Building a Better Team: 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. This leads 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 the traditional law firm. 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 that this management style 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.
Now, imagine a firm where everyone knows exactly what they are accountable for. They understand their role and their decision-making authority. In this scenario, 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. It also means that because you know you are accountable to your partners for this area, you will watch this part of the company more closely. You’re going to 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. 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. 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 also allows you to see what roles you could need in the future to see a complete picture of your business.
By the way, 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.
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, it simply means that they have 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:
A way to attract new clients (sales/marketing),
delivery of the widget (legal services); and
Some businesses will further delineate those departments into more groups.
To build your first accountability chart:
List all the functions in your firm without listing who in the firm has that role.
Start with the leader, either the managing partner, CEO, or owner, and note what roles that function needs to play in the law firm’s organizational structure. Typically, this role will be responsible for big picture things like creating and maintaining the firm’s vision, firm culture and values, overall profit and loss, and team management.
Next, think about how you get new clients—or sales and marketing functions. How many roles do you need to perform these functions? Smaller firms may have one role here. Larger firms may have several.
Now, think about how you deliver client services. What functions exist here? What roles might exist outside the traditional roles of attorney, paralegal, etc.?
Finally, think about your back-end operations. Think through all the functions that are often lobbed together under this umbrella. You can have finance and accounting, including financial strategy and budgeting, billing/invoicing, collections, accounts payable, payroll, etc. Human Resources and team management could include hiring, benefits negotiation and administration, and professional development and training. You’ll also likely have IT-related functions, vendor relationships, or outsourced work. For each function, what major responsibilities does the role hold?
Once you’ve mapped out all the functions in your firm, go back in and add names to each box. Be careful about having more than one person with the same accountability. It’s ok to have multiple lawyers with similar roles, but it’s best to have only one in charge of a particular function.
You may find one person’s name in more than one box. That’s ok! (for now). You can work to grow your firm and find new ways to shift responsibility so that each person has a manageable workload.
You may also find out no one assigned to a particular function. If that’s the case, you can temporarily put yourself in that role to cover it until someone else has that responsibility.
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 other attorneys and departments 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, but you may hold onto too much, being too controlling over your practice and colleagues. A simple way to figure out whether you’re being too protective is to ask yourself: If you were to take 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 that? Once you have that in mind, write it down and share it with your staff. When they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, 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 necessarily have the knowledge or expertise in the particularities of running a marketing campaign. You’ll let your marketing department know what your goals are, and allow them to manage the finer details of what your firm’s marketing campaign will ultimately be, with input from you along the way.
Staying 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.
Next, we’ll cover when and how to make the right hire.