Managing Partners Forum

Our new managing partner, Wynn Shuford, attended your conference last month and has raved about it ever since. Thanks for your continued great work in the area of law firm leadership.

Adam K. Peck, Esq.
Lightfoot Franklin White LLC - Birmingham, AL


Contact Us

Advice from a Non-Traditional Law Firm Leader

Keith W. Houck


The weather was nice so that when the hostess gave me the option to be seated inside or out I answered, “Outside please.” I was a few minutes early for lunch with my client and good friend. It was early spring and the gardener was busy planting beautiful flowers around the small trees and shrubs that separated the back patio of the restaurant from the lake. 

I sat watching him painstakingly prepare each hole, take a flowering plant out of the container, and place it with care. But my thoughts quickly regressed to my problems back at work. The firm just didn’t seem to be clicking on all cylinders. In fact, it seemed like at times we were working against each other. Even people who had worked together well in the past were tending to get upset with each other and were not demonstrating very much collegiality or trust.

I had recently read Tom Rath’s book, Vital Friends, and was aware of the Gallup organization’s research on employees. They found that 72% of employees were either disengaged or actively disengaged, and that only 28% were really enjoying what they were doing and giving it their all. However, based on what was happening lately, I’m not sure we had that many people in the firm who are giving it their best effort. How could we get more people fully engaged? 

Suddenly my cell phone rings and it’s Kendall, my lunch date, letting me know that he has gotten tied up and will not be able to join me. While Kendall was very apologetic, I was actually relieved. I was enjoying this quiet time of reflection; something I don’t get very often.

The server stops by to ask if I need anything and I let her know that my guest will not be joining me. I go ahead and order a chicken Caesar salad and a glass of unsweetened ice tea. As she walks away, I’m reminded that thirty years ago I was waiting tables to pay for law school after graduating from B-school. It was probably the undergrad management degree which helped prepare me to be the managing partner for the last two years of our mid-size law firm.

While the first year seemed to go well, the economy had now changed and everything seemed different. Clients were demanding more, and wanting to pay less . . . and some of the clients were on shaky financial ground and were not paying much at all. We had laid off a few staff members, including a couple of young associates who really just needed a little more help and guidance. I was even being forced to consider talking with a partner or two about cutting their compensation or possibly letting them go. We also were having some real ego problems in some areas of the firm among a few partners. This was weighing heavily on my mind at the same time I was doing my best to keep my clients happy with a very demanding caseload.

In B-school we mostly looked at generals and coaches as leadership models, but this didn’t seem to be working that well at the firm. When you are an elected managing partner, it is hard to order anyone around and not everyone sees me as being their coach.

As I gazed back at the gardener, I wondered what he’d do in my situation. What advice could he give me? Just thinking that a gardener could help caused me to grin. How desperate was I becoming that I would take advice from a gardener?

But as I continued to watch him some thoughts came to mind. 

You need to prepare the soil before bringing in a new plant. And new plants need special attention during the initial stages to make sure that they take root and adjust.

While gardens have a variety of plants, there are certain plants that do not do well together. You can have them in the same garden, but you have to keep them separated. 

While some plants do well in full sun light, others die with too much intensity. 

Some plants need room to grow vertically, while others need room to grow horizontally.
Some plants can literally take over an area. Without proper placement and pruning they can grow in a way that blocks the sun light from the other plants or chokes them out. 

Some plants naturally need more water and nourishment than others. They may need more time and attention to grow and flourish, while others only need occasional care to be healthy and productive. However, all plants need some nurturing to make sure they are getting their specific needs met, and that disease or pests are not doing damage.

As these thoughts flooded my mind, I thought maybe this gardener could help me more than I first imagined. He would probably also tell me that one of your biggest jobs is to be observant and watch over each plant. Look for the slightest signs of problems and react quickly to resolve.

You also need to know the particular peculiarities of each plant, both strengths and weaknesses, to best help it reach full potential.

All of these basic gardening principles that were rushing through my head were relating to specific situations that were occurring in the firm and my life today. I had one litigation partner that was running roughshod over associates, staff and even some other partners. This was causing a great deal of turmoil. If something didn’t happen pretty soon, there would be a mass exodus and some good solid lawyers would be gone.  Or possibly worse, they would become actively disengaged and stay on the payroll.  And quite honestly, Bob didn’t well represent the DNA of the firm we really want to be. If he isn’t willing to modify his ways in a manner that will allow him to be more of a contributor and less of a distraction, he needed to go.

For months I had been wrestling with this situation, and in this “aha” moment the answer was clear. Coming to this conclusion gave me a wonderful peace of mind.  Even though the conversation would not be easy, I knew it was the right one. It is amazing to think that in these moments of reflection, the consulting from an unknown gardener helped me to make this critical decision.

I was also reminded to make sure that I shouldn’t just deal with the “squeaky wheels” around the firm. Like the plants, everyone needs some attention, even those who may not need as much as others. Also, there were some who I really didn’t know well enough to know what made them tick. I needed to spend more time with them.

When I get back to the office, not only am I going to put some of these gardening principles into action, but I need to spend a little more time at home making sure that I’m meeting the needs of my wife and kids.

After finishing my meal and paying, I went over to the gardener. It is hard to explain the expression on his face when I thanked him for his advice and gave him a fifty-dollar bill. What he didn’t know was that I had drastically underpaid him for the value I received.