At Last! A Call for Generalists


At Last! A Call for Generalists Marci Taylor

For years, thought leaders in law firm management have been telling lawyers that the days of the generalist are gone and that the most successful lawyers are those who specialize.  While this may be true in terms of the substantive practice of law, a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests that today, generalists often play a critical role in business organizations – in leadership and management.

In Leading People When They Know More Than You Do, Wanda T. Wallace andDavid Creelman point out that most executives in knowledge-driven businesses grew up in an era of “specialist management.”  In law firms, for example, lawyers advance by becoming specialists in their area of subject-matter expertise, and over time, are asked to manage teams of professionals working in a particular practice area or industry specialty. At some point, however, there comes a time when non-equity partners or senior associates, working day-to-day on the legal and regulatory issues that shape their field, develop an expertise either in substantive issues or the methods of legal service delivery that equals or surpasses that of the appointed leader of the practice.

Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Does it mean the beginning of the end for seasoned legal practitioners? To the contrary.

When subordinates reach this critical point, a senior lawyer finds her/himself with additional time to focus on client relationships, firm management and other activities that are crucial to continued firm growth.  Generalist managers can manage larger groups of people, in more geographically dispersed locations on a wider variety of legal and regulatory issues.

Wallace and Creelman have four practical, generalist management strategies that that senior lawyers can implement.  These strategies rely on key skills that lawyers typically develop during their career progression – relationship building, issue-spotting, strategic thinking and “executive presence,” and apply to law firms as follows:

  1. “Focus on relationships, not facts.”Having achieved a firm leadership position, such as Department or Practice Group chair, one has likely demonstrated excellent client relationship skills.A successful generalist manager applies those relationship skills to her/his colleagues as well.S/he spends the time getting to know the lawyers on her/his team, their strengths and weaknesses and the issues regarding which they have the most expertise.
  2. “Add value by enabling things to happen, not by doing the work.”A generalist manager spends time focusing on client satisfaction.  Taking the time to meet with clients solely for the purpose of understanding what they are happy with and what they are not, is significantly more valuable to the relationship than sitting at the computer drafting a brief in support of a routine motion or drafting a routine agreement.
  3. “Practice seeing the bigger picture, not mastering the details.”The generalist manager takes the time to understand the industry and business of her/his clients – following industry trends, tracking news regarding clients or their competitors, noting important moves by leaders in the industry.  S/he also takes the time to notice important issues within the firm and helps her/his team adjust as necessary.
  4. “Rely on ‘executive presence’ to project confidence, not on having all the facts or answers.”Having a little gray hair, or a little less hair, means that you have been in the profession long enough to have achieved some level of success.  Knowing that, when leading a meeting with a potential client, a group your firm is hoping to acquire or a department meeting, it is more important that the generalist leader demonstrate confidence and command, and leave the subtle nuances of a particular legal or factual issue to the members of her/his team.

A word of caution to law firm leaders: the success or failure of the generalist model can vary widely based on a firm’s compensation system.  For example, in a firm where personal production is valued most, even among a firm’s senior-most leaders, the compensation model disincentivizes the growth of generalist management.  Compensation systems that focus predominantly on personal production often do so at the expense of:

  • Encouraging senior lawyers to focus on activities that provide the most value to clients (managing the client relationship to ensure satisfaction and loyalty, delegating work to lawyers who can provide the most expertise at the most reasonable price);
  • Incentivizing lawyers to engage in succession planning and thoughtfully transitioning their practices sooner rather than later; and
  • Rewarding lawyers for adding the most value to the firm (focusing on enhancing client relationships and lawyer professional development).

By adapting the role of the generalist manager to leadership roles for senior lawyers, law firms will create another cadre of leaders in their ranks, and lawyers will be empowered to provide even greater value to their clients and to their organizations.

Jay Courie is the Managing Partner of McAngus, Goudelock and Courie, a lawyer firm serving clients throughout the country from its offices in the southeast.

Marci Krufka Taylor is a management consultant with Mantra Partner, LLC, a strategy, management and marketing consultancy for professional services firms and high-growth companies throughout the U.S.

This article was originally published in “It’s Your Business,” The Newsletter of the Law Practice Management Committee of DRI, Volume 4 Issue 2, September 2015.

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