Strong and Sustainable Leadership Practices for Law Firms

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Leadership is about more than just being “in charge.” Find out why.

Every entity needs a leader. From something as small as a household to a major multi-national corporation, leadership is needed to reach goals and avoid internal adversity.

Leadership practices in law firms are much the same. Law firms, for all intents and purposes, have evolved from just practicing law to what they are today, which are full-fledged businesses. Currently, law firms have marketing and accounting departments as well as human resource departments, not to mention the usual attorney support staff of secretaries, assistants and paralegals.
With this sort of complexity existing within a growing number of large law firms, it soon becomes apparent that a leader needs to emerge to establish and maintain the law firm’s path to success.
However, this cannot be done without leadership practices being put in place. Leadership without a theme, a target, and most importantly, an attitude that everyone can get onboard with, is ineffectual. And with ineffectual leadership, it’s easy to see how difficulties can arise within a law office.
Resentment and worker conflict, particularly toward management, can occur. With that, all productivity can either dramatically slow or stop entirely. At that point, clients will drop off, top lawyers will quit, and before long the large leaderless law firm will close its doors, permanently.
It’s for this reason that leadership within a law firm, particularly if the firm is well established and/or growing, has to be strong and sustainable.
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The Law Firm as an Ecosystem
Inc. suggests that business environments are really ecosystems that reflect the established culture of the business. This viewpoint easily fits into the mold of today’s large law firms. To that end, leaders have to give more than take. They need to be selfless and let others take the credit and accolades for the law firm business’s success. Here are a few more characteristics a leader needs to gain to win over fellow workers and subordinates alike:
  1. Listen to the employees: There’s so much more to an employee than just some random person who comes in during the morning, does their work, then goes home in the evening. Employees have thoughts, desires and personalities. Yes, they are human. With that said, a leader needs to listen to his or her employees. Leaders must authentically consider employee feedback, and with that, leave the hubris of their leadership role out of their actions.  
  2. Show empathy to employees: Being a boss who listens and shows understanding is gold to his or her workers. A tolerant and understanding leader will garner enormous amounts of dedication and loyalty. In fact, according to Inc., DDI research said that empathy is the number one driver of overall organizational performance. Strong leadership that listens and understands other employees results in strong personal relationships and promotes productive collaboration. Circumstances are considered, as well as the challenges and frustrations that a workforce can experience. Strong leaders realize their workers’ emotions are real. Strong leaders also know that by being empathetic to their employees, that same behavior can trickle down to other employees, which can result in team members listening to and helping one another.  
  3. Offer rewards and recognition: If listening and empathy represent two points of a three-pointed star, rewards and recognition are the third point. Simply put, to offer rewards and/or recognition of an employee’s hard work, a leader must first have a strong relationship with that employee. Otherwise, if there’s no prior relationship, suddenly coming out of nowhere to give an employee accolades can seem like pandering.
On that same note, if a leader has already established good, working relationships with his or her employees, then that leader should reward and recognize his/her employees on a regular basis. This will show the appreciation a leader has for those who work within the company. Company-wide lunches and Lotto tickets given to everyone during the Christmas season also works well to show employee appreciation.
  1. Suggest with earnestness that employees take a break: If a leader acknowledges a worker’s productivity, as well as their dedication, then more than likely the last thing a leader will want to do is burn out this employee. It’s to this end that leadership should be responsible for the well-being of the company’s employees. A good leader will instigate a proper work-balance lifestyle for his/her staff. A good leader, if possible, will try to eliminate overtime or weekend work, and instead be flexible with their workers’ hours to accommodate outside obligations they might have. Leaders will also allow ample breaks throughout the workday for employees, as he or she will understand that keeping an employee cooped up at a desk for too long can certainly lead to burn out.
As Inc. suggests, good leadership should concern itself with employee health. Leaders should practice the following suggestions to help promote adequate employee downtime:
  • Every 80 to 120 minutes, employees should take a mental and physical break of at least 10 minutes.
  • During that break, leaders can suggest to employees that they do the following:
    • Practice meditation.
    • Listen to music.
    • Infuse fun, laughter and humor in the workplace; i.e. joke around a bit.
    • Go outside for a short walk.
  1. Be communicative: The first four suggestions add up to this larger suggestion that law firm leaders be communicative. This means talk with – not to – your employees. Be honest and upfront with them, and never let them think you might have information that they’d either not understand or that they’d accept in a negative manner. Talk about the good and the bad of the company’s atmosphere, product, and culture. Good leadership makes suggestions and also takes suggestions. Good leadership should also be able to take constructive criticism in the same tenor and way that it gives constructive criticism.  
The Authenticity of Leadership
It’s true in the business and legal world that talk can be cheap, and as far as a workplace leader listening, that could mean listening for as long as it takes for a phrase or conversation to go in one ear and out the other.
Authentic leadership, according to Forbes, is a quality that needs continual shaping and building. This is because authentic leadership is a living existence that grows and morphs. Adjustments are continually made within the leadership role. When to be tough, when to be gentle and soothing, etc., depends upon the climate of the business and the overall mood of the workforce. Leadership, in short, is more than anything a responsibility that is hands on. But to get to that level a leader has to be authentic. They have to nourish their authenticity, as well as be self-aware and transparent with it. Good leaders also have to practice their authenticity, if anything, to convince their employees that they are a competent leader in the first place.
While leadership in any situation can come naturally to some people, it is still a characteristic that needs constant attention, particularly when others fall under your leadership. Keep yourself open and transparent when leading employees, be honest and up front with them, and foster a strong relationship with them in which both you and they are able to openly communicate. At that point, whether you lead in a law firm or another type of business, you will have ascended to the true role of what a good leader is.
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