We originally posted this blog on Kevin McKeown‘s blog Leadership Close Up.  Kevin has been a tremendous resource for us and has guided us greatly as we work at delivering meaningful content about the legal industry and the significant changes it faces.

Some words simply lose impact over time.

Change is such a word. But the inadequacy of language does not lessen the disruptive nature of shifting cornerstones.

As described so well by Abe Krash, this is what we’re experiencing in the legal industry.

Headlines are full of stories about law firms losing lawyers. Noam Schreiber was brilliantly quoted in a recent Bloomberg piece by Megan McArdle:

“Stable” is not the way anyone would describe a legal career today. In the past decade, twelve major firms with more than 1,000 partners between them have collapsed entirely. The surviving lawyers live in fear of suffering a similar fate, driving them to ever-more humiliating lengths to edge out rivals for business…

We feel the turbulence. The talk of alternative models and a new normal does little to address the daily challenges faced by many law firm leaders.

In our experience with law firms, what is most helpful when turbulence looms is to be able to recognize the coming storm in time, and decisively, effectively respond.

Firms of all sizes, in all geographies are struggling to find balance, some are restructuring, others shoring up through mergers, and in some cases, shutting the doors. But today’s struggle with transition is nothing new.

Leading Through A Burgeoning Storm – A Case Study

From two different perspectives inside the same firm, one of us in management and one of us as a working lawyer, we experienced a law firm in crisis, saw it survive and stabilize, and ultimately grow from 50 lawyers in one office into an Am Law 100 firm with a nationwide reach.

It was the early 1980’s, and the firm had enjoyed over thirty years of financial and professional success. This stemmed largely from a dominant institutional client, C. W. Murchison Sr. , whose corporate, real estate and litigation work fueled the firm.

But with little forewarning, the institutional client collapsed. As if on cue to further compound the dilemma, the firm’s Texas based economy fell, as reflected in this timeline of the 80’s financial crisis.

With little time to prepare, the firm’s business base had disappeared. The search was on for a way to survive

Three Keys To The Law Firm Successful Transition

Every decision bore significant consequence – for the firm, individual lawyers and non-legal staff. The idea of change took on real-life meaning. Yet, from the edge of abyss, we experienced a rise to a stature none of us imagined. Here are what we believe to be the keys to that successful transition.

1. Recognition. With the irreversible disappearance of the firm’s institutional client, coupled with recession, management concluded that reliance on our old business model was foolish. This enabled us to dare to innovate. Hindsight being 20/20, this seems an obvious conclusion; however, real-time change often obscures the ability to acknowledge even the obvious, and act decisively. Management’s swift problem recognition was vitally important, but so too was the speed with which it acted.

2. Leadership. Our firm was fortunate to have extraordinary leadership in the midst of this crisis. A visionary strategic plan created a new framework for growth –- organic, lateral and via merger – designed to diversify practice offerings and geographic reach. This executable strategy provided answers and direction; and though another plan might have been better, time was of the essence. Perfection had to yield to speed. Transparent and visionary leadership inspired confidence, presenting a plan that lawyers could rally around.

3. Communication. In the midst of change, as Eric Fletcher describes communication is life-blood. Translating vision and tactics is an on-going task. So, the firm’s leadership constantly touted the plan, articulated problems, acknowledged challenges, and welcomed input. Walking the halls, collaborative meetings, lunches, dinners – the nuts and bolts of communication provided the grease that made the transition gears move. Visible and transparent progress created a groundswell of support. Simultaneously, management was communicating to external audiences. Clients, strategic business leadership and the entire legal community heard of the firm’s new vision, the opportunity and the excitement that laterals and other firms would experience by joining.

Thanks to these three tenets, new clients, new colleagues and new offices arrived. Success bred continued growth and more success. And the firm became an enviable model.

This lengthy post will continue tomorrow.