Components of a Vibrant Law Firm
by Dennis McCue
(County Bar Update, September 2005, Vol. 25, No. 8)


Components of a Vibrant Law Firm


By Dennis McCue, member, Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. McCue is a certified management consultant and principal of Dynamic Firm Management, dedicated to making professional firms more successful. He can be reached at (949) 640-2220 or The opinions expressed are his own.


Is your firm a vibrant place of business? Principals often do not see their firm as others do, failing to look at their firm's culture and structure. This takes time, and attorneys never seem to have enough of it. Paying regular attention to certain components, however, can result in a vibrant law firm.


Communication. Regular, open communication between partners is not an option. If partners stop communicating with one another, it rarely happens all at once. Small issues go unresolved, and over time people just stop talking. Sometimes, no one is aware of it. Intervals between partner meetings become longer. Some partners stop attending altogether. Others passively accept the lack of communication. A sense of hopelessness sets in. One day, it becomes apparent, manifesting itself as an invisible wall when a crisis needs to be addressed. The firm has become stagnant, and inertia reigns supreme.


Clear vision. A clear vision for the future development of your firm is critical to success. No one boards an airplane without knowing its destination, yet many firms operate without any idea where they want the firm to be in 10, 15, or 20 years. Clients, partners, and practice areas come and go without conscious design for the growth of the firm. Attorneys focus their attention on client needs; however, they often do not have a sense of responsibility for the firm or a significant understanding of the role they play in the firm structure.


Leadership. Every firm needs clearly defined, respected, and engaged leadership. A leader is someone who sets the direction for the firm and nurtures its growth. The leader speaks in a manner that keeps the mission present in everyone's mind, creating an alignment of the team that is built on the shared aspirations of the partners. Conversely, some firms have titular leaders who really do not want to lead or who have no support from their partners. In other firms, partners avoid being responsible to one another, preferring to minimize risk and accountability in favor of maintaining control of their own practice area.


Strategic planning. Strategic planning is a rather sterile description of a critical activity. Principals must be engaged and committed to strategic thinking and planning before their firm can realize its vision. There must be a clearly articulated mission for serving clients. The principals of the firm must formulate strategic and tactical processes. To be effective, this must include honest evaluations of both the internal environment and outside factors.


Strategic planning is not a one-time activity done on a partner retreat, put into a binder, and laid to rest in a bookcase. It must become a way of life, and that way of life exists in the language of the firm. It is thought about and spoken about regularly. The more often it is spoken, the clearer and more evolved it becomes. The strategic plan takes on a life within the firm and fuels everyone's attitude and actions.


Policies, procedures, and practices. Policies, procedures, and practices either bring results or become a roadblock to success. Policies embody the firm's system of governance; procedures, the specific tactics employed; practices, the behaviors of people that vary by personality and attitude. Some firms operate largely on practices based on the preference of management while having no set policies and procedures. In the worst case, they vary by mood changes. Sometimes, regular practices that exist in a firm contradict the stated policies and procedures. When that occurs, problems are not far behind.


Firms should develop policies, procedures, and practices that support one another in harmonious fashion and bring the principals and employees to heightened participation, serve clients in the finest ways possible, and foster participation in the firm's mission and the ultimate realization of its vision.


Management. Effective management is not defined by exerting control but rather by letting go and empowering others. The leadership must develop the discipline to delegate, which is vital to the growth of the firm. Managers embrace and support the direction of the firm and communicate it regularly to the people in the practice areas, whose willing, active participation is critical. Accountability is encouraged and practiced, yet people must have the freedom to say when they cannot take on added responsibilities. If there is no permission to say no, there is no yes, either. The unwillingness of management to take no for an answer can do more to sabotage the firm than is usually understood. It creates resentment and a culture of obligation rather than participation. People begin to wish for a new job. Progress slows, and a sense of hopelessness takes hold.


A firm that has all the above components in place is a rare one. Creating a vibrant law firm is a dynamic process that must be instituted while you are engaged in your practice. Although the process may seem tedious, be patient, and stay engaged to achieve satisfaction and reliable results.

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