Leader With Courage: Bryan Schwartz, Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC (Part 1 of 3)
Our newest Leader with Courage profile is Bryan Schwartz, business attorney and co-founder of Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC.
The first line of Bryan’s bio on his law firm’s website says a lot about how he views himself: “A businessman who happens to be a lawyer.” For the first 14 years of Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC., Bryan served as Managing Partner, providing him the insight and understanding of leading a successful business in a way few attorneys can relate to.
Value Drivers: You opened your firm with the aspiration of it being successful without you. Not many people think of themselves being out of the picture of their own business from Day 1, do they?
Bryan Schwartz: No, they probably don’t. But I always wanted to build a law firm where I actually wouldn’t be needed anymore because it was important to me to have the legacy of having built something. Most leaders make the mistake of saying, “People are measuring my success every day.” Yes, that’s true. But the real question is: Can you create the next generation of leaders and build something that survives you? Can your firm last without you? That’s leadership.
So when I co-founded Levenfeld Pearlstein with Bob Goldstein in 1999, we made sure to have a very good succession plan. Bob and I started off as co-managing partners. Within a year, I was the Chairman of the firm and had that title through 2013, when we implemented the succession plan. My successor took over, nobody left the firm and there was unity around the next leader. The firm has actually been very successful since I stepped down as Chairman and will continue to be that way going forward.
Did you start your career by getting experience in a larger firm first and then move on to small firms from there?
No, actually I was in smaller firms but…I was never really a good fit. For example, I couldn’t figure out why six Partners had to meet for three hours to talk about which copy machine to buy. Very few things of that nature ever made sense to me. As part of my transition into becoming a co-managing partner, I parted ways with one of my mentors, which was extraordinarily tough. Frankly, when you’re 36 years old and something like that happens, you’re at a place in your life where you’re not quite fully mature as a man, you’re trying to figure out what a leader does and you’re not sure what your real identity is. This kind of thinking at the time inspired me to visit a psychiatrist to learn about myself as a leader.
It sounds like quite the personal journey. What did you discover about yourself as part of that process?
It was an awesome personal journey. But it was also one I needed to take because if I didn’t know my own strengths and weaknesses…how exactly was I going to lead other people? Look, just because you’re a good attorney doesn’t mean you know how to run a business. So I really immersed myself in all kinds of educational avenues to bring myself up to speed on that.
Of all the books I read during that period of time, the one that stands out is “The E-Myth Manager: Why Management Doesn’t Work – And What To Do About It” by Michael Gerber. My takeaway from reading it was that if I wanted to build a business, I had to actually work on the business and not in it. A lot of managing partners will say they’re working on the business, but in reality, it’s just part of their law practice. There’s no serious thought or consideration given to the key elements of what leadership really means. That makes for a complete lack of purpose. Their only purpose is to make money.
I’m sure some would probably ask, “Well, what’s the problem with making money?”
We all want to make money. That’s a given. But it can’t be the primary driver of your purpose. Let’s say that, after a while, your firm makes a significant amount of money. Now what? Or what happens when the money isn’t there? Unless you build a company with a purpose, money is the end result of doing a lot of things good. Money is never the purpose.
So part of the challenge with many professional service firms is that there is a total and utter lack of inspiration. How can you service clients effectively without inspiration? I don’t know. I can’t do it.
You seem to have created that purposeful culture at Levenfeld. But how did you change behaviors in people who have been brought up in the old system of thinking and doing things?
Well, among other things, I had a very in-your-face recruiting campaign that made fun of the large firms. My partners were cringing and thought I was crazy for that approach, but I believed in what I wanted to create. I saw such a market for a differentiated firm with different people to buy into it. To me, the analysis of personality for culture fit was huge and still is.
I also think getting the right people in the room to arrive at the solution is tremendously important for professional services firms. You may have geniuses and professional arguers, but you may not have the greatest business minds. I don’t say that to be hurtful, but rather in recognition that some people are just not geared for that side of the equation. They may not know how to build value for the firm, for the brand and for a legacy.
Beyond that personal journey you took of self-discovery, what else have you learned about your qualities as a leader since that time?
I continue to learn that you have to know yourself – and your limitations – better in order to be a better leader if you want to make change. That takes courage and humility. For instance, I was at an event with several hundred people in attendance when the speaker asked, “How many people in this room think they’re a high-level leader?” I saw about 600 hands in the room go up. The speaker then asked, “How many of you don’t think you’re that kind of leader right now?” Me and just a few other people put their hand up. The speaker was Jim Collins, author of Good To Great and Built To Last, then remarked that, in all likelihood, the small number of us who raised our hands were the actual leaders in the room! Which surprised me considering so many people in that room were very driven, Type A personalities. But the truth is, unless you think you always have something to learn, you’re not a good leader. I’m wary of anyone who thinks they know it all because that’s when you can really get into trouble.
If there’s a Leader With Courage who embodies being Champion of the Culture, one of the key attributes every great leader must have, Bryan Schwartz fits the bill perfectly. He set the standards at Levenfeld Pearlstein and has lived by them ever since. He challenged the status quo from Day 1. And he’s able to spot trends and threats without following every market or management fad. How do you rate in this particular category in the eyes of your colleagues? If you’re ready to get the honest feedback, check out a few pages from a sample report of our Leaders With Courage 360 Assessment. Then let’s get started on implementing real change today.