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High-energy leadership Featured

5:17am EDT October 29, 2006
Patricia Smitson is known for her enthusiasm and positive energy.

“I became a lawyer as a single parent with two small children,” says the partner in charge at Thompson Hine. “I interviewed with a number of firms after graduating. What attracted me to Thompson Hine was the positive culture and clear respect for and acceptance of women in the workplace.”

Smitson joined the law firm in 1993 and was named partner in charge in 2001. The Cincinnati branch of the firm has 140 employees and is the second-largest Thompson Hine location in the United States.

Smitson sees herself as someone who not only does the paperwork, but who also makes a difference to her clients.

“I see myself as a business partner,” she says. “We are not just drafting documents for clients. We add a depth of service by truly understanding the client’s problem at hand, along with their overall business goals.”

Smart Business spoke with Smitson about how she keeps herself and her staff fired up, and how she measures success.

How would you describe your leadership style?
No doubt about it — the team approach works best. I focus on building consensus and generating a sense of ownership among attorneys, paralegals and administrative staff.

For example, two years ago I was in charge of a critical strategic planning endeavor. I could have done this several ways, including dictating the direction.

I chose to select 10 partners to work together for several weeks on developing a recommendation. They did so and then rolled it out to the other partners, solicited their input and fine-tuned the plan.

It was then introduced to the associates, who added their thoughts. This is how good leaders build a collegial culture.

Celebrating successes is essential also. We have weekly partner meetings in which we take the time to share good news. Being able to share positive information means that the leader must be plugged in to what is happening. This involves ongoing dialogue with staff and customers.

Sure, it takes effort. But this is a sure way to build momentum and remind people how much they are appreciated.

How do you identify business opportunities?
The party on the other side of the table can be a future client. Even though it can be a meeting under adversarial circumstances, they are watching. When the opposing party is seeking an excellent litigator, we want them to think of us.

Another aspect of seeking opportunities is taking a close look at the organization and deciding how we want to be positioned. What services do we want to offer? What training do we need to do? Or should we hire those who already have the expertise?

I also believe in active involvement in the community. This goes beyond business; it is simply the right thing to do. However, doing the right thing often opens up doors of opportunity. Leaders of every organization have a responsibility to be part of the life of the city.

How do you achieve balance?
I think that is somewhat of a myth. If you are at the top of your game, you cannot have balance — at least not on a daily basis. It is more realistic to look at balance in bigger chunks of time, such as a week or month.

There are times you have to be fully dedicated to the job, and there is little time for anything else. Other times, your family needs your time and attention, and the job gets less attention.

Over the long run, if you can juggle your priorities and meet your responsibilities in a way that brings personal satisfaction, you have balance.

How do you define and measure success?
There are several aspects to success. They are equally important. If one is lacking, the others will suffer.

Are our clients satisfied with our services? We constantly seek feedback in this area. If you ask your customers, they will tell you how you are measuring up.

Are we attracting good people, and are they sticking around? Our attorneys have worked hard to get their degrees. They want challenging and complex work. We are successful from a personnel standpoint if we are providing that for them.

Are we exceeding our revenue projections and sticking to our budget? The bottom line is, the bottom line matters.

What key skills must a leader possess?
Good leaders take the job seriously, but recognize it is not life or death. There is room for humor and fun.

There are the obvious traits, such as honesty, sincerity and being willing to work hard. But the reality is, the organization is not about the leader. It is about the business and the many people who are part of it.

Leaders help set the vision and motivate their co-workers to accept the strategy and build a successful organization.

HOW TO REACH: Thompson Hine, (513) 352-6700) or www.thompsonhine.com