Preparing to Steer the Ship

From The Practice May/June 2023
A conversation with an Seyfarth Shaw's Chair-Elect

In this conversation, Robert Couture, a senior research fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession, speaks to Seyfarth Shaw Chair and Managing Partner-Elect Lorie Almon about how she sees strategy and her plans for her upcoming tenure.

Robert Couture: Let’s start first by talking about strategy broadly. How important is it for an Am Law 100 firm like Seyfarth to have a strategy as you come in as a new chair?

Lorie Almon: It’s critically important. Law firms need to be proactive and purposeful about their strategy. Waiting to react to the market events that are imminently upon you is not the most effective way to advance a business. The most successful law firms regularly evaluate the competitive landscape, make evidence-based decisions, and embed strategic planning and implementation into their everyday operations.

Couture: Do you have a strategic plan at Seyfarth in place today that helps you guide your decisions?

Almon: We certainly do. That said, the last three years have been pretty unusual. We, like every firm, need to be prepared to thrive in today’s environment we are in, which means sharpening and refining our strategy. Whenever a firm makes a leadership change, that’s an obvious time to say, “Let’s reexamine our processes, our people, our practices, and determine whether we’re best positioned to meet the moment we are in and the future moments that we foresee.” So we are taking that opportunity to reexamine and refine our strategy.

Couture: The situation you describe is the conundrum for all strategists. You want to make sure you have a plan that’s durable; however, everyday events can change so quickly that you often question whether or not the strategy that you put in place is durable enough. How do you look at changes along the way, and how do you try to ensure that the strategy that you do employ is one that will span more than the six-  to 12-month period that we typically use for measurements?

In a corporate environment there can be more of a top-down directive approach to strategy than in a law firm.

Lorie Almon, Partner and Chair-Elect, Seyfarth Shaw

Almon: It’s an excellent question—and the challenge. Can you find a durable, sustainable plan that everyone can articulate because it’s embedded in the culture of the firm, and at the same time, can you ensure that you’re not stuck in an old way that isn’t evolving and growing? We, like all law firms, need to ask ourselves: How are we going to be more agile? In this time of enormous change and uncertainty, the trick will be to develop a strategy that is clear and steady but also allows you to grab the opportunity presented by this time of rapid change.

Couture: What do you see as the most important elements of a law firm’s strategic plan?

Almon: First, I think you need a strategy that your partners understand and embrace. One of the key drivers of a law firm’s success is revenue per lawyer. What is going to drive that number—where you can improve and where you should invest to improve—are all important. I’m a  believer in specialization, industry expertise, and team-focused approaches. But above all, the overarching question has to be: How are you positioning your firm to drive high performance and meet client needs in an ever-evolving time? Your strategy ought to be one where you are developing your lawyers, your practices, everything you have to offer as a legal service provider in a client-centric way that differentiates your firm in the market.

Couture: You’re getting to an area that gets more specific to each firm. While all those things are important, if everyone has the same strategy, the only difference is your ability to execute. But of course all firms aren’t the same, and each is uniquely positioned. What do you think the elements are that are in place that give you differentiation at Seyfarth, along with potentially competitive advantage?

Almon: I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of being able to execute on strategy. We’ve all heard the phrase “An A strategy with B implementation is less effective than a B strategy with A implementation.” The ability to follow through and get done what you say you were going to do is as important as your strategy, provided you have one!

Any leader has to be willing to be decisive and recognize you are never going to get unanimity with 200+ partners on anything.

From that context, there are a couple things that distinguish Seyfarth in the market. We are a team of excellent, excellent lawyers. But I also know enough to know that we are not the only excellent lawyers in the marketplace. So it has to be something beyond that.

Innovation has long been part of Seyfarth’s DNA. I am confident that even as we evolve and sharpen our strategy, our focus on innovation will remain central. Lawyers by definition tend to be risk-averse—in that sense, we are a conservative bunch. We are trained to consider everything that could go wrong and to mitigate the likelihood of that. Doing things differently and going into the great unknown is scary for anyone, but it’s extra worrisome for lawyers. But because Seyfarth has been thinking about continual process improvement for a long time, we’re better positioned than most law firms to embrace change in how we deliver legal services. These days, that seems to me a pretty significant market advantage. I suspect clients are going to demand that client-centric innovation of their law firms.

Couture: I do think that SeyfarthLean, from an innovation standpoint, is one area that has distinguished Seyfarth over the last 15 years. But let me continue on the change issue you brought up, because strategy development and implementation at law firms is arguably a little bit different than it is in a corporation, partly because of what you mentioned about the aversion to change, and because your owners are with you every day explaining to you how you should actually be doing things. Could you talk a little bit about the differences in strategy development and implementation in a law firm from what you might normally find outside of this environment?

Lorie Almon's headshot
Lorie Almon

Almon: I imagine that in a corporate environment there can be more of a top-down directive approach to strategy than in a law firm. As you note, you often have hundreds of owners in a firm. However, having grown up in a law firm, I think that’s OK—and in many ways, a strength.

What that means in terms of implementing strategy (and even devising it) is that you need to be purposeful about driving change. There needs to be some sort of process through which you will build consensus building and secure passionate buy-in from a large segment of the partnership. At the end of the day, if you come up with a strategy that the partnership does not embrace and you ask your professional chiefs to go make it happen, you will not succeed—that’s just not how law firms work. Forget B implementation. Now, you’re onto F implementation.

Couture: How do you get the partners on board?

Almon: We have a very highly engaged, democratic-style partnership. I feel very fortunate in that regard. That said, any leader has to be willing to be decisive and recognize you are never going to get unanimity with 200+ partners on anything. You have to assume that about 10 percent of the partnership will gladly support wherever you want to go. Another 10 percent, in any law firm, are going to just disagree with whatever leadership wants to do. So you really have to focus on the hearts and minds of that remaining 80 percent. If you try to make a decision that doesn’t upset anyone, you’re never going to make a decision! And an inability to be decisive is the death knell of strategy. Strategy is about saying no more than it’s about saying yes, or so it seems to me.

Couture: Earlier you said that implementation can be more important than the strategy itself, which most people who’ve actually tried to do it would agree with. How will you use the partners for implementation? What responsibilities do they bear for implementation?

Almon: You have to put some responsibility on the partnership. But I don’t see that as saddling them, in a negative sense, with responsibility for executing on our strategy. It’s an opportunity to for partners to lead and drive the firm in a direction, to develop a sense of excitement, and to feel proud of producing concrete results.

There’s also a ton of opportunity for driving strategy at every level of the organization. Being highly communicative and open and embedding strategic planning and implementation into everyday routines facilitates that. Strategic design thinking must be part of the normal cadence of operating a law firm, because it’s so easy to focus on the trees and lose the forest. It’s tempting to think, “I’ll run the business day to day and I’ll think about strategy later.” But the job of a chair, in my concededly inexperienced view, is to lead the firm, not just manage the firm. And if you’re going to get your people to embrace the firm’s strategy, it has to be embedded into the firm’s daily operations.

Couture: I’m assuming that as the leader of the firm, your strategy is a message that has to be reinforced continuously, not once a year at a partnership meeting. How do you think about that in terms of what you’re doing now and once you officially become chair?

Almon: I have an enormous amount to learn about how this will actually go, so take this with a large grain of salt. But, to me, the way to really advance strategy would be to set a strong and steadfast strategy, but pair that with continual review and analysis. We should hold firm to our strategic plan but also make evidence-based decisions about what is working and what can be improved. Let’s measure it. Let’s communicate the hell out of this. Let’s talk about it all the time. Let’s celebrate when it’s succeeding. But let’s also be willing to say, “Maybe this isn’t fully working, and there may be elements that we need to adjust as opposed to giving up on the effort.”

I am going to date myself, but as a child I watched the sitcom Gilligan’s Island. The show was about seven shipwrecked castaways who were always attempting to escape their uncharted island. The castaways would regularly devise some strategy to get off the island, and the plan was usually pretty smart! But the hapless first mate Gilligan would always somehow thwart the plan. What always frustrated me is that the castaways would never try the same strategy again—they just abandoned the entire plan and went onto something else, rather than considering what element of the strategy required refinement.

Couture: Is your message to minimize the “Gilligans”?

Clients are going to be looking, more than ever, for creativity, high performance, and willingness to change.

Almon: Minimize the Gilligans. I do think you need to commit to your strategy and not simply abandon it because you do not see immediate results. You need a plan with durability. You have to get people to accept that it might not work right away and give it time to succeed. At the same time, you have to ensure you’re creating an environment where you can adjust for unexpected developments (the Gilligans), generate strategic alternatives, and constantly measure the feasibility of what you’re trying to do. But you have to be committed to your core strategy, make sure it’s clearly articulated, and get the majority of people to buy in to it.

Couture: As you take the reins soon, is there a message you want your partners to hear?

Almon: I’m excited about capitalizing on our market leadership around innovation, and our ability to be more agile, sharp, and flexible than most firms. It is invaluable, and it is my sense that it would be hard to replicate that in some other firms. We have a mindset of continuous process improvement embedded into our culture, and that mindset is going to be so valuable in this moment.

I could not be prouder to lead Seyfarth, because I do believe it is unique in terms of its culture, its teamwork, and its ability to lead the market in many ways. Clients are going to be looking, more than ever, for creativity, high performance, and willingness to change. I am proud that we have a culture that enables us to pilot new ideas, even if they do not always work. Firm comp structures are generally not designed to support failed investment, so that can be a challenge. But tech companies see failure as a learning opportunity and part of their process of R&D, and firms have to adopt that to some extent. We are willing to invest in our future and to create a research and development mindset within the firm. How can you be highly innovative in a traditional partnership? How can you ensure that you are driving the highest levels of performance while maintaining the best of our culture? What does the future of legal service delivery look like? These are among the many questions I’m asking myself, and that I’m excited to tackle with our team as I become chair.

Lorie E. Almon is chair-elect of Seyfarth and has been a member of the firm’s Executive Committee since 2016. She co-manages the firm’s New York office.

Robert Couture is a senior research fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession.