Ideas From the Front
Operation Law Firm Leader
Ex-Military Types Bring Strong Organizational Skills and Integrity to the Job
Posted Jun 1, 2007 11:22 AM CST
By Leslie A. Gordon
As a combat arms officer and brigade commander in the Army, Dick Wallace developed a command philosophy that he termed “The Five Fastballs.”
The philosophy includes nurturing the success of others, building synergetic teams and fostering routine excellence. Although Wallace devised his fastball approach during his Army tenure, it has applied nicely, he says, to his civilian job as executive director of Salinas, Calif.-based Noland, Hamerly, Etienne & Hoss.
“The core business skill of a combat arms officer is the same as running a law firm: leadership,” explains Wallace, a West Point graduate. “Military officers study, talk about, eat and sleep leadership—it’s our raison d’être. You learn how to motivate and inspire others, and create high-performing people. Just like at the firm, where my primary job is to see that others succeed.”
Many law firms believe that former members of the armed forces like Wallace make terrific employees, both as lawyers and high-level staff. They can bring an intense work ethic and an uncommon integrity to attorney positions and leadership roles.
After all, where else but the military can you find an employee who describes his approach as “mission-oriented focus”? That’s the vernacular of retired Col. Jeff Furbank, a West Point graduate who is now executive director of Huntington, W.Va.-based Huddleston Bolen. “I was trained to run organizations—I’d been doing it since I was 18,” says Furbank, who was a specialist in nuclear artillery. Furbank’s focus now extends to increasing profits and modernizing internal systems.
FROM BATTLEFIELD TO BOARD ROOM
But moving from the military into law firm life does require some transition, says Wallace. For him, the greatest challenge was adjusting to a different decision-making process. “In the combat-arms military, every decision comes with a deadline. There is discussion but usually a quick decision,” he says. “In law firms, there’s a lot of processing and discussion. It takes a long time to get to a point of action.”
Patton Boggs partner Michael Nardotti, who served as judge advocate general, the senior military lawyer in the Army, says understanding the business side of law—including billing and collecting—was the toughest aspect of his transition to civilian law firm life. “Also, I didn’t know how I’d be perceived,” he adds. “The title of ‘retired major general’ could be a negative. I knew I’d have to roll up my sleeves and earn my way.”
Fortunately, Nardotti says, he was warmly received at the Washington, D.C.-based firm, and he was especially delighted to discover what he calls a “healthy respect for the military” among its lawyers.
Still, other challenges can arise when it comes to building a book of business. Originally, Nardotti says, he did not expect to enter private practice upon Army retirement because he had a grand total of zero clients. Despite his nonexistent book of business, Nardotti was heavily recruited by Patton Boggs, a firm that often transitions lawyers from high-level government work.
“I realized there’s no magic formula to getting business,” says Nardotti, who now practices government contracts law and chairs the firm’s professional development committee. But he believes military training can give lawyers an edge when it comes to making rain.
Lawyers seeking clients need to persuade others to listen to them, a skill Nardotti developed as a commander. He sees other benefits, too. “In the military, you develop a set of people skills as well as a very high standard of ethics, all of which can make up for a lack of clients.”
That training also comes in handy when dealing with a firm’s management structure, which is usually committee-based as opposed to the military’s executive organization. Furbank says he’s had to develop consensus- building skills as a result. Lawyers are “smart and opinionated individuals, so building consensus is essential. Otherwise,” he quips, “you’ll be like Gen. Custer.”