From 2010 until earlier this year, Kim Ebert was the managing shareholder of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. During his tenure, the firm grew from 430 attorneys to more than 750 attorneys and added 15 new offices, including those in Mexico, Canada, Germany, and England. For five years running, Ogletree Deakins has been named a U.S. News – Best Lawyers® Law Firm of the Year.
In this interview, Ebert shares his insights on law firm leadership.
JATHAN JANOVE: Are there challenges specific to leading law firms?
KIM EBERT: Yes. The first is external. The market is far more challenging today; price competition is much greater while client loyalty is much less. Competence is assumed. Reputation means less. The question clients ask is, What value will I derive from engaging your law firm? One of the biggest mistakes lawyers make today is taking clients for granted. In doing their work, we’re not doing them a favor—it’s the other way around. We need to understand the world from their perspective. This means persuading lawyers to invest in client relationships when it’s not billable time.
The second challenge is internal. Lawyers are an especially difficult bunch to manage. They’re trained to be critical and look for the loopholes, the hidden agendas. They’re extremely smart and know they are.
JANOVE: How do you surmount these challenges?
EBERT: Here are some steps:
- Communication is critical. Lawyers want to be in the know; they want to be part of the process, the plan. It’s critical for leaders to listen to all points of view and explain the basis of their actions. Wherever possible, initiatives should be consensus driven. It takes more time and is less efficient, but the investment is worth it.
- As a leader, it’s critically important to own your mistakes. Don’t try to hide them or explain them away. Instead, explain what you have done to correct the problem.
- Acknowledge the accomplishments of others. Deflect credit from yourself in favor of recognition of others.
- Don’t let problems fester. Deal with them at the earliest opportunity.
- Above all, safeguard your culture. Without buy-in on a common culture, your firm will be afflicted with disloyalty, mistrust, and other corrosive behaviors.
JANOVE: Associates often complain that they don’t receive timely or helpful feedback from partners. What’s been your experience?
EBERT: Unfortunately, there’s much truth to this criticism. Attorneys are notoriously bad at performance reviews. As a result, one of the things we’ve done is establish specific, measurable benchmarks based on substantive skills and the associate’s years in practice. Examples include taking a deposition, arguing a motion in court, and writing a summary judgment memorandum.
JANOVE: I often talk about the “quiet herd cutter.” This is a partner who becomes disappointed with an associate’s work. However, rather than work with the associate to close the expectations gap, the partner quietly ceases using that attorney and gives future work to other associates. What’s been your experience?
EBERT: The quiet herd cutter is a widespread and regrettable phenomenon. It may be more convenient for the partner in the moment, but the costs are high. If the associate is truly not meeting expectations, simply keeping him or her on as his or her work dries up is costly to the firm. It’s also not fair to the attorney who loses critical time because he or she is not getting the work necessary for career development.
JANOVE: Attorney compensation can be a controversial topic. How do you deal with it?
EBERT: There’s no perfect solution. The main thing is you need to be within shouting distance of the market so there’s some notion of fairness and financial responsibility. You have to be transparent about your compensation system and who is getting what and why, even if people disagree. Trying to hide the ball only makes things worse.
In any event, I don’t think you want attorneys who are trying to maximize every dollar they make each year. You want an attorney who looks at his or her career as a marathon, not a series of sprints.
JANOVE: Law firms often hire outside consultants to improve culture, leadership, or talent retention. However, the batting average for sustained, positive change is not great. What are your observations?
EBERT: Lawyers are change-resistant. I think you have to start with the question: Are we willing to change our behavior? If the answer is “no,” then you’re wasting your time and money hiring consultants. Also, since each culture is different, it’s important to avoid consultants who push their own agendas or methodology. Otherwise, you’ll be the proverbial square peg in their round hole.
JANOVE: Is there any other advice you would offer existing or aspiring law firm leaders?
EBERT: Walk the talk.
Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Jathan works with employers to maximize employee engagement, performance and accountability. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.