a Big Law team’s sanctions-worthy, abusive discovery maneuvers on behalf of its Big Pharma client in a product liability case filed by the parents of a brain-damaged child: “Am I proud of the work I’m doing?” and “Am I the person I want to be?”
Continue Reading Is it possible to find meaning in BigLaw? (336)


“Firms outside the Premier and Championship leagues are playing a different sport.” Thus, the winning strategies are different.


Jae Um, in her bracketing exercise for The American Lawyer magazine, arrays the 2022 AmLaw 100 based on the structure of the English football league system. At the top are 22 firms in the Premier League. Next is the Championship League, with 23 firms focused intently on getting promoted to Premier.  The third group is “Everybody Else,” which includes all the corporate law firms playing in lower-tier leagues.

Yet, as Jae Um pointed out during her visit to my Law Firms class, “it’s a mistake to extend the soccer metaphor to all 300 US/UK law firms that are doing significant amounts of corporate legal work.”  Jae explains that Premier and Championship League firms have some combination of practice areas (type, quality, depth), sector focus, and geographic footprint that enable them to attract price-insensitive work from the world’s largest and wealthiest clients. See Part II (332) (discussing market power of these firms).

Jae continues, “The 250+ firms outside the Premier and Championship leagues are playing a different sport.”
Continue Reading Learning about law firms, Part III: Innovation at “Everybody Else” firms (335)


The jobs of being a leader within any law firm should come labeled with a clear warning: This job could seriously change you and how you behave within your firm!


Over the past two decades, I have had the privilege, through my research, interviews, and hands-on consulting to peek behind the veil surrounding the challenges of becoming a NEW Firm Chair (or whatever title best signifies your firm’s leader).

From candid discussions about the stress involved in looking like you know what you are doing and the huge time demands imposed by your partner’s requests to feeling disorientated by the scale and scope of the mandate, many professionals quietly struggle with the various pressures that accompany their term in office.  In fact, I’ve discovered that the great majority of leaders, in any position of responsibility, are at their most vulnerable early in their tenure.
Continue Reading Agile leadership: navigating the double bind (334)


Stable, transparent, not very complicated, reasonably profitable, and often quite collegial. It also has flaws.


As noted in Part I (330) of this “learning about law firms” series, it’s taken nearly two decades in the trenches, including many years doing applied work with law firms, for a very confusing and counterintuitive insight to come into focus:  Most large firms are not “firms” in the sense of conventional business theory.  Instead, they are a confederation of individual partners building and running leveraged practices in various complementary and adjacent legal specialties.

In today’s essay (Part II), I’ll add a second counterintuitive insight:  For the most part, lawyers pay little or no financial price for organizing themselves as a confederation rather than a firm.  Even in the event of spectacular collapse, as was the case with Dewey, Brobeck, Heller, Howrey, Thelen, and many other large firms, see ALM Staff, “30 Years of Law Firm Collapses: An Annotated Timeline,” Law.com, Oct 29, 2019, there’s always a large cadre of competitor firms looking to give the partners (and their fee-generating practices) a new home.  In most cases, what provides financial security and certainty to an equity partner is seldom the quality of firm-level strategy, or the ability of firm leadership to execute, but instead the health and vitality of their own practice.

This is what distinguishes law firms from conventional businesses. Like Legos blocks, individual law practices can be removed from one law firm and snapped onto another. 
Continue Reading Learning about law firms, Part II: Why confederation is our default model (332)


“Some things are clearer from a distance.”


20 years ago, I didn’t know very much about law firms, though I was curious and knew law firms were important, at least to students attending law school.  Thus, why not dig into the primary vehicle for a successful and rewarding legal career?

That was my reasoning back in the fall of 2004 when I first taught a course called “The Law Firm as a Business Organization (B573).”  As a junior professor, it was an early win for my career. Foremost, the students gave it strong reviews, which enabled me to teach it again in 2006.  Second, it put me in direct contact with practicing lawyers, as I invited them to class to bring color to the assigned readings. Third, it launched some novel and original research that earned me tenure and opened doors to do challenging applied work in the legal innovation space, including Lawyer Metrics, the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), and Legal Evolution.

Now, for the first time in 16 years, I am teaching the Law Firms course, prompting much reflection.  See 2022 Syllabus.  What’s changed more—the law firm market or my perspective?  It’s a close call.
Continue Reading Learning about law firms, 20 years in (330)


A checklist that, if done in order, actually works.


How do you ensure task completion when important projects need to get implemented, when partners seem to have agreed to participate and do their bit, but when you are not really certain that you are going to get committed follow through?

It’s been an old joke within law firms that if a partner has a deadline for producing some task by this coming Friday, when are they most likely to start on it?  And you know the punchline.

Whether it’s in a practice or industry group setting, around the table with the members of your Strategic Planning Committee, or wherever you happened to be working with your fellow colleagues, this seems to be one of the most common challenges and greatest frustrations that I hear about from leaders at every level within firms.  And perhaps worse, the most common excuse seems to be, “I had a client emergency arise.”  And of course, a client excuse trumps everything!
Continue Reading Ensuring follow-through on partner promises (329)

Norma Rae (1979), 20th Century Fox.  Photo from The Hollywood Archives, Alamy.

Higher profits come at a cost.  Be careful what you wish for.


As a multiple-decade veteran of Big Law, I vividly remember the many debates about whether practicing law was a profession or a business.  I was often leading these discussions as the firm-wide managing partner of operations of a global law firm.  How could a firm with over 1,000 lawyers, over $1 billion in revenue, and over 20 offices be anything but a business?

In an attempt to gain the latest insights on strategy, finance, human resources, outsourcing, and IT, I eagerly read every issue of Harvard Business Review.  I remember years ago having to overcome the partners’ resistance to being paid only by direct deposit and to increasing the partner-to-secretary ratio beyond 1-to-1.  Now that I am gone from Big Law and managing a law-school legal clinic where I am still practicing law (but with startups and other micro businesses), I frequently question whether being so focused on productivity and efficiency in my former life was worth the price.  Perhaps giving up a few ticks in profits per partner (PPP) would have made my firm a better place.

In this Labor Day essay, I’ll offer some second thoughts on the business of law,
Continue Reading Labor Day reflections, including some second thoughts, on the business of law (327)


One of BigLaw’s biggest pain points is fixable.


There are few people out there with bad intentions, but there are firm leaders with bad habits.  I recently spent an hour on a call with the managing partner of an AmLaw 200 firm who was seeking my advice on succession planning and specifically with their practice and industry group leaders, many of whom were very senior and had been in the role for well over a decade.  I began our discussion by asking five very basic questions:

  1. Do these group leaders have a formal, written job description?  Answer: “No.”
  2. Do these leaders have a clear understanding of precisely how many non-billable hours they are expected to spend leading and managing the people on their teams?  Answer: “No.”
  3. Have you provided these team leaders with any organized leadership training within the past three years, to help them enhance their individual performance?  Answer: “No.”
  4. Have these leaders been provided with any written expectations (e.g., you must, as a group, meet at least once per month) of what your firm’s leadership is expecting them to do with their teams?  Answer: “No.”
  5. Do you, as the firm leader, meet with all of your team leaders to have them share and discuss their particular problems and successes with each other, at least once quarterly?  Answer: “No.”


Continue Reading Where leadership training falls short (318)