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Posted In: Culture & Diversity, Leadership Support & Development, Organizational Structure, Practice Group Management, Team Performance

Is Your Law Firm a Group of Cats or Dogs?

Is your firm a group of cats or dogs?  Probably not a question most Managing Partners have considered recently, but surprisingly apt.

Consider the behavior and hunting patterns displayed by the typical wild versions of cats and dogs.   Cats hunt as solos.  They stalk their prey individually, kill it, and keep it mainly for their own benefit, or for their own young – whom they teach to hunt for themselves at a very early age.  The ultimate example of “eat what you kill.” Dogs (and related animals like wolves), on the other hand, hunt in packs and share the benefits of the kill across the pack.  They have team strategies and team benefits. They respond to strong leadership, as Mike Short noted in his post “Law Firm Leadership is Like Walking the Dogs.”  Domestic dog behavior is usually highly social. Most dogs like people and other dogs and like to play games.  They will initiate playful group behavior, and most of them just want to be “with” their owners.  Cats might like you (and even play “with you” if you dangle something in front of them) but from their perspective, it’s generally all about them.  They own the place.  Your primary job is to feed them, brush them, pet them… you know the drill.

Is it a surprise then, that cats and dogs are naturally antagonistic and will fight each other absent early socialization to instill different behaviors?

With these thoughts in mind, which kind of firm do you have?  If you are like most firms, you probably have a mix of “cats” and “dogs” in your shop.  There are likely to be a number of partners who really are solos, or sole proprietors, whose orientation is primarily to catch and hold on to their own clients, share as little as possible while maintaining strict control over the work they do hand out to others.  You probably also have a number of partners whose natural inclination is to build teams, work with others, share the benefits of practice, support each other on clients and just trust that they will be treated fairly in the process.   Realistically, there is room for both in most firms, but the tensions between competing philosophies can sometimes be significant and can manifest themselves in many ways.

There is a real difference between the type of firm you would build if you are catering to cats vs. dogs, and how you build the firm will have a major influence on how you are perceived in the marketplace, what laterals and young lawyers you attract, and how successful you might be in implementing your strategy.  Where might those differences lie?

Start with the obvious – how is your compensation system designed?  Is it an “eat what you kill” type of system that encourages holding on to clients and work, only delegating what you cannot get done yourself or just don’t have the skills to do? Does getting someone else to work on your clients require a negotiation around credit sharing? Do all marketing “teams” need to have a pre-arranged deal on how credit will be allocated? Or does it encourage credit sharing, team building, collaboration across skillsets, and multiple relationships with key clients?   Do partners benefit from creating client access for others?  Training young lawyers to be future team members?  Team marketing – “let’s catch the client first and worry about how the credit is allocated later?”  Where the balance of these competing demands falls says a lot about which side your firm leans toward and striking this balance can sometimes lead to serious tensions around the firm’s compensation system and its implementation.

Next, consider how your practices are managed.   Do the Practice Group Leaders have real authority and, more importantly, buy-in, to drive team efforts and activity? Can they generate real communal activity, and have some influence on the allocation of rewards?  Or is the primary job of the Practice Group Leader to monitor what is happening among sometimes competing rivals in the practice and try to get people resources when requested while bothering them as little as possible?

Finally, consider your approach to strategic thinking.  As a firm, are you disciplined around and capable of agreeing on where the firm is going – and where it isn’t?  And do your partners and other stakeholders buy-in to the group decisions and work together to try to achieve those goals?  If so, maybe you have a pack of dogs in your firm.  Or, is your strategy a collection of what all the individual objectives stakeholders (or at least the most important cats among them) want to achieve, whether those objectives are realistic or compatible with each other?   This suggests a clowder of cats (or maybe an ambush of tigers or pride of lions?). As you think about it, even the names of these groups of animals suggest very different personalities and very different power arrangements when they come together.

Both cats and dogs can be successful, but in a law firm, there is probably a limit on how big a “cat” firm can be and remain successful.  Every firm might need a share of cats to achieve some goals and maybe focus on specialized skill sets, but building real depth and scale successfully requires cooperation and team effort, not the building of individual fiefdoms.  Unfortunately, in our new COVID world where getting together is difficult or impossible, it is harder than ever to collaborate and build team successes.  There is a real danger of culture shift (more cat, less dog) in firms where leaders cannot – or do not – keep the focus on connectivity and support for all team members.   If you do not want that outcome, keep a constant focus on your culture and your people, even while you consider the immediate business concerns and financial performance.   As the leader of the pack, it’s your responsibility to assure the firm emerges from challenging times stronger and better than it entered them.

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