“Law firm disasters are almost always of the man-made variety…. Once a storm is brewing, add the fact that as business organizations go, a law firm is among the most fragile, and you have the climate for a series of catastrophic events.”

            from Decisions That Matter: Tales of Law Firm Leadership in Moments of Consequence

 Most law firm leaders confront crisis as a newbie.  Their prior leadership experience typically delves in the positive where decisions can move the dials of profitability, growth, or culture change, but are not for all the marbles.  Crisis is different-a misstep can mean disaster and a firm’s unraveling.

When crisis hits, what is a leader to do?  How can inexperience with looming disaster be overcome so that the threat is eliminated, and a better prognosis appears?  The answer to these questions is found in leadership fundamentals that are reliable stepping stones on the path to returned normalcy.  One such fundamental is discussed below.

Act Immediately with a Blend of Short-term and Long-term Objectives

 In any crisis, clients, owners, and the rank and file are impatiently looking for a convincing solution. Unfortunately, solutions can’t be purchased off the shelf and one firm’s strategy for its ills are likely inapposite for another firm.  For that reason, the ultimate solution requires a strategy seeking short-term successes that point towards a long-term vision forecasting good times.

Immediate action demonstrating that solutions are being implemented, essentially real-time wins, helps avert a downward momentum that can suck away confidence in the future.  The short-term actions should seek tangible results that counter the lingering issues that have contributed to the crisis. A firm may be in extremis because of past profligate spending.  Quantifiable cost cutting directly confronts the malady and can be observed by everyone. A potential “run on the bank” after some lawyers have unexpectedly departed must be addressed to quell the nerves in the hallways.  Gaining the pledges of key producers that remain or adding laterals to replace the deserters (in substantive capability, headcount, or both) presents evidence that the scary momentum is being turned around.

But as good as these immediate responses can be, they need to fit into a bigger picture-they need context. What is leadership’s long-term vision for the future? How does the short-term action plan fit in with the long-term vision leadership is selling?  Are the short-term and long-term in sync?

One Success Story

One firm that faced crisis and synchronized its short-term steps with its long-term vision was Washington, D.C.’s Patton Boggs, a firm whose formidable legal work and lobbying expertise earned it the moniker “The King of K Street.”  Its crisis stemmed from a series of challenges including the financial upheaval brought on by the Great Recession.  A number of short-term steps were taken to position the firm for a future in which it remained independent but decidedly stronger.  But when events took a more imposing turn, additional short-term steps were developed to position the firm as an attractive merger candidate. Merger metrics were improved, a sufficient business base was retained, and it ultimately merged to become Squire Patton Boggs.  When facing crisis, Patton Boggs blended short-term steps with its long-term vision and prevailed.

The Lesson

Crisis can be all-consuming. To knock it down law firm leaders must stick to tried and true fundamentals. Acting immediately with short-term action that supports the long-term plan is but one of the fundaments to be learned from stories recounted in our new book Decisions That Matter: Tales of Law Firm Leadership in Moments of Consequence.