Too many law firm partners and leaders confuse multi-tasking with multi-goaling and multi-achieving. Multitasking is trying to do more than one thing at a time, such as drafting a brief while listening in on a conference call. Research shows us that our brains don’t multitask well and that we are better off just doing one thing at a time. Multitasking is relevant for a single individual over the short run.
Multi-goaling, by contrast, is a what I created that refers to institutional goals and the activities of leaders that are intended to move an organization forward to accomplish those goals. And multi-achieving refers to the successfully implementing or reaching more than one institutional goal at a time. In the dynamic legal market, law firm partners need to juggle more goals than they used to. A law firm may need to revamp its compensation system, attract lateral partners, and improve the training of its staff simultaneously. Likewise law firm partners might simultaneously create new speeches, mentor a promising junior partner or of counsel, and agree to enter into an alternative fee arrangement with a new client.
In my experience consulting with law firms, too many partners take a sequential and incremental approach to managing and building their firms. They primarily see themselves as lawyers and thus tend to make time for one “administrative” initiative at a time. Thus, for example, a partner agreed to write an article about a new trend in litigation for the firm’s electronic newsletter targeted to clients. After not hearing from her for several weeks, I learned that the partner had decided to wait to write the article until a court had issued a ruling on a pending case. It appears that the partner’s perfectionist streak was preventing writing an article that might prove to be incomplete in some way.
From a marketing and communications perspective, this borders on crazy talk. It’s as if a newspaper decided not to cover a trial until the jury reached a verdict or the case was resolved on appeal. An emerging litigation trend is interesting and worthy of sharing with clients even if ends up being less impactful than was initially expected. Partners and other lawyers would have to put many of their rainmaking efforts on hold if they had to wait until the ‘complete” story was known.
And on an institutional level, law firm leaders shouldn’t stop moving forward on one goal because another unrelated issue has emerged. For example, a small firm was in the process of discussing whether to elevate a lateral partner and make him an equity partner. The firm dropped these discussions for weeks because a personnel issue arose that involved a different employee.
This kind of sequential, one-thing-at-a-time management can be ruinous in today’s market. In a world where many of the trends effecting law firms aren’t favorable, waiting and postponing management decisions tends to force a firm to make decisions in ever more difficult circumstances. More generally, running an enterprise as complex as a modern law firm requires leaders to do more than one thing at a time. Law firm partners need to be able multi-goal and to multi-achieve. It’s as simple as that.