Disruption in the legal services market presents challenges to many law firms. Most firms are able to adjust when unplanned developments or market pressures adversely upset operations or performance. Recent news reports about a couple of law firm management initiatives reaffirm the ability of most firms to react to market changes on a timely basis. From time to time, however, the unexpected events take on greater significance and amount to a crisis. Meeting that crisis, and managing through it, is critical. For many managing partners, especially ones that only have managed in their firms’ “good times,” they inevitably ask: “what do I do now?”
No law firm crisis is like another. Crisis can take the form of financial stress, personnel issues (like unwanted departures), the loss of a leader without a succession plan in place, bad publicity, the on-set of significant litigation or political infighting. Responding to crisis requires action tailored to meet the particular threat. But in any response, these five fundamentals should guide a managing partner:
Demonstrate Calm and Resolve. Even though you may be awash in shifting currents, it is imperative that you act like the duck motoring around on the pond-calm on the surface while treading vigorously beneath. While showing calm, a leader must not only be resolute in addressing the crisis, but must convey that sense to all that will be watching. Calm and resolute leadership is vital and if displayed with strength, can be infectious.
Assess the Nature of the Crisis and its Depth. Being calm and committed only goes so far. An immediate assessment regarding the crisis, its nature and depth, is a must. Performing this assessment sequestered in a bunker is highly unlikely to provide an adequate understanding of the true nature and depth of the crisis. It also sends the absolute wrong message. Reaching out to as large a cross-section of the firm for data, information and mood is far more likely to deliver the intelligence needed to avert the crisis.
Stabilize the Firm. Without delay, the managing partner must take steps to stabilize the firm–in other words, remove some uncertainty and quell turmoil. The stabilizing steps will depend on the nature of the crisis, but will provide the firm with the critically needed opportunity to back away from the abyss to collect and compose itself.
Show An Understanding of the Issue and Have a Solution. At some point, usually not too long after the crisis arises, the firm will look to management for a substantive solution. If one is not articulated in a timely fashion, the loss of support from the rank and file likely is imminent and can doom the firm. For that reason, leadership must quickly present its clear understanding of the issues presented and the strategy for their resolution. If an understanding of the issue is not expressed contemporaneously with the proposed solution, the recovery strategy will not be credible and an opportunity to lead the firm out of crisis may be lost.
Regain Momentum with Some Quick Victories. Nothing breeds success like success. To counter the negativity created by crisis, leadership should correct with quick and cognizable solutions some unresolved issues that have lingered for too long. Pick low hanging fruit to create small victories. Victories of any size, as long as they are visible, can build momentum or at least arrest a downward slide occasioned by the crisis. Positive momentum is always a morale booster and can help grow the belief that the firm’s future is bright-or is at least brighter.
When crisis erupts, these five fundamentals can help forge a response that addresses uncertainty and angst—leading to the building of a healthier firm. Have you found some “go to” steps that have proved useful when facing crisis in the past?