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Cover Story: All That Law Firm Jazz

by Ralph G. Wellington

Winter 2003, Vol. 65, No. 4

I have spent many nights at the piano on a smoke-hazed stage, paying homage to Bill Evans, aping the lyricism of Keith Jarrett, creating my own jazz compositions. By day I am the chairman of a national law firm, dealing with a highly skilled, somewhat conservative, ego-enriched, talented group of attorneys. I am struck occasionally by parallels between these two worlds; that some of what I have learned in my jazz life inspires my approach to managing a large law firm. A bit of a stretch? Maybe. But consider this.

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 wanted to set themselves apart—they were not afraid to change. And they led, not followed, blending diverse personal styles that spurred new music—big band, to bop, to cool, to fusion and beyond.

Similarly, law firm leaders are called upon to 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 and identity. We strive to remain in tune with our clients' needs and ahead of our perceived competitors. We struggle to keep pace as the market evolves without losing our core institutional values. We deal with the pressures of 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 and compensation philosophies abound, all of which can occasionally produce tension among lawyers.

As I wrestle with these daily challenges of law firm management, surprising guidance can be found from the successful maestros of jazz, who 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. Visionary jazz icons from Billie Holliday to Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk understood that performing at the top is not about playing the same old standards the same old ways. It is about seeing what more there can be.

Let's look at some of the tenets of jazz, as applied to the management of law firms:

Embrace Improvisation
Ella Fitzgerald was perhaps the most influential female soloist of the twentieth 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. "The way we've always done it" is not a strategic plan. The clients we serve are in evolving markets, requiring us to improvise and to embrace the change and creativity that is prevalent in our profession.

Some firms are exploring MDPs, some ride the crest of merger-mania, 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 geographic and practice areas in which to expand, betting that our already-strong capability and reputation, if broadened and deepened in each of our offices, will serve us well in the increasingly global client market. Will our particular improvisation be accepted by the client audience, which is, after all, who we are playing for? Time will tell. Some creative efforts end up off key. But we're not playing just the same old standards.

Listen to 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 musical style fed on the fierce independence of the members of the group—always reaching to express their individuality within the loose framework of a sketchy score.

This paradox of fostering individuality within the firm is one of the most difficult concepts any law firm leader faces. Individuals must be given their chance to solo. Even if each individual flourishes, however, group success is not guaranteed. Soloists must reach for their personal highs within the ensemble—not fighting against its rhythm or unique sound. If they become so absorbed with their own expression that they no longer harmonize with the other musicians, the resultant discord may destroy the sound altogether. Some other group may be a more harmonious fit.

The law firm leader must hear the individual musicians, and reward their passion and innovation, but at the same time strive to keep each artist within the collective inspiration.

Attract the Best Young Talent
The jazz greats recruited young players who were never satisfied with the status quo, but stretched to find what was over the horizon of the standards.

As good as Miles Davis was on the trumpet, he was not considered the best technician by his contemporaries. But that only inspired Davis to work harder at finding his voice and creating new styles. Like John Coltrane on the sax, Charlie Mingus on the bass, and Monk on the piano, Davis challenged us to listen to new sounds from his horn. His new ideas led a jazz evolution from cool in the late 1940s all the way to jazz-rock fusion in the twilight of his career.

Law firms must always try to attract the best young talent available. Competitive compensation, interesting work, attractive offices and quality support staff are always factors in attracting top-tier talent. Equally important, however, is fostering an environment that responds to personal needs and encourages the individual to achieve personal satisfaction. 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 work at the personal side by firm-wide training in each core discipline, a formal mentoring program, and flexible responses to the complex lifestyle demands of our lawyers.

In short, being sensitive to the changing personal needs of your young lawyers and encouraging them to find their own "voice" will both allow them to flourish and promote their loyalty to the firm.

Celebrate Diversity
In the 1930s, jazz bands were among the very first organizations in America to integrate, thereby capitalizing on diverse styles and 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. Does emphasizing diversity create occasional culture clashes? Sure. But such differing viewpoints, when blended well, can result in a quantum leap forward. Diversity of thought, style, background and experience foster innovation. And increasingly such diversity is expected by clients.

Schnader 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. 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—and by clients who value what such innovation can inspire.

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.

Be True to Your 'Sound'
Even non-afficionados of jazz can recognize some groups after hearing only a few bars. Dave Brubeck introduced us to a regimen and syncopation that flourished in the mode of jazz. The Modern Jazz Quartet, tuxedoed and polished, performed jazz as classical music. Duke Ellington, the consummate collaborator, showed us that every voice adds something unique when striving to achieve a common goal.

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 their willingness to adhere to the underpinnings of the firm's mission and culture.

Our "sound" at Schnader, beyond serving clients "24/7," 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?

And So . . .
I've learned some lessons 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.

So, too, the law firm. The fluid environment in which we operate today requires a delicate interplay between individual freedom and cooperative effort. In directing our dynamic performers through the firm's internal and external changes, we 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? Or want to?) If we stay loyal to our sound, the firm will still be strong long after I've left the stage.