Rethinking Law Firm Hierarchy and Structure
Hiring, Staffing, and Growing a Law Firm
5 min read
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Law firms are not necessarily known as the best places to work. Firm management typically runs by committee, leading to slow decisions and even slower improvements. Leadership and management roles often fall to attorneys by default regardless of whether they excel in those areas. Historically, no one trained lawyers on management. There wasn’t an HR class in law school that taught us how to hire, train, and manage people. For most of us, we learned by watching our first bosses. Some of us were lucky. Others, not so much.
A business does not run itself. It needs people to make the decisions that run a business.
Many law firms make slow, inefficient decisions without even realizing it. This is because the partnership committee is a management staple of traditional law firm hierarchy. It sounds like a good idea. We hear lawyers all the time say that all the partners “get along” and can just agree on things. The reality is, this law firm structure often does more harm than good.
Consider this example. One of our Lab Coaches, Stephanie, once sat in a meeting with a group of law firm partners discussing and debating which health insurance they should offer the team in the coming year. Lawyers trained to issue-spot, debate, and argue had a field day. Everyone wanted their opinion heard and needed to weigh in. It was miserable. And completely unnecessary.
We’re not saying that getting key stakeholders to weigh in on some decisions is not valuable—it can be. But ultimately, one person needs to own the decision.
Management by consensus is inefficient. There is no reason a group of people needs to all agree on most business decisions. It’s slow. Committees are notorious for being slow to decide and act. Trying to get two or more busy lawyers together to decide can take time. Delayed decisions can cause lost opportunities. Finally, management by consensus allows your firm to play it safe. Big, bold decisions often require a leader willing to put the flag in the ground and make big (sometimes scary) decisions. It is unlikely that these types of decisions will come out of a partnership committee since they promote compromise by their very nature.
Management by consensus is inefficient. There is no reason a group of people needs to all agree on most business decisions. It’s slow. Committees are notorious for being slow to decide and act. Trying to get two or more busy lawyers together to decide can take time. Delayed decisions can cause lost opportunities.
Management by consensus allows your firm to play it safe. Big, bold decisions often require a leader willing to put the flag in the ground and make big (sometimes scary) decisions. It is unlikely that these types of decisions will come out of a partnership committee since they promote compromise by their very nature.
Now, imagine a firm where everyone knows exactly what they are accountable for. They understand their role and their decision-making authority. If you are the partner in charge of marketing and an issue pops up, you feel empowered to decide, pull levers, and try to fix things as soon as possible. Because you know you are accountable to your partners for this area, you will watch this part of the company more closely. You’ll set up systems to spot issues before they become problems. You’re going to “own” your role.
It’s not just a fantasy.
We work with lots of law firms that have these structures in place and we’ve seen it in action. And it works!
It starts with your firm’s accountability chart, not a traditional law firm organizational chart. We focus on “accountability” instead of “organization” because it emphasizes that you are determining the roles and responsibilities of your business first. You want to know who is accountable for each aspect of your business. This shift from individuals to roles is important. Once you know the roles, you can decide who on your team is suited to fill them. Creating an organizational chart often just asks you to draw lines for what you have now. Our approach allows you to see what roles you could need in the future to see a complete picture of your business. It helps identify where things need to change and areas for growth.
This exercise works for “true solos” or lawyers with very small teams, too! Often, those attorneys find it most helpful because they can visualize all the hats they are actually wearing and understand why they are always so busy.
It helps provide an ?understanding of why things are always so busy and where help is needed first. Often, lawyers look to outsource tasks before making the first hire. You can find help on outsourcing in our Complete Guide to Managing a Law Firm. Then, connect with potential vendors in our Outsourcing and Staffing Portal.
Accountability charts map roles and responsibilities. They list law firm organizational structure and who is responsible for what in the company. They create clarity and transparency in your firm. You can see who is responsible for each area of your firm. Not that the accountable party has to make every decision alone. Input from others is important. Accountability simply means that one person has the authority to decide when it’s game time. Plus, the accountability chart allows you to see who may have too much or too little responsibility, so you can reorganize and create a more efficient structure for your practice.
To start, think about your business in terms of departments or major functions. Every business has at least three major functions: 1) a way to attract new clients (sales/marketing), 2) delivery of the widget (legal services); and 3) back-end operations. Some businesses will further delineate those departments into more groups.
To build your first accountability chart:
You should also keep in mind that your accountability chart is not a static document. You should regularly revisit your accountability to make changes and updates as your firm changes and grows.
Now that you have your accountability chart made, you have a clear idea of who leads and manages what. Chances are, you’re at the top of your accountability chart as the main leader of your law firm. One of the more difficult things you have to do now is lead, not do. As the leader of your firm, your responsibilities are more complex and big picture. It’s important to continue to do the legal side of your work. But on the business side, ?focus on shaping the thoughts and ideas of your team rather than dictating their specific work plans. In other words, you have to learn to delegate.
It’s an instinct to want to protect what you’ve built. And you may hold on too much, being too controlling over your practice and colleagues. A simple way to identify whether you’re being too protective is to ask one question. If you took a week off work unexpectedly, would your law firm’s goals and priorities advance? If you said no or were unsure, you’re not leading. You’re micromanaging.
To delegate and manage changes effectively, you have to know your ultimate big picture goals and ideas. What are your reasons for the change? Once you have that in mind, write it down and share it with your staff. When your team understands the why, they’ll be able to better understand where they fit into the big picture and find personal relevance in their responsibilities. Help guide the main brushstrokes of your firm, but leave the details to those in specialized roles.
For example, you have an idea of what you want your firm’s marketing to be. But you don’t have the knowledge or expertise in the particularities of running a marketing campaign. You let your marketing department know what your goals are and add input along the way. Ultimately, though, you allow your marketing team to manage the finer details of your firm’s marketing campaign.
Stay mindful of your role, responsibilities, and expertise, as well as your staff’s roles, responsibilities, and expertise. You’ll be in a better position to delegate and empower others to achieve your law firm’s goals.
Now that the old law firm hierarchy model is out and you’re clear that you can’t do everything in your business, we’ll cover when and how to make the right hire.