Professional Development Workshop: Legal Team Leadership 6/12/08 – Transcript

Adele Lemlek: Hello, this is Adele Lemlek with the New York City Bar Association. I’m sitting here with David Freeman, a former New York attorney who presented this morning’s sixth and final program of the 2008 Professional Development Workshop Series, “Legal Team Leadership.”

David has spent many years as a leadership and business development consultant for both law firms and corporations. He is the CEO and founder of the David Freeman Consulting Group, which has a multidisciplinary team that is dedicated to helping firms and companies increase revenue through the integrated use of leadership and business development training, coaching, and retreats. Good morning, David.

David Freeman: Hello.

Adele: Given the long hours that associates traditionally keep, how do you motivate someone or a team?

David: It’s an interesting challenge in this environment, especially because so many associates are interested in the work-life balance; the law firm is not everything for them. So, there is a style of leadership that is helpful, called the coaching style of leadership.

Leaders who can talk to the associates to be able to understand what their goals are, what their personal desires are, their passions, and what they want to accomplish in their career, is a great place to start.

Then from there, to be able to create some action steps that can align with where the individual associate wants to go. This can align and they can pull the kind of motivation out of them that they’re looking for.

To just give assignments–well, that’s not a model that can work as well these days as it has in the past. So, good coaching style is probably one of the most important things to do. Asking the right questions of the associates: What do you want to get out of your career? How can I, as a leader, help you accomplish what you want to accomplish?

And then to figure out giving them the kind of assignments that could help them develop their careers. That is where you align the goals of the associate with the goals of the firm.

Adele: You’re talking about a very personalized approach.

David: It is, and a lot of leaders don’t really feel like they have the time to do this. Yet, true leadership is about helping to lead someone to achieve what they want to achieve in their life.

Many times a group leader might have ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty, seventy associates that they have to work with. There’s no way that they can work with all of the associates. One of the techniques I’ve seen is to delegate this responsibility to other partners of the group, and to get those partners to talk to the associates.

Many firms have mentoring programs. Sometimes the mentoring programs are not quite what you would want them to be. So number one, what could be done is to help train the mentors to be more effective by asking the right questions. The other thing is that the associates can take control. And yes, I have this one person who is my mentor, but there are other people who I would really like to have as my mentor. So, the savvy associates are out there and they are finding the people.

There are many different mentors for many different things. You might find that one person might be great for learning to become a better lawyer. Yet, another partner might be great for how to become better at business development. Yet another partner might be great at how to give exceptional levels of client service or how to become a leader. It’s up the associate to be able to pick their group of people to build the key relationships with.

Adele: So, it’s all about taking some control.

David: It’s absolutely about taking control over one’s career. And many times we’ve been trained to basically go through a system, and this system will take care of it for you. Yet folks that are more entrepreneurial, that understand that they take control of their careers, they can make things happen at a much more accelerated rate.

Adele: When you have these large teams–especially with ten, fifteen, twenty–there’s going to be conflicts. How do you handle that?

David: There’s a couple of ways to do it. Each of course is very specific to the situation, but one of the things that happens with conflict is a lack of communication. People are just not understanding what the other points of view are.

As a leader, what could be done is to first sit with each individual to say, “What is going on? What are the issues you have? What are the values you have behind this? What is driving your behavior here?” and really try to get down to a root cause. I mean, this is just really any arbitration/mediation/negotiation technique.

Then you go to the other person, find out what’s going on. See if you can find some level of common ground. And then to that point, if you can get these two people together, most of the time it’s a misunderstanding, somebody got somebody else upset for a reason and it just lives.

One situation in one firm: they talked about how twenty or thirty years ago two of the founding partners had a problem with each other. They decided that, “Well, I’m going to go up to the 23rd floor, and you’re going to stay on the 22nd floor.” So, they had this problem, and because of that, the two practice groups never really connected well. And this is some stupid thing that went on between these people that totally impacted the firm.

So much of this can be cleaned up by facilitating some conversation, bringing people in. If you need someone who’s good at conflict resolution, bring them in to do it.

But to get people in to start discussing what happened, the reasons why they had their conflict, and try to figure out, “You know what? We’re going to be working together. What do you really want to have happen here? Do you want to have this conflict keep going, or is there a way to resolve it?” And hand it over to them to try to come up…

You may need, as a third person, to stay in the room. But to just get these people to engage, sometimes that’s all that’s needed to get it started. Let them vent. I have a little phrase: “You’ve got to vent before you invent.” Let people let stuff out, and then you can start to hear. Get the charge out of the situation.

Adele: So, again, it’s all about making them part of the process.

David: Whatever could be done. There’s the old style of leadership that’s very much of the commanding style of, “I will tell you what to do.” We don’t have that population in our law firms. We have people that are very bright, very independent, and that style grates. And so, if you can get people to take ownership of it and facilitate that conversation, it’s going to be a lot more powerful, and people are going to love to work for leaders like that.

Adele: David, you stated in your workshop that the relationship with your manager is the most vital determinant of individual performance. Now, if leading effectively doesn’t come to you naturally as a manager, what are some of the ways that you can develop into a more effective leader? What are some of the things that you can do?

David: That’s an interesting question. One of the things I was going to ask of the room was: “Where did you learn your leadership style?” When you look at it, most of us have not been through any kind of formal leadership training. It’s either, “I was the captain of the baseball team,” “I led the cheerleading squad,” “I was with a group of musicians, and I was the leader of the band,” “I watched my father or mother,” whatever the models are.

And it doesn’t mean these are the best models, nor do they necessarily work in the environment of lawyers. And that’s one of the challenges is you’ve got to be able to figure out: How do we lead these very bright, independent individuals?

So, to come up with ways where you could actually practice the skill is what I’m hearing you say, and where can you do it? Within most firms, there are always things that need to get done. If a firm has a strategic plan, there are things on the plan that are probably not getting done as well as could be.

Maybe there are things that you could take either leadership of, or at least be a catalyst to try to make things happen. You may not be able to be a named leader because you’re a young associate and there’s things around that, but you could be a catalyst to making things happen. So, taking on firm initiatives.

Another example, a great one, is pro bono, and to be able to either lead something within the firm or to do something externally. Or even another interesting thing to build great relationships with clients is to do something aligned with a client’s pro bono effort. This is a win-win, because you’re building relationships with clients, as well as they’re seeing you lead, you’re getting to watch how other people lead. That’s a great way to do it.

But any place where you could just take on some place to practice. In your community. You could take on community things. This is why people go on boards. This is why, in a lot of areas, there is “Leadership whatever.” [laughs] Whatever region you’re in. And there’s groups of leaders that get together, and they learn these skills.

Also taking on maybe a little bit more difficult assignments inside of the firm, and going to leaders of the firm and saying, “I would like to…” Again, we’re usually used to being given assignments. But if I am a partner in the firm, all things being equal, I am going to be much more attracted to an associate who’s coming up and saying, “I want to take more responsibility. I want to learn more. I want to do more. What can I do to help make this firm a better place?”

Those are questions that are not being asked by most associates. And yet, if I’m in the trenches as a partner, I want that kind of a partner, who’s going to cover my back and I know is going to care about the firm. So it’s a win-win on many levels to be able to take on these responsibilities.

Adele: They always think, at this stage, that it’s the substantive law that they need to really hone. That’s just one small component, isn’t it?

David: As I look at it, there are five different things having to do with being an effective lawyer. Yes, it’s about learning the law. And the first few years, that’s the only thing. That’s so important. You’ve got to be good at that.

But then there are other elements. The elements are being a great teammate, and how can you really team with others? Because the reason why we have law firms is that it’s a group of people. And yes, we could work with individuals, but a good group beats a good individual every time.

So, you’ve got the substantive law. You’ve got the teamwork. You’ve got the ability to develop new clients, to bring in the business. Another skill is to give exceptional client service, and that’s a whole topic in itself; and then the topic we talked about today: being good leaders and good managers. You have that package of five things, then you’re going to be the kind of partner that people are going to want to have with them.

Adele: Thank you so much, David–really appreciate it.

David: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.