Managing employees who argue professionally

Mark Silow, a Fox and Rothschild partner, likes "the things that have a more human element to them." A former 1960s antiwar activist, he a took a survival trip to the Utah wilderness at age 50. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

How would you like to manage a lot of smart people who argue for a living? Welcome to Mark Silow's world, as managing partner of Fox Rothschild LLP, a Center City law firm.

"Lawyers are challenging to manage," Silow told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "They are very smart. A lot of them have significant economic weight firm within the context of a law firm. I heard one consultant say it’s the only business they know where all of your assets get in an elevator every night and you hope you come back in that same elevator the next morning.

"A firm is only as strong as its lawyers and certainly one of the things we’ve seen in the last 10 or 20 years is lawyer mobility," he said. Fast disappearing are the days when a lawyer joined a law firm for life. Silow said that lawyers need to be wooed constantly.

How, I asked.

"The most important method is to be successful," Silow said. "If lawyers think they can do significantly better financially at another firm, sooner or later, they are going to follow that opportunity. So it’s incredibly important that the firm remain financially successful to be able to attract and retain talent and two, you have to have a good work environment."

I wondered what made a work environment good for lawyers.

"One is you have to give a lot of deference to how people run their practices and conduct themselves," Silow said. "Too many rules and I think that people, not just lawyers, start to chafe."

In rummaging through the firm's website, I was also intrigued by the variety of practices and also the variety of blogs. The firm has a fashion practice. There's a lawyer that writes a blog on business issues in the wine business. There's another blog on animal issues. I wondered if that was what Silow meant when he talked about leeway.

"We like them to be profitable, but one of the things we do is we encourage people to develop unique areas of practices. I call them niche areas of practices, but hobby practices is a pretty good description as long as they make money," he said.

"I think the fashion practice started out as a hobby practice. But with some additional partners we brought in, it’s a real practice area. It’s a real industry that needs specialized legal services, but it certainly started out as someone’s vision of how they wanted to build a practice, so that would be one," Silow said.

I asked Silow if it was hard to start that kind of practice at Fox.

No, he said. In fact, it's encouraged. 

"We give them the marketing support and the encouragement, which is important, because a lot of firms would actively discourage people from pursuing those kinds of hobbies" as practices," he said. "We support the blogs, because that is usually step one in building these practices, which is to create a blog and project yourself into the blogosphere as an expert. It is actually kind of amazing to me how many sophisticated clients actually get attracted through a blog."