The Best Lawyers in America© has always been the preeminent guide for recognizing great attorneys, and I remember with pride the first time I learned of my inclusion. Of late I’ve read quite a few legal think-pieces detailing the obligations that lawyers owe their firms. That’s of course quite important. Here, though, I’d like to look at the other side of the coin and outline some of the vital support that firms can offer their leaders to help them succeed.
The upper echelon of legal talent, like the attorneys highlighted in Best Lawyers, are smart, experienced, and hardworking, looking to deliver great service in complex matters and achieve the best possible results. Over days, months, even years, they’ll focus almost 24/7 on solving their clients’ toughest problems. But even the best know they can’t do it alone—they need a highly functional team and strong organizational support. There are plenty of basic but critical things law firms can offer their leaders to ensure maximum success. Here’s an overview.
Clear the Path
It’s important for a firm to remove as many obstacles as possible from its lawyers’ paths. A professional support staff is therefore crucial so lawyers can be confident that the firm’s everyday operations—IT, billing, marketing, administrative help—are functioning well. Partners and top attorneys aren’t absolved of all responsibilities, of course; developing future great lawyers, being a collaborative and kind colleague, and practicing good fiscal hygiene are all vital. But a firm’s “best lawyers” need to be able to focus on what they do best: practice law.
A firm that requires too much conformity will stifle its talent.
Functional and Stable Environment
The best attorneys need a stable professional environment that isn’t drama-filled or whose future is uncertain. Think of a soldier deployed to a combat zone who keeps getting letters from home about how bad things are: Distractions like these make it more difficult for a lawyer to compartmentalize his or her client responsibilities, and thereby maximize performance.
Although many star performers are deeply involved in their firm’s leadership, others are not. When they return from battle, they need to be given the opportunity to be heard and provide input on the firm’s direction.
Any organization should be willing to give its top attorneys some operational freedom—as long as their actions are ethical, constructive, and fair, of course. Leaders should frequently reiterate the firm’s core values and set clear expectations but resist the urge for over-centralized management that enforces too many burdensome policies.
In the world of auto racing, there’s a saying that a car simply can’t go as fast as it otherwise might if the steering is too “tight.” The same is true of running a law firm. Stay on the track; don’t wreck. But a significant amount of driver autonomy is otherwise important. A firm that requires too much conformity will stifle its talent. An inclusive, diverse environment that encourages lawyers to be their best selves will function far better.
The firm must prioritize the overall well-being of its attorneys. This is delicate: Partners and top associates are notoriously high achievers who demand a lot of themselves and those around them. The pressure and anxiety inherent to handling high-profile matters takes a toll over time on even the toughest lawyer.
In addition to physical health, though, lawyers must tend to their mental and emotional well-being or they’ll be less able to take care of clients. No lawyer gets through a career without some tough personal times and health challenges. The firm needs to be there to offer its attorneys empathy, encouragement, and support. Yes, leadership has that obligation—it is indeed their business to proactively get involved.
Finally, firm leaders must understand that their primary (if not sole) role is to help others in the firm succeed. You don’t hear the term servant leadership much in the legal world, but it’s leaders’ most significant task. They need to leave the organization, and the people in it, in a better, more sustainable place than it was when they got there.In sum, top attorneys greatly enjoy the practice of law, helping their clients solve difficult legal problems. By providing the right level of support and removing impediments to success, law firms can help their star performers continue to enjoy their work—and deliver excellent client service and superior results as they do.