Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of conducting research and one-on-one interviews with at least 50 law firm leaders who provided their real-world perspectives and experience on all aspects of becoming a firm leader — from the agony of deciding to take on the job, to making the difficult transition from just practicing law, to also leading an entire firm. All of my work unhesitatingly confirms for me that there are some critical actions that new leaders will need to take to ensure a successful tenure at the top. These include the following:

1. Prepare for some challenges you might not have expected

Your first 100 days will pose some new job challenges for which you may feel ill–equipped to handle, such as: i) the need to build some new networks and forge new internal relationships while contending with an inherited team of internal professionals (COO, CMO, HR, etc.) whom you may not fully understand; ii) the risk of being overwhelmed with immediate “firefighting” and partner-driven requests which serve to distract your attention from establishing the right strategic priorities; iii) the need to deal with the legacy issues from your predecessor; and iv) the pressure to get the right balance between moving too fast and too slow.

2. Fine-tune your listening system

Spend time with individuals from across the firm. Let them know you are counting on them to fill you in on any important issues so you can be both more effective and more sensitive to people’s perspectives. Let your partners know you need their input to be effective, too. Encourage them to identify issues that they believe need your attention, as long as the suggestions are positive and forward-looking and not an excuse to attack or criticize someone behind their back.

3. Start to develop your strategic agenda

Write down what you consider to be the two or three most important priorities for you on which to focus over your first 100 days as law firm leader. When things get out of hand (and they will) and you are overwhelmed reacting to everyone’s demands on your time, revisit this priorities list to remind yourself about what is most important.

4. Continually make “To-Do” lists

It’s a trivial technique but critically important — if you make a list of all the important things that you want to get accomplished, it serves to get them out of your head and on paper (or in a computer file). That way, you don’t have to waste any further time thinking about them.

5. Prioritize your activities.

To feel a sense of control, you should make it a regular habit to prioritize your responsibilities using the old A-B-C process. Your As are those tasks that correspond with implementing your strategic agenda for the coming months; the Bs are important but can wait; and the Cs definitely need to be delegated to someone else.

6. Don’t allow the urgent to crowd out the important

Plan each day and plan each week. Check your daily schedule every morning before reading your e-mail and preview your week on Sunday evening. It’s also important to review your upcoming month’s commitments a couple of days before the end of each month.

7. Get comfortable with discomfort

If you are like most who have travelled this route, I guarantee you that you will go through several distinct stages in the early days of your leadership transition. It starts with anticipation, where you are eager, excited, and thinking to yourself, “I guess my partners really do think that I can lead our firm to greater heights.” Unfortunately, it may not be long before your initial excitement gets bogged down by the reality of daily tasks as the urgent crowds out the important, and you now find yourself thinking, “What the hell did I get myself into?”

Most of us think of anxiety as something to be avoided, but it can actually be fuel for positive change. Anxiety is that natural emotion that lives in the gap between where you are currently and what you want to achieve. Think of anxiety as your productive energy for moving forward.

8. Write your leadership memoir

Pick a professional publication that would be meaningful to you if someone were to write a cover story about you, your firm, and your accomplishments in three years. Now, write your 1,000-word memoir answering as many of these questions as possible:

  • What was the firm like when you first became firm leader?
  • What was your initial role?
  • What is the specific set of accomplishments you hoped to achieve in your competitive marketplace, inside the firm, with clients, etc.?
  • How is the firm now positioned to do that it couldn’t when you first became the leader?
  • What have you changed, and what have you preserved?
  • What are the consequences for your partners in achieving that new set of capabilities or reputation?

If you do not yet have a good feel for your answers to these questions, then write a first draft and work to improve it over your first year in office.

9. Identify a few signals to project your leadership message

Translate your priorities into quick, highly visible, very tangible “signals” — some symbolic, some substantive, but which convey to everyone what you believe to be most important priorities. Start by defining what beliefs the people in your firm would need to hold in order to buy into the behaviors and performance that support your agenda; and then design and execute deeds by performing very visible signals that will begin to shape those beliefs.

I remember in one instance where a new firm leader wanted to send a very strong “client service is paramount” message. She identified the firm’s top 50 clients and announced a formal visitation program. Most importantly, she developed a wall chart showing the names of all 50 clients on the vertical axis and the months of the year on the top horizontal axis. She then wrote in, for all to see, the specific date on which she visited the client company’s CEO, followed by a written report to all the partners on what she learned from that visit. She gave life to what might otherwise been seen as hollow rhetoric.

10. Know when to say “No.”

When you feel overwhelmed or sense that you are beginning to accumulate too much on your plate, you need to be able to say “No” without feeling guilty. That’s when good delegation practices can help. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

Being good at leadership always requires relinquishing tasks that others can do so that you can focus on your highest value priorities.

11. When under stress call a time out

Just like a basketball coach will call a time-out to slow down the pace of the game and regroup when the opposing team is on a tear, you need to disengage in times of high emotion and reflect on your core values before proceeding any further. When you feel a tide of anger or frustration rising, immediately leave the situation and retain or regain your composure.

Disengage — go for a walk, do a deep-breathing exercise, or find some other comfortable way to call your time out.

12. Find a trusted confidant

Have you ever attempted to bench-press your maximum weight without having a spotter at your side to help out if anything goes wrong? Of course not; so, too, with the burden of leadership. Every successful leader has a confidant, at his or her side — someone that they can lean on in times of need. And many firm leaders have even adopted an Advisory Board to help fill this role.

And finally

Here are some other important bits of advice for new firm leaders:

  • Attend to the needs of your family and realize that your change in responsibilities will affect them whether you acknowledge it or not.
  • Be ready to deal with the sudden isolation associated with the leadership role. As they say, it can be lonely at the top.
  • Set your own path, and avoid undue bias from your predecessor’s priorities, influence, and style.
  • Carefully manageyour daily agenda, including ample “walking around time” to interact regularly with your colleagues.
  • Pick your battles carefully, as moving too quickly can cause just as many problems as moving too slowly.
  • Achieve some quick, small, visible successes early on to inspire initial confidence in your leadership skills.

And remember, as one new firm leader once said, the one thing that new law firm leaders will quietly admit to their closest friends is:

“When you first get into this role, you mistakenly believe that because you may have served as a practice group leader, office managing partner, or even on your firm’s elected board that you have the necessary knowledge, background, and experience for taking on the role of leading the entire firm… Not even close!” 

This article is courtesy of the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute.


Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist, and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms. He is the author of eight books, most notably his international best seller, “First Among Equals”, currently in its sixth printing and translated into nine languages. His three decades of experience led to his being the subject of a Harvard Law School Case Study entitled: “Innovations In Legal Consulting”, and he is the recipient of an honorary fellowship from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square.