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The Top Attributes of Law Firms Leaders: Characteristics of the Most Effective and Loved Law Firm Leaders


Summary: Do you have a natural leader in your law firm? If not, one needs to be established ASAP.

The Top Attributes of Law Firms Leaders: Characteristics of the Most Effective and Loved Law Firm Leaders
  • Like any business, a law firm has to have established and reliable leadership.
  • To which you have to ask yourself the question about the leaders in your law firm.
  • Are they truly leaders?

Leaders are hard to find. In any challenging scenario, strong direction is needed, which will invariably increase the need for leadership. In short, when it comes to guidance in potentially difficult situations, one can hardly dismiss the importance of strong headship.

For instance, take a sports team. Without leadership, the offense and defense would be a scattered mess on the court. The same scenario can easily occur within a business setting such as a law firm.

To that point, law firms need to have established leaders and leadership. They need direction on where new clients will come from and who those clients are while also retaining the clients the firm already possesses.

Of course, leadership isn’t as easy as pointing to a senior-level attorney in your firm and saying, “You’re it.” Leadership has to be an almost sixth sense within a person to make certain they have the assets leaders require. Some of those assets are:
  • Anticipation
  • Understanding the firm’s scope of interest
  • Understanding where the firm’s future scope of interest should concentrate
  • Strong final decision-making skills…

… are qualities which make up a leader within a law firm, or at least the type of leaders attorneys within a law firm hope to have.

But what if these qualities aren’t readily available within those you might think should be of leadership material in your law firm. What do you do next? How do you equip a potential leader who isn’t quite “there” yet?

Keep reading to find out.

Rely On Your Law Firm’s Culture

Marcie Borgal Shunk, states in her article A Crisis of Leadership: How Do We Properly Equip Those Who Lead? that there is a crisis brewing in today’s law firms. And how to avoid that crisis is through a law firm being honest with itself. To do this, according to Shunk, a law firm must remain reliant on their culture, vision and operational approach to drive performance—all of which, at their core, rely on effective leadership. To that end, larger law firms tend to have the advantage of relying on their own culture simply because they are larger and have more attorneys and non-legal personnel to support that culture.

But at the same time few firms, as Shunk’s writing supports, have the processes, tools and structure in place to develop and select the best leaders for their organizations. Moreover, the most revered leaders in law firms may not be those who have significant, positive, long-term impact on their firms.

While the reason for this particular crisis in law firms can vary for a number of reasons, Shunk’s article maintains that one overriding hiccup in the process of finding a law firm leader lies in the qualifications partners are keen to when they elect individuals in leadership roles.

One widely accepted qualification is that the person being elected should also be a successful and smart attorney who is a rainmaker as well. This, many feel, is a wise requirement; after all, who would want a subpar attorney who has no book of business and/or is unable to bring business to the law firm itself as the law firm’s leader?

Another problem is a lawyer who is charged with a leadership role may in themselves have little to no formal experience running a complex business model, such as a law firm, which can result in poor transition and succession planning of the firm.

As Shunk puts it, the fact that a law firm can suffer such causation makes it somewhat miraculous that law firms survive at all while under the shadow of such dysfunction. Yet they have, and perhaps when given the context of what a law firm is in and of itself, these issues of inadequate law firm leadership are less surprising, if not significant.

Rainmaker + Entrepreneur + Change Agent + Visionary = A Successful Law Firm Leader

We’ve heard it before: U.S. law firms – at least the top-tiered law firms, are slow to change. Shunk suggests that up until the last decade, the job of managing partner, chair or CEO was linked more to being an outstanding lawyer and business generator than a purveyor of change.

Shunk cites storied law firm leaders of the past century typically rose to glory on their groundbreaking legal skills, particularly when they represent a client. Additionally, they were also entrepreneurs, as were many law firm leaders at that time.

But that was then, and this is now; a current period in legal history in which law firm leaders face challenges that are increasingly more socially complex and daunting.

Leaders who are change agents are needed more so than ever. Their strategic prowess and long-range vision, coupled with a deep understanding of competitive dynamics and a keen sense of how to create a culture that motivates all members, are the driving forces that are required to be a modern-day law firm leader.

So How Are Law Firm Leaders Created?

Unfortunately, being a leader within a law firm is a subject that has yet to be taught in law school, if ever. Leadership skills don’t fall under the curriculum of a soon-to-be associate.

Furthermore, even fewer attorneys, be they associates or partners, are formally developed through the course of their legal career to with the notion that they may one day be tapped to become a law firm’s leader.

In fact, as Shunk suggests, what makes one successful as a partner in a law firm, especially a firm emphasizing productivity (aka billable hours), is often the antithesis of what a successful leader will embody.

Shunk notes the advice given by Marshall Goldsmith, a renowned executive teacher and coach. Shunk cites that in his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Goldsmith details 20 habits of successful people that they must abandon to rise to the level of being a great leader.

Among them are:
  • No. 6, “Telling the world how smart we are”
  • No. 8, “Negativity, or let me explain why that won’t work”
  • No. 13 “Clinging to the past”
  • No. 1 “Winning too much.”

Goldsmith outlines the “tricky” fact that No. 1 “Winning too much,” contradicts what an attorney is. Ironically, No. 1 is also the most pervasive of any of the 20 habits of successful people.

Attorneys are built to fight and told to win. They are trained to debate and defend a position in which they demonstrate their power by poking holes in others’ arguments, mixing defense with offense, and essentially pulling out all argumentative stops in order to deliver an acceptable legal product.

Winning is an overriding trait that is a part of their core behavior, personally and overall being. If they weren’t built to win, attorneys would not be attorneys.

Conversely, as Goldsmith notes, these directed and in many cases, brutal aspects of a successful attorney’s personality are the polar opposite of a strong corporate manager in any other type of business. You don’t want to think, process or overall be like a lawyer if you also want to lead a business or lead others.

Leader Selection/Election and Transition Poses Another Problem

Shunk suggests that a third challenge looms for law firms who are due to select and/or replace their leaders. And that’s the process by which these replacements are selected.

Though this process differs from one firm to the next, more often than not a typical large or midsize law firm selection process entails promoting an existing firm partner into a position of authority.

Shunk recounts that many elected managing partners/chairs have held previous leadership positions at an office, practice or committee level, though not always. Few have had positions providing a comprehensive perspective on firm-level operations, finances, and people prior to taking the helm.

Some firms go as far as to require leaders to compete for re-election every few years. Their re-election is partially performance-based, of course, with the partnership making a judgment call as to whether the firm or the leader is doing well.

While the details in the metrics of these types of elections can vary from one firm to another, the overall characteristics between these firms are mostly the same in that the profits per equity partner, revenue per lawyer, and year-over-year growth—are factors that go into whether or not a partner is elected into a leadership role.

While having a leadership role in a law firm can be challenging and potentially quite satisfying, these lawyers also realize the importance of keeping up their law-related fitness in their practice area. This is to ensure that once an attorney’s leadership role ends, he or she can easily transition back to the practice of law.

Many former leaders retain some position of power in the firm subsequent to being replaced. The frequent lack of clarity around expectations of these leaders and how best to transition them can be a source of frustration and consternation both for the former leader and for the individual coming up to replace her or him.

Shunk concludes that even if the election of leaders in law firms are done with good intentions, the selection process for law firm leaders is fraught with conflicting interests and built-in obstacles such as:
  • Time-based, rather than performance-based, transition periods.
  • Selection by a group of partners whose interests are largely individually oriented and short-term.
  • Compounding demands with a dual role as firm leader and practicing attorney.
  • Vague transition and expectations of former leaders with no job description.
As to why law firms have leadership roles in the first place, one can point to the typical life events that usually entail the re-election of a leader. Those are:
  • The retirement of the current CEO
  • Poor performance, financially or otherwise
  • Changing market dynamics and positioning (e.g., merger/acquisition, disruption, etc.)

Be Ready to Leave, Be Ready to Lead

At the end of the day, law firms are living and breathing entities, and their election of leaders will be unique to the firm’s culture. But even the most subtle changes in leadership can affect how a law firm operates on a business level and personal level with its employees.

Even so, there has to remain a willingness to reframe a law firm’s dyed-in-the-wool perspectives, upgrade the firm’s antiquated ideals and selection practices, and share with each employee a strong idea of what makes up a great law firm leader.

Those of authority within a law firm need to also remember that before a leadership role is taken, lawyers need to prep themselves. In fact, they should prep themselves before and during their leadership role to ensure they stay in touch with their practice area to confirm they can still practice even while acting as the firm’s leader. Plus a lawyer practicing and leading a law firm at the same time is bound to garner respect and admiration throughout the law firm. And honestly, what law firm these days couldn’t use a strong dose of both admiration and respect among its employees?

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