Legal opinions Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

When Gary L. Sasso became president and CEO of CarltonFields P.A. in February 2006, he learned a quick lesson in his firstfew months leading the law firm.

“When I started this job, there were a couple of occasionswhere I expected my colleagues to rally around an idea I hadbased simply on the elegance of the idea without really taking thetime or the trouble to walk them through all the steps that it tookme to get there,” says Sasso, who has been with Carlton FieldsP.A. since 1987. “I had a wake-up call that people weren’t simplygoing to love the idea because I thought it was a great idea.”

Sasso learned to involve people sooner in a discussion, and thenbroaden that circle, if necessary.

“Because, even if it’s a great idea, particularly lawyers have a lot ofskepticism about any idea,” he says. “You have to take some time andtrouble to make sure people have all the facts so they understand thenecessity for perhaps a change and come to some agreement that thisstrategy is a good one.”

Yet, in order to get honest opinions out of his employees from thesediscussions, Sasso needs to create an open environment and doesthat by setting the tone with his actions.

“I really don’t ask people to let their guard down,” he says. “What Ido is I let my guard down. I’m very open with people, and I tell themwhat’s on my mind. I give them the facts, and I hope they will respondin kind, but I don’t ask people to trust me because I don’t feel I couldask people to do that. I feel I have to earn it. I think I can earn it byshowing them that I am treating them with that same respect.”

Sasso suggests starting small to develop a comfort level with sharing information that will eventually build up trust and respect.

“I would say, first, try it out on a close circle of confidants in thefirm,” he says. “Try it out with people you feel comfortable with or thatyou trust, and see how it is, see how it feels. Then extend that circleuntil eventually you include everyone in the organization.”

Since becoming president and CEO, the company has grown in bothrevenue and employee numbers. The firm increased from 575 employees at the end of 2006 to 594 at the end of 2007 and 612 as of April of thisyear. Revenue jumped from approximately $109 million in 2006 to morethan $125 million 2007.

Sasso says he couldn’t delegate or lead change without letting hisguard down and hearing other’s opinions.

“I just couldn’t do this job any other way,” he says. “Again, it’s a matter of making the decision that I make better decisions because I amgetting better input. It’s also a matter of making sure that people arebehind those decisions and will execute, that we’re rowing togetheras a firm, and I’m not out there rowing by myself. We’re not going toget very far if I’m rowing myself. I think that’s crucial for me and that’scrucial for the firm.”

Here’s how Sasso used the ability to let his guard down to maximizedelegation and lead change.

Don’t try to do it all yourself

Sasso says it’s not hard for him to delegate a task.

“I have to delegate everything I can delegate because there are manythings I can’t delegate, so I have my hands full doing those things,” hesays.

“It’s easy to identify the things that only I can handle, at least in a lawfirm, because all of our attorneys are busy practicing law. Only I amcharged with dealing with a lot of the big-picture issues that our firmhas to confront. I can’t delegate those issues, which involve issues ofstrategy or positioning the firm, and that takes up an awful lot of mytime — issues relating to our growth. Other attorneys in the firm, andreally most managers in the firm, have a full plate dealing with otherissues, and I have to free up my time to deal with those matters thatno one else is dealing with. I will delegate everything I can that mightotherwise fall on my plate, as long as somebody else in the firm is ableto handle those responsibilities well.”

If you are having trouble delegating work to those around you,Sasso recommends lining up your priorities and being honest withyourself.

“I would suggest making a list of the most important things that person has to address in order, and then being very honest about howmany of those things you can reasonably do,” he says. “Chances areyou are not going to get very far down that list. You have to delegateeverything else. You get tempted all the time to do things that otherpeople can do or should do or can do better, and you have to resistthat temptation.”

Sasso tries to spend most of his time supporting the organization’sstrongest practices and dealing with the organization’s greatest opportunities.

“But I obviously care about all of our attorneys and all of our practice groups and do try to be aware of what’s going on throughout thefirm,” he says. “Some of our practice groups just have a lot more activity and provide more opportunity and also warrant more attention.”

Even though Sasso has no problem delegating work to allow him tofocus on big-picture ideas, he does monitor what he delegates.

“I do try to monitor what is happening throughout the firm,” hesays. “We have regular managers meetings, and I will talk to peoplethroughout the firm from time to time to make sure I have a senseof how they’re doing and how our different practice groups and different offices and functions are doing.”

Sasso says he has stepped over the line and may have gotten tooinvolved in a situation where he delegated, but that’s when lettinghis guard down comes into play. Those around him are free to tellhim when he is interfering.

“I always encourage others in the firm to be honest with me,” hesays. “I will ask them as we are working on matters togetherabout whether I’m being helpful or whether I am interfering.

“I have frequent discussions with our managers about what rolesthey can play and what roles I should play. So, we try to keep fairly open communication about that. “Nonetheless, I’m sure thereare occasions where others feel I am stepping on their toes andsome occasions where others feel I am not helping enough.”

While not everyone may let Sasso know if he is meddling too

much, he realizes that if he focuses on his priority list, those jobswill keep him busy.

“I’m sure there are some occasions where people feel uncomfortable raising that with me,” he says. “But most of this is takencare of simply by the dictates of time. There’s only so much I cando. So, there’s only so much I can meddle in what other people do.”

Overall, delegating responsibilities and allowing employees tohave input on ideas has helped make Sasso’s job easier and hashelped the organization grow.

“These lawyers and key staff people really help grow the firm,help make sure we provide the best possible service to our clients,help us identify and seize opportunities,” he says. “These peopleare self-starters; they provide a lot of input into decisions that wemake as a firm. If I try to map out all by myself where we’re goingas a firm and what we’re doing as a firm, I might come up withsome good ideas. But, it never fails to be the case that when I pulltogether some of our top people on any issue we are dealing with,we come out with a better decision than I would make alone.”

Roll with t he changes

Staying on top of the changes in your industry is a key to long-termgrowth.

“Our profession is changing quite a bit. What the law firm looks liketoday is changing quite a bit. How our clients use legal services ischanging quite a bit. So, there’s a part of this that just involves observation and analysis of what is happening around us. Then part of itinvolves deciding what we are going to do about that.”

To identify what changes need to be made in the firm, Sasso observeswhat is taking place in the marketplace. The organization turns to legaltrade publications to find out what other firms are doing across thecountry.

After soaking in all the changes and ideas being talked about andpracticed across the country, the firm deciphers between the ideasthey feel are fads and ideas they feel will stick around for a while. Theytalk with clients, and if they are hearing the same opinions fromclients, they know that change is something they need to focus on.

“For example, we know that clients want to have depth in areaswhere they have legal needs,” he says. “That’s pretty obvious from justus talking to clients. So, we built depth in key areas where our clientshave legal needs. We know that clients, in some cases, like us to collaborate with them on cost control. That becomes evident, we talk tothem, they tell us their concerns, and we will deal with that. We knowthat’s not a trend because we know it’s very important to our clients.We know it’s not a flash in the pan.”

Sasso then has to get employees to buy in to the change. “There is a temptation to do something a certain way becausewe’ve always done it that way. And there is a natural reticence bypeople to make changes because people feel comfortable aboutwhat they’ve done before,” he says.

Sasso and his team make a case for the change, which involves talking to people inside the firm who are involved in that change.

“It could be a problem, it could be a concern, it could be a perceivedopportunity,” he says. “We may debate it and talk about differentapproaches or solutions, and then typically I will process all of thatand come back to that group with either a summary of what we talkedabout or perhaps a conclusion of my own that comes out of that discussion.

“I’ve found when people understand all the facts, they generally willembrace the need for change and the strategy for change.”

Sasso says you can always sense when there is unease with a change.If there is unease, he is open to hearing about it and willing to discuss any problems employees may have.

However, it’s no coincidence that because Sasso welcomes open communication, he can’t recall an employee not getting on board for a change.If you don’t involve others in the change process, but instead make thedecision all on your own, you might run into that problem.

“That can be very, very dangerous to make decisions that waybecause ultimately we really need the people in the firm to be behindwhat we decide or it’s not going to be reality,” he says. “Any organization depends on planning and execution. You can have great planning,but if you don’t have the execution, you are going to fall flat on our face.The people who execute are all the employees in the organization. Ifthey don’t buy in with what you’re doing, it’s not going to happen.”

HOW TO REACH: Carlton Fields P.A., (813) 223-7000 or www.carltonfields.com