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Law firms have room for improvement across the board, and should set their sights high.

Having spent the better part of the past two decades in various roles both in-house and as a consultant to law firms, I’ve discovered an obvious truth: It is talent, not any other investment, that will single-handedly make or break a firm’s longevity and overall profitability. And I don’t only mean a firm’s attorney talent. In my experience, firms that nail the hiring and retention process for business professionals differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.

I have invested substantial time to advocate for both an elevation in the value that the right senior marketing, business development and communications professional can provide to their law firms and in the way these positions are perceived. There is significant opportunity for improvement across all C-suite roles in law firms. Much of the legal industry is evolving to meet current business and client needs; however, many firms are handicapped when senior leaders fail to evolve, reinvent themselves and their functions, and drive change.

Refining and Repositioning Roles

Administrative roles in law firms should not be viewed as overhead, nor are they simply “nice to have” among a sea of timekeepers. Truly skilled, savvy business services leaders, when carefully selected, can help steer a world-class, global business model to peak efficiency and effectiveness. The strategic law firm C-suite collectively identifies opportunities to maximize profitability, effectively delivers on change management and constantly looks to improve upon and elevate business goals, taking the initiative to proactively detail the value the role provides to firm management for illustrative purposes.

As in any industry, many C-level executives in law firms have long tenure but may lack innovative and strategic drive. As a result, they are perceived as a support function rather than challenging the status quo, bringing new ideas and steering their organizations for the future. While the damage to a firm’s infrastructure may not be noticeable on the surface, a laissez-faire approach to functional leadership can erode a firm’s ability to innovate and position itself for the future. As we see C-level roles in firms evolve in both sophistication and relevance, an opportunity is born. The departure of a long-tenured incumbent leader allows for new executives to redefine these roles and set heightened goals for their value within firm management.

I have spent significant time helping to elevate and redirect the perception of those in the chief marketing and business development seats, but I have seen limited growth in the level of strategic human resources leadership in Am Law firms. During a recent engagement in which my company, Calibrate Legal, helped a large global firm to completely restructure a department, I was stunned to discover that the chief human resources officer had no previous knowledge of how a retained search process works as compared with contingency, nor were basic job descriptions and organizational charts in place. Functional basics are the requisite platform necessary before HR can effectively add value by providing ­thoughtful talent management strategies. Firms aren’t focusing on their biggest return on investment opportunity: their talent.

The Chicken or the Egg

It may appear that simply cleaning house and hiring a new C-level executive would be an easy fix to a lack of sophisticated leadership. The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, the internal hiring practices at many firms could use a major overhaul. Second, many firms miss out on opportunities to gain alternative perspectives by failing to explore candidates from outside of the legal industry. On the first issue, the hiring procedures with which business professionals are vetted often result in a time-consuming, counterproductive and self-perpetuating process that benefits neither the firm nor the candidates being considered.

I recently witnessed a hiring committee deftly bypass the typical initial interview process when searching for a C-level executive, leaping directly into an acerbic panel interview with a highly confrontational undertone. The candidate was pelted with a series of behavioral questions, with no room to provide color for circumstances being cited in her responses, and she was treated with a lack of respect that she found appalling. Is this how you want people experiencing your firm? Actions like this breed a toxic culture and further the unacceptable practice of treating skilled executive talent as if they are a subservient class to lawyers in firms.

In addressing the second issue, it’s important to note that many C-level executives are actively seeking ways in which to gain knowledge from outside of our industry to grow their performance capacity. Unfortunately, not all leaders proactively pursue educational ­opportunities to enhance their skillsets, and they tend to jump from one similar role to another. Even the most polished executives lack a propensity for innovation if they simply move from one firm to another without any mode to gain perspective. Once a firm’s hiring practices are addressed, I implore you to look outside of legal or include candidates who have alternative experience in other industries peppered throughout their career paths.

What to Expect From the C-Suite

Firm management should engage business services leaders to help define business goals. In the evolving legal arena, in which the class system is slowly being removed from firms, leaders can work together toward a common objective. An effective law firm C-suite should be a vital part of the leadership team.

Calibrate Legal and Intapp recently conducted an industry-wide survey that found nearly all chief marketing officers are tasked with implementing business strategy, yet less than 20% of them have a seat at the table in creating that strategy. Allowing C-suite executives a seat at the management table in influencing strategic firm decisions creates a culture of inclusivity and value in these roles necessary to retain top talent. If you do not have the trust in your C-suite talent to invite them to the table, then perhaps you don’t have the right talent.

Expect more innovation from your C-suite. In fact, insist upon more innovation, and take the time to understand why it makes a difference. Treat your executive candidates with the level of respect you would demand if you were in their shoes, and ensure that your leaders bring innate value to your ­organization. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, firm leaders who take the time to truly understand the value that their C-suite brings to running the business of the law firm will thrive.

Get in Touch

To learn more about how Calibrate can help you, please reach out to Jennifer Johnson, Founder and CEO of Calibrate. This article originally appeared in The American Lawyer.