Recent research by Calibrate Legal shows that over 90% of all Am Law 100 firms have chief operating officer or equivalent positions on their executive teams. And over half of these people have been in their current roles for 10 years or more.[1]

It stands to reason that a sizable number of firms will be seeking to replace their incumbent COOs in the next few years. With that reality in mind, what should law firms be seeking in their next COO? The answer is “It depends.”

In the wider business world, the COO role comes in diverse flavors. Georgia State University business professor Nathan Bennett said, “When you start to examine COOs as a class, one thing immediately becomes clear: There are almost no constants.”

COO roles are defined differently in nearly every business, and successful COOs come from backgrounds in finance, technology, sales, operations and other disciplines. In a classic Harvard Business Review article, Bennett defines seven different types of COOs ; a few of these types are recognizable in today’s law firms.


Seven Types of COOs

COO Type  Core Role
The executer Lead the execution of strategies developed by the top management team.
The change agent Lead a specific strategic imperative, such as a major organizational change, or a planned rapid expansion.
The mentor Provide seasoning and wisdom for a young or inexperienced CEO.
The other half Complement the CEO’s experience, style and knowledge base.
The partner Act as co-leader with the CEO.
The heir apparent Prepare for leadership succession.
The MVP Promotion for an executive considered too valuable to lose.

Source: Miles, Stephen A. and Bennett, Nathan, Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer, Harvard Business Review, May 2006


Nevertheless, our review of the backgrounds of the current group of Am Law 100 COO-equivalents reveals a bit of a monoculture: 65% percent of the incumbents are legal industry veterans. About 25% have law degrees; many of these are so-called lifers who have risen through the ranks of their current firm.

In a few firms, the COO role is performed on a part-time basis by an active partner. Even the COOs who have been hired in the past two years come mainly from the legal world, with just four of 12 recent hires bringing significant Big Four or consulting firm experience.

Historically the law firm COO’s focus has been mainly internal and operational in nature — incorporating financial management, facilities, administration, partner compensation, etc.

Today, changes in the legal market require modern COOs to be more outward facing — focused on improving the value the firm delivers to clients. Legal project management, outsourcing, alternative fee arrangements, pricing, “voice of the client” and marketing/business development and communication functions may appear under the COO’s remit.

Some COOs are positioned as overall people leaders of the firm’s business services teams, with ultimate responsibility for team composition, hiring, firming and performance management.

And increasingly we are seeing transformational COOs — leaders who can execute a managing partner’s vision, who offer a compelling package of strategy, leadership, communication, financial, technology and administrative skills.

Many legal industry veterans are highly effective in these modern COO roles, but if your firm is one facing a COO transition and seeking someone who can move the needle, we have practical suggestions for finding the right candidate.

Prioritize egoless leadership.

Transformational COOs play an egoless leadership role. One part of their job is to support the managing partner in executing strategy, in the best interests of their firm. Another part is creating an environment where business services professionals can do their best work, without fear of judgement. Both these aspects may require the COO to put others’ interests ahead of their own agendas. Thus, firms should be seeking candidates who:

  • Recognize their blind spots, and admit that they don’t have all the answers;
  • Are comfortable involving others to help solve problems, rather than imposing their own solutions;
  • Actively seek out new information and alternative viewpoints; and
  • Allow their direct reports to shine and aren’t motivated by personal credit for accomplishments.
Key COO interview question: Does the candidate have a track-record of team building and motivating others?

 

Hire a leader, not a manager.

Certainly, transformational COOs have broad experience as managers — but ultimately, they have morphed into leaders with a high degree of accountability for themselves and their teams.

In our experience, too many law firm COOs are buried in management and, frankly, over-manage their people. Leadership does not come naturally to these COOs — their focus is on getting the job done themselves, rather than empowering people to do it.

This seems to be particularly true when the COO has grown up inside a law firm. They’ve been successful in the past based on a particular set of management skills. And, because law firms are not noted for providing excellent leadership training, they may not have developed the leadership skills necessary for success.

So, unless the law firm lifer has sought out this training on their own or has a natural leadership talent, filling a COO position internally may produce a manager. And you need a leader by your side if you’re going to undertake transformational change successfully.

Key COO interview question: Does the candidate set high standards and hold people accountable for them?

 

Value a broad perspective.

The transformational COO has a broad perspective that reaches the entire suite of professionals they oversee. Enough to know when those reporting to them are performing exceptionally well — and when they aren’t up to scratch.

Candidates with narrow backgrounds — for example, those who have mainly held finance roles in the past — may struggle when faced with leading disciplines, such as marketing/business development, which fall outside their experience.

We suggest targeting candidates who can demonstrate experience in a variety of business disciplines — not just finance. Excellent candidates can often be found in the accounting/consulting world, from which they bring highly relevant financial, analytical and execution skills.

Key COO interview question: Has the candidate demonstrated that they can lead and succeed in multiple business disciplines?

 

Look for expert collaborators.

Law firms are notorious for silos and fiefdoms, which can result in suboptimal performance. The transformational COO has demonstrated success in breaking down silos. They encourage sharing of data and insights across departments. They value a diversity of viewpoints. They create space for collaboration within their team, and they challenge their direct reports to collaborate for advancement of the business.

Key COO interview question: Has the candidate demonstrated the ability to build consensus for an idea by incorporating input from multiple stakeholders?

 

Is your firm ready?

Not all firms are ready for a transformational COO; some are comfortable with operator/managers who will maintain the status quo. To determine whether your firm is a good candidate for a transformational COO, we suggest asking key stakeholders these questions before starting the COO search:

  1. Do we have consensus on the case for change that the COO will be expected to execute?
  2. Are we open to change for the purpose of leaving the firm better than we found it — not because the clients say we have to change or because our law firm competitor is doing it?
  3. Are we ready to work outside of the norms; seeking data points from broader professional services who have a proven business model, rather than looking only to other law firms?
  4. Do we have the headroom — are we prepared to make the investments, both financial and time-based, that a transformational COO will need?
  5. Are we prepared to learn — to explore areas that we don’t know about and may not be particularly comfortable with?
  6. Are we ready to cede authority to, and demand accountability from, a strategic business leader who may not be a lawyer by training?

For firms that are ready for the journey, a transformational COO will be a sound investment.

[1] To identify law firm COOs, Calibrate Legal reviewed publicly disclosed information from firms on the Am Law 100 list. Sources include firm websites, LinkedIn and other public databases, as well as Calibrate Legal’s proprietary database.

Author Jennifer Johnson is the founder and CEO of Calibrate Legal Inc.  This article was originally published in Law 360 on March 10, 2020.

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