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What Makes a Good Law Firm CEO: How to Create Successful Legal Practice

10 min
Jan 8, 2024
Join Sasha Berson as he speaks with Mike Alder, Founder of AlderLaw.

Good CEOs are the backbone of successful companies. However, the role of a chief executive officer is far from easy, especially in the complex and ever-evolving legal industry. Law firms struggle to operate at their peak performance without effective leadership, hindering growth and profitability.

So, what sets successful law firm CEOs apart from the rest? While there's no magic formula, certain principles have emerged as essential ingredients for success. A great CEO must possess a harmonious blend of leadership and business acumen, strategic planning, a deep understanding of law firm management and the legal industry, and the ability to inspire and motivate their team. 

Asides from these qualities, the points which we will mention in this guide will: 

  • Give a brief overview of a law firm CEO 
  • Discuss 11 law firm CEO top tips to guarantee success 
  • Explore what makes a great law firm CEO

In our latest episode, host Sasha Berson engages in a captivating conversation with guest Michael Alder, a seasoned legal industry expert on the topic.

Who Is a Law Firm CEO?

A law firm CEO is the highest-ranking executive of a law firm. Their job is to lead the law firm to profitability and sustainable growth. 

Accomplishing these goals requires a law firm CEO to have or adopt the mindset of a leader who cares not only about the law firm's profitability but also knows or can learn the steps necessary to achieve these goals. 

In contrast with a non-law-firm CEO, a law firm CEO is not only an executive but also a lawyer. As such, the CEO of a law firm can make effective decisions in both the financial and legal arenas.

11 Law Firm CEO Tips to Guarantee Success

What a good law firm CEO should do

1. Grow as a Leader to Grow Your Business

Do you want your law firm to grow into a profitable business? First, you must develop yourself as a leader, and continue to do so consistently. There are plenty of classes and materials that can teach you some of the basics of being a great business CEO.

Some people may be born leaders, but many must learn leadership roles. Even those with an innate ability to lead would do well spending time on the basics of leading in the business and legal worlds.

2. Demand Concrete, Accurate Data

Most companies have multiple data sources and various methods available for managing performance. 

As the CEO of a law firm, you should always demand concrete, accurate data before making decisions. This data can come from many sources, such as direct reports, financial reports, case studies, market research, or even just your own observations.

When it comes to data, more is not always better. You need to ensure that the data you're using is reliable and relevant to your decision-making process. Otherwise, you could end up making the wrong decisions for your firm.

3. Analyze

Key areas to focus on to be a good CEO

Most successful CEOs spend ample time each day analyzing many aspects of their law firm to identify areas that can be improved. Focusing periodically on firm objectives and goals will help you monitor your firm's progress toward milestones. Furthermore, employ a top-down approach that focuses on expanding your company's value and offerings. 

Some key areas to focus on include: 

  • Financial performance 
  • Client satisfaction 
  • Employee satisfaction 
  • The effectiveness of marketing and business development efforts

4. Study Core Areas to Outsource

Important areas to outsource as a law firm CEO

Not all the employees in a company work in-house. Some are outsourced workers who add to the business value of the law firm. By outsourcing, in-house employees can focus their time and energy on the most important aspects of the firm while leaving the less critical tasks to the third party.

So what are the most important areas to outsource as a law firm CEO? Here are a few to consider:

  • Accounting and bookkeeping
  • Human resources
  • Marketing
  • IT support
  • Administrative tasks

5. Develop Self-Control

As a law firm CEO, it's essential to have self-control and avoid making impulsive decisions that can negatively impact the firm's reputation. Developing self-control, practicing self-awareness, and knowing your triggers are important. Once you're aware of your triggers, you can create a plan to avoid or deal with them. Self-reflection and taking the time to evaluate and understand your thoughts and emotions is crucial.

Discipline is key to achieving success in any aspect of life. It is also important to be mindful of how you spend your time and resources and not make excuses for why you can't do something.

Alder's approach to self-discipline is a great example for law firm CEOs. Make self-control and discipline one of the law firm's strategic priorities to guide you in making better decisions while managing your time more effectively, and creating a positive and productive work environment. This, in turn, can lead to a successful business that thrives in the long term.

6. Acquire a Specific Set of CEO Skills

What set of sills is required for a CEO

Most successful CEOs of law firms are professionals who know what skills are necessary to grow their law firm. But there are some skills that CEOs should acquire that will help make them more effective leaders.

— Foresight and Planning

Successful CEOs need not lose sight in order to run a law firm effectively. Foresight allows them to anticipate problems and deal with them creatively before they occur. An effective law firm CEO with self-confidence can deliver unique solutions together with the executive team that efficiently handle bumps in the road.

— Flexibility

Preparation and scenario building. You can't predict the future, but you can play out scenarios that are likely to occur. Through this, you can plan how your firm will respond. Knowing which steps to take when an event does occur gives your law firm the flexibility it needs to move ahead.

— Dependability

Law firms continue to get clients because they are reliable. There is no substitute for this essential trait. The law firm CEO can foster this reliability in every move they make. If you're considering a lawyer as CEO of a law firm, look for reliability. By carefully serving metrics and performance reports, potential issues can be averted before they become problems.

— Ability to Work Within Teams

The best CEOs of law firms take time to assemble their teams after considering many potential employees. They know that team dynamics will determine how efficiently the law firm will run. As such, they set the parameters for hiring as they see necessary for the firm's best interests. You can also incorporate team building, which involves collaborative work, periodically to improve interpersonal relationship among team members.

— Ethics

The legal profession is a respectful one. As you discover how to be a successful CEO, you'll find that maintaining this respect is not accomplished simply by winning large settlements. There's a manner in which lawyers should behave toward clients and others to keep the legal profession respectable.

"I believe that if you want money, you give money away. If you want respect, I know people say you earn respect."
— Mike Alder

7. Learn From Things That Went Wrong

When you're learning how to be a good CEO, instead of moving on from a bad situation, take the time to analyze every aspect of the occurrence to determine the root cause. Doing so is especially helpful for small business owners who may not be able to absorb as many negative blows as a larger law firm.

8. Focus on the Big Picture

As the leader of your firm, you should have a clear vision for the future, which requires you to focus on the big picture.

As the law firm's CEO, it is essential always to know the destinations and goals of your law firm. The business will eventually suffer and stagnate without knowing where the firm should be headed and what smaller goals it should accomplish. 

9. Understand the Four Financial Statements

A law firm CEO's job is to make sure the law firm is financially healthy. This requires them to know and fully understand the four financial statements, each of which encapsulates a key aspect of a law firm's financial performance.

— Profit and Loss: Profit and loss statements are like conclusions. The numbers on these statements tell you whether your firm is running in the red or the black and where.

— Balance Sheet: As the CEO of a law firm, you should regularly study your firm's balance sheet. There, you will find a listing of all of the firm's assets and liabilities and built-up equity. Like most law firms, most of your assets are likely mostly cash. And your list of liabilities probably includes the following:

  • Accrued payroll
  • Payroll taxes
  • Revolving debt
  • Loans
Constant monitoring of your balance sheet will help you plan for the future and keep liabilities in check.

— Statement of Cash Flow: Cash flow shows the path of all the monies that your firm takes in. The cash must go somewhere when your firm receives payment for services or other reasons. As the law firm's CEO, regularly checking the cash flow statements will keep you abreast of when money comes into your firm and where it goes.

The cash flow statement differs from the profit-loss statement in key aspects. Check out this Harvard Business Review article for more information on the differences between the two.

— Accounts Receivable Aging Statement: The information in this statement is vital to any law firm CEO interested in assessing their firm's economic strength. 

The statement contains information regarding payments you are owed, including how much and who owes them. It also tells you when the payments became due and other pertinent information.

The beauty of these types of statements is their ability to demonstrate where payment problems lie. Sometimes, a payment issue may be caused by a client with solvency issues, or the problem may be due to the relaxing standards regarding payment deadlines.

10. Managing, Not Doing

For some reason, many CEOs of law firms and other businesses, in general, tend to want to do it all or a lot of whatever it is they are supervising. However, when there's a competent team in place to handle a particular task or obligation, there's no need for the law firm CEO to do anything but manage.

It's all about delegation. Suppose you are interested in learning how to be the best CEO of a law firm. In that case, you'll never forget the delegation of jobs and duties. Delegating work requires you to be a confident business leader with strong communication skills. Those to whom you delegate tasks need firm guidance from a leader in charge.

11. Extra Tip from Mike Alder: CEOs Serve Other People

The title of CEO shows your importance in the law firm. But good CEOs know their employees are most important. CEOs are leaders and 'servants' to employees. A good leader recognizes that employees may be smarter and prioritizes their needs over their own, using power to benefit others.

A legal CEO sets the firm's tone and culture. Successful CEOs support and guide employees, helping them grow. They lead by example, showing commitment to company success.

Mike Alder also emphasizes the importance of having no ego and being willing to help others without looking over their shoulder to see who the next person they can step on to get to the next person. He encourages CEOs to take a step back, do what they can, help somebody, and do it repeatedly. He also stresses the importance of thanking someone, being pleasant, really appreciating someone, writing them a personal note, and helping them however you can.

Learn How to Thrive as a Law Firm CEO with Insights from Mike Alder in the Podcast Series

Mike Alder shares invaluable guidance for law firm CEOs in his podcast series. Through insightful interviews and discussions, Alder unveils strategies for developing rock-solid habits, mindsets, and routines to help thrive above the competition. CEOs learn how focusing inward on personal growth and discipline can ultimately lift their entire firm to new heights of success. The episodes provide actionable advice and tools perfectly suited for leaders seeking an enduring advantage.

"I tell people in any business, you build these habits, you build this consistent behavior, you build the proper mindset, you take care of your body, your mind, your health, and you go through those routines. You don't have to compete with everybody in your industry. You just have to compete with the 5 to 10 percent in your industry that will do it like you do consistently."
— Mike Alder

What Makes a Great Law Firm CEO?

There are many ways to answer this question.

  1. A great law firm CEO must also have a clear and achievable vision for the firm's future and be able to articulate that vision to the rest of the firm. 
  2. The CEO must be able to make tough decisions and see them throug.
  3. They must be able to inspire and motivate others.
  4. They must be able to communicate the firm's direction to all the board members and employees clearly.
  5. They can manage and control the firm's finances and maximize market share.
  6. They must be able to build a strong leadership team and delegate tasks.
  7. A good law firm CEO must handle adversity and keep the firm moving despite challenges.
  8. They can increase shareholder value.

If you are interested in taking your law firm to the next level, keep these tips for CEOs in mind. If you follow the right CEO advice, you may choose to be the CEO of your law firm instead of just the head lawyer. 

What makes a successful CEO? High-performing CEOs know when they need a partner. Grow Law Firm is a premiere high-performance digital marketing company ready to help you take your law firm to the next level of profitability and sustainable growth. Contact our office today for a consultation.

Mike Alder

Mike Alder

Founder of AlderLaw

Mike Adler is a top trial attorney and owner of AlderLaw, a leading Los Angeles firm representing plaintiffs in personal injury, business torts, and employment litigation cases. He is known for his unwavering commitment to his clients and dedication to pursuing justice. As an underdog advocate, Adler takes pride in being personally involved in every case his firm takes on and has earned a reputation for achieving significant settlements and verdicts.

He is also a well-renowned speaker and published author on trial strategy. He is dedicated to supporting other trial attorneys, maintaining a 9,000-deposition database and an expert witness directory that he provides to up-and-coming lawyers at no charge.

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