Your law firm will consume most, and often all, of your time and thoughts, for a long time during the start up process. As such, before you get going, you need to make sure that all of your families are completely on board, supportive, and rowing in your direction. By “all” families, I mean your family at home, your extended family, your family at work (once you grow and start to develop a work family). These are the people who will support your vision of having a law firm the most, and if you cut any of them out of the process, including the process of making significant business decisions or some explanation of what is driving your actions as you shape the firm, both the firm and your personal life will begin to suffer. People will only tolerate your long hours, bad moods, and distraction from anything that is not your law business for so long unless you make them feel included in the undertaking.
Be Inclusive. Be Transparent.
When I started Terpening Law in early 2016, I came from a large firm where I was used to having lengthy board meetings to make every minor decision. Once at my own firm, I relished the opportunity to simply make decisions with my wife about firm branding, staffing, growth, etc. My wife was neither a lawyer or staff person at the firm, just a sounding board and source of support. As the firm grew I decided to “not bother” her with firm decisions. Both the firm suffered and my marriage suffered. She liked participating in this business that took up so much of my time, and she was a source of good business and personnel ideas. Now, she is back to playing a major role as source of advice about the firm. It is great to have the perspective of someone who is invested, but does not think like a lawyer.
In the same way, I have tried management styles where the firm is more fractured and only some subset of the firm participates in decisions about marketing, the business, case management, and similar matters. Consistently, the better approach is to let everyone within the firm know what our vision is (and how it adjusts), what ‘s happening in our cases, and otherwise participate in the process beyond just their isolated job description. This leads to better, and better-realized, ideas, and it also makes people feel the ownership that they should in the firm.
And be transparent. Some things do not need to be shared. Your staff and associates do not necessarily need to know how much each other is paid (but assume they will find out). But most of the time, as a manager of the intelligent types of people who are drawn to work in the legal profession, it is best to let everyone within the firm know what is going on. This, again, contributes to a sense of ownership and nips gossip, the killer of a good firm, in the bud.
“Your law firm is an effort by, and product of, both your home family and your work family. No great law or other professional service business can be built by one isolated person, no matter how talented that person is.”W.R.T.
How open discussions and transparency will work as the firm becomes much larger is a question for another day, but it works well now. To accomplish this collective-thinking process, we do lunches, informal meetings in the hallways, and — when absolutely inevitable — formal meetings. Minor things make a difference. For example, we recently took an unused office and made it a “break room” with a Nespresso machine and some comfortable chairs. This simple move, which started as a way to simply not waste a room, has prompted many more conversations.
But Don’t Get Carried Away With the Committee of Equals Thing: There Must Be One Decision Maker.
That said, while it is important at the firm to have input from everyone, it is also key to have an ultimate decision maker. At the moment, the “one decision maker” logistics are easy because the firm has a single partner and owner. Times we have had other partners with different ideas about management, decision making has been more complicated. As we grow through addition of partners in the future, we will need to anticipate ahead of time how those additional higher-level lawyers, and their potential desire for management input, can be accommodated in a way that does not cause the firm to lose its strong direction and sense of identity.
Bottom line: There has to be a single person who makes ultimate decisions, but everyone in the collective family needs to be encouraged to consult on most decisions.
Take the Time to Consider and Plan Even Secondary and Tertiary Matters.
When you start a firm, there are so many immediate problems (getting the banking set up, getting a website, getting office space, getting business, etc.) that it is tempting to not concern oneself with what seem like secondary or tertiary matters like deciding what impact adding partners will have on the decision making process. But it is better to take the time to plan as much as possible, and even go so far as writing those tentative plans down, now.
Delegate. But Not Too Much or Too Early.
Related to this, as the manager of the firm, I am trying as much as I can not to feel compelled to be involved in every decision. Do I need to make all major client strategy decisions, sign off on new hires, or approve the final website or logo? For now, at our small size, yes. Can and should I delegate decisions whenever appropriate? That is something I need to do better, and probably an area that many lawyers who are starting and growing firms could improve in as well.
Will Terpening, Charlotte, February 27, 2019