Lawyers Journal

All that law-firm jazz: Notes on success

In a parallel life (carefully hidden from some clients), I am a jazz musician. In fact, in some clubs I have played, people didn't know I was a lawyer. It may only be a coincidence, but those places actually invited me back. Of course, if I were truly a show-stopper I wouldn't need my day job - running a large, national law firm.
How do managing lawyers - a super-educated, generally conservative, bottom-line driven, ego- enriched, talented group of professionals - relate to jazz, a soulful, improvisational and harmonious outlet fueled by the spirit? As playing the sounds of a set fade into the night, I have sometimes mused about the overlapping dynamics of these two lives. The inspiration I feel from jazz shapes my approach to the increasing challenge of law-firm governance.
Visionary jazz icons from Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans understood that performing at the top is not about playing the same old standards the same old ways. It is about taking the best that you have and seeing what more it can be. It is about letting individuals seek out their individual voice, within the harmonious sounds of the ensemble.
The jazz greats assembled musicians of varying backgrounds, instruments, talents, temperaments, demands and perceptions - sounds like a partners meeting - and gave them enough freedom to find their own individuality within the structure of ensemble performance. The best of the best were not afraid to change. And they led, not followed, blending diverse personal styles that spurred new music - from big band to bop, from cool to fusion and beyond.
Similarly, successful law-firm leaders must combine the standards of a resolute work ethic and passion for excellence with a strong dose of collaborative improvisation spurred by spirited individuals. We must respond to the divergent forces, external and internal, that pull our firms in many different directions, while maintaining the firm's central culture, identity and sense of corporate responsibility. We strive to remain ahead of our perceived competitors and in tune with our clients' needs. We struggle to keep pace as the market evolves without losing our core institutional values. We try to attract incomparable talent, while looking over our shoulders to see if another firm is whispering offers in the ears of our top performers. We deal with the pressures of exploding associate salaries, expanding profitability expectations, merger integration, client mobility, ventures into new cities and practice areas, and the cementing of strategic alliances. Different practice groups vie for resources and recognition, personalities clash, compensation philosophies abound, all of which can occasionally produce tension among lawyers.
As I wrestle with these daily challenges of law-firm management, I sometimes find surprising correlations with the development of that great American institution of jazz. The successful maestros of jazz were able to blend similarly disparate forces and personalities, in an ever-evolving genre, into a cohesive "sound" by building on individual strengths, combining talents and being innovative.
OK, maybe it's a stretch. But let's look at some of the tenets of jazz, as applied to the management of law firms:

1.The need to embrace improvisation. Ella Fitzgerald was perhaps the most influential female soloist of the 20th century and the undisputed First Lady of Song. She captivated listeners with her innate ability to improvise. Taking the basics, she blew away the boundaries, scatting her way to the top.
For a firm to stay "in style" it must have the ability to veer from the scored notes that most attorneys have been trained to follow. "The way we've always done it," is not a strategic plan. The markets in which we operate are free-flowing; therefore we must be able to improvise. Certain rules must be followed, but like jazz, the management of a law firm requires members to adopt and embrace the change and creativity that is prevalent in our lives outside of the office.
Some firms are exploring MDPs, some ride the crest of merger-mania, and others are looking to fill the vacuum of middle market legal services being created by the mega-firms. At Schnader, we have targeted a few specific practice areas in which to expand, betting that our existing capability and reputation, if broadened geographically and deepened in each of our offices, will serve us well in the increasingly global client market. Will the client audience accept our particular improvisation? Time will tell. But we're not playing just the old standards.
2. Listen to both the soloists and the group. Jazz is the ultimate collaboration of virtuosity. Dizzy Gillespie, a magnificent trumpet player, composer and bandleader, helped pioneer the art of be-bop, a language spoken to one another by musicians of differing disciplines.
This paradoxical approach is one of the most difficult concepts any law firm leader faces. For the large law firm to excel today, individuals must have their chance to solo. However, even if each individual flourishes, group success is not guaranteed. Those soloists must reach for their personal highs within the ensemble - not fighting against its rhythm or unique sound.
But sometimes-prominent players are so far into their own expression that they no longer harmonize with the other musicians. The resultant discord may mean that, for the benefit of the group, that player - even if a key one - needs to develop a more compatible style or find another place to play.
The law-firm leader must hear not only the individual musicians, but also listen to the whole firm in order for the group to transcend mere cohesiveness and achieve true harmony. The forward thinking head of a firm rewards passion and innovation, as long as it is within the collective inspiration. But that leader must resist changing the collective inspiration merely to quiet the discordance created by a few players.
3. Attract the best talent - and keep it. The jazz greats knew their particular "sound." They recruited players who could "wail," but who worked to be even better, stretching to find what was over the horizon of the standards.
As good as Miles Davis was on the trumpet, his contemporaries did not consider him the best technician. But that only inspired Davis to work harder at finding his voice and at creating new styles. Like John Coltrane did on the sax, Charlie Mingus on the bass and Monk on the piano, Davis challenged us to listen to new sounds from his horn. He led us in a jazz evolution from cool in the late '40s all the way to jazz- rock fusion in the twilight of his career.
Law firms must always try to attract the best talent available, but in these times of mobility it is even more important to keep that talent. Top compensation, interesting work, attractive offices and quality support staff are always factors in attracting, and keeping, top- tier talent. Equally important, however, is fostering an environment that responds to personal needs and encourages the individual to achieve personal success. A firm should seek creative solutions designed to meet the needs of families with dual careers, consider innovative incentives for associates, and provide meaningful in-firm mentoring and training programs. At Schnader, we are working at the personal side of keeping our talent by reaffirming our support for pro bono activities of our lawyers, providing organized firm-wide training in each core discipline, and responding to the complex lifestyle demands of our lawyers. And we are launching a venture fund in which associates can elect to participate.
In short, being sensitive to the changing personal needs of your young lawyers, and letting them find their own "voice," will allow them to flourish and promote their loyalty to the firm.
4. Celebrate diversity. In the 1930s, jazz bands were among the very first organizations in America to integrate, thereby capitalizing on diverse styles and scintillating approaches to expression. Benny Goodman, a virtuoso clarinetist, was among the first to celebrate the diversity of our American musical culture when he invited Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, both black, to join his swing ensemble.
These differing viewpoints blend well at the hands of a visionary leader and the result can be a quantum leap forward. Diversity - of thought, style, background and experience - fosters innovation.
Schnader also was founded in the 1930s, in a collaborative venture rare for its time, by a Pennsylvania Dutchman and a Jew. That culture of diversity has defined us internally and been an inspiration for decades. And as we at Schnader have followed our own path of expansion, we have been joined by colleagues whose histories and values also celebrate the innovation that diversity can foster.
In today's legal market, there is no shortage of quality talent, but perhaps the best candidates are those from professional disciplines or cultures who bring the firm both quality legal skills and different perspectives about life.
5. Be true to your firm's "sound." Even non- afficionados of jazz can recognize some groups after hearing only a few bars. Duke Ellington, the consummate collaborator, showed us that every voice adds something unique when striving to achieve a common goal. Dave Brubeck introduced us to regimen and syncopation that still flourished in the mode of jazz. The Modern jazz Quartet, tuxedoed and polished, performed jazz as classical music.
Just as jazz has a "sound" and happens in "time," so does the operation of a law firm. The great jazz maestros knew their sound and how to develop the best in their bands. Magnificent law firms have their own rhythm, sound and soul expressed in the temperament of their counsel and their willingness to adhere to the underpinnings of the firm's mission and culture.
Our "sound" at Schnader includes continuing the tradition established by the founders of encouraging our lawyers to serve the pro bono needs of the less fortunate. Yes, the pressure of profitability makes achieving this sound more and more difficult. But without it, we would be a different firm.
What's your sound?
So, as I guide our firm through its internal and external changes, I take some inspiration from the jazz greats. Oscar Peterson, Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman and others of renown broke down musical and social barriers by galvanizing people and generating collective inspiration. They had the confidence to experiment, but within the sound of their ensemble. The fluid environment in which we operate today requires a delicate interplay between individual freedom and cooperative effort. I try to embrace the individual creativity of our firm's members. Encourage them to embody our mission. Praise passion and innovation. Reward collective inspiration. Recognize individual lifestyle needs. Seek out and celebrate diversity.
Most of all - even as we grow and change direction - we are trying to stay true to our firm's sound, rhythm, and soul. In law, as in jazz, keep the long view. Not every experiment or innovation works. (When did you last hear jazz-fusion?) While we must be nimble on the keys, if we stay loyal to our sound, the firm will still be strong long after I've left the stage.
Ralph G. Wellington is Chairman of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis llp, a national law firm with offices in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

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