Leadership: Do We Have It All Wrong?

Law firms need effective leaders who set the direction for the organization and are worthy of respect and consideration as a source of influence. If they meet these criteria, we call them credible. But do we have it all wrong, when it comes to selecting and developing our leaders?

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In his 2012 dissertation, Alexander Leeds reported his research findings about the criteria used by current leaders and leadership selection committees in large law firms and academic medical centers. His findings about what empowered people in these institutions want in their leaders is at odds with years of research results on what organizations need in their leaders; i.e., generate revenue, retain and engage the best people, and attract and retain their customers.

In law firms, the people who are already in positions of power as leaders, and the people who are on the search committees that select leaders, favor candidates who have engaged and excelled in distinguishing technical, legal work and client development. To continue to be considered credible leaders, these people must continue to demonstrate the same behavior that led to their selection in the first place. Indeed, when leaders stop demonstrating these strengths, according to Leeds, they face “a substantial threat of rejection” by other leaders and selection committees. To remain in their leadership roles, they must continue to control a large book of business and be credited with distinguishing legal work.

This leadership model has two problems. First, the selection and retention criteria are poor indicators of actual leadership ability, when leadership ability is defined as the set of skills that have been correlated with organizational performance; i.e., revenue generation, employee engagement and retention, employee productivity and customer satisfaction. Second, when a person in a leadership position continues to focus energy and time on the selection and retention criteria, that person’s time, energy, and focus is diverted from where it needs to be—on management, marketing efforts for the organization as-a-whole, and the organization’s long-term performance strategy.

It’s not surprising when a firm experiences the natural consequence of using this leadership model and begins to unravel at the seams. The firm as a whole becomes vulnerable to the desires and demands of a practice group or a few lawyers. The firm may find itself in a precarious financial position if it cannot sustain the direction of excessively large amounts of resources—compensation and to a lesser extent space and people—away from the needs of the organization as a whole and toward a few highly empowered partners. Highly skilled associates and junior partners may leave for a better culture and lifestyle. Successful lawyers and practice groups also may leave the firm if they do not feel they are being treated fairly. When lawyers leave, the firm has difficulty sustaining the same professional support staff and real estate. Organizational vulnerability looks like the fraying of ties between groups and individuals, until too many ties are completely broken and organizational sustainability is out of the question.

Just look at the news of firms losing partners and practice groups, followed by closing offices after they lose a large percentage of their most valuable partners. Listen to the firms that complain about their best associates leaving soon after reaching the point where they have become a profitable asset for the firm.

The criteria used to select people for leadership roles is a problem. Firms are ending up with leaders who do not lead. They own the decision rights for the issues that affect organizational sustainability, but they lack the skill set and power to make the best decisions for the organization as a whole. This consequence results from conceptualizing the role of lawyer-as-leader in a way that says nothing about organizational responsibility or the ethical duties of a leader.

Ben W. Heineman, William Lee, and David B. Wilkins wrote Lawyers as Professionals and as Citizens: Key Roles and Responsibilities in the 21st Century. Among other things, they argue that lawyers have a duty to their institutions. The ethical rules of professional responsibility speak at length on the duty lawyers owes to their clients; however, the rules say nothing about a duty to one’s institution. Indeed, if we are honest, then we must acknowledge the elephant in the room. The way we empower lawyers for their individual relationship with a client is at odds with the law firm’s organizational need for stability. Highly empowered rainmakers make a firm into a short-term revenue generator, while over the long term, the firm becomes vulnerable to severing into pieces when groups of rainmakers jump from one firm to the next, or their financial demands for joining the firm are too high for the business model to sustain over time. Further, for these leaders to retain their power, their time allocation skews a bit too heavily in favor of their individual relationship with their clients above all else. Good leaders devote time to developing the organization and their teams, and engaging and training their associates. Good leaders devote effort to sustaining the organization as a whole, and helping it to thrive by continual performance improvement at the organization and team levels in addition to the individual level.

Law firm leaders have a deep desire for their law firms to thrive, but they are operating under business models that create divided loyalties and conflicts. This is one explanation for David J. Parnell’s 2017 report in Forbes that firms of all sizes are most concerned with leadership accountability for implementation of firm-wide strategies, including succession planning for firm leaders and transitioning key client relationships from retiring baby-boomers to the firm. Until the organization’s performance is slightly more important than an individual lawyer’s, it will remain difficult to implement these types of firm-focused strategies.

Leadership, which benefits a firm rather than an individual lawyer, requires a shift in mindset. Beliefs about performance metrics must shift to shared team and organizational goals. Beliefs about leadership behaviors must also shift. Relationship building must become as important as task implementation, and for teams and the firm as a whole to thrive, time must be taken to build internal relationships before focusing on task completion.

It’s time to focus efforts on developing teams and shared goals, building partnerships, and working collaboratively with others by applying a diverse set of skills and perspectives from a diverse set of people. Firms need to be more collegial.

One benefit to a law firm will be the retention of clients regardless of whether and when a partner retires. Michelle Rogan studied law firms and discovered that a high level of cohesion among lawyers who interacted with each other on different cases and for a multitude of reasons was correlated with a significant reduction in client attrition and revenue decline after the departure of the relationship partner or the team leader responsible for coordination of work. This doesn’t happen without an organizational structure based on true teams of people with interdependent roles, skills and responsibilities, and a high level of cohesion among lawyers and between lawyers and the firm. Such an organizational structure will not happen without leadership aimed at true team development.

The solution to this problem is a re-balancing of competing personal and organizational goals. The interest of the law firm, as an entity, must become as important a driver of business decisions as the interest of a single rainmaker or practice group. The balance of power in most law firms today is so severely skewed in favor of the already-empowered leaders that we don’t even know whether the rest of the law firm members agree or disagree with the defining characteristics of leadership credibility that Leeds’s subjects identified. That’s one reason that through the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program, Jinxia Wei, a Northeastern University student, and I are launching this leadership survey to find out what other partners, associates, and staff think. Perhaps they see things differently, and that is one reason for higher attrition rates.

The balance of power is so skewed that it makes collaboration and cross-selling as difficult as associate development and engagement. Let’s look at how developing and using several of the key competencies of leadership associated with organizational revenue, employee engagement and customer satisfaction are at odds with a law firm business model that encourages individual lawyers to protect their client relationships by blocking others from developing ties with their clients.

A significant pool of research has focused on leadership skills associated with various indices of organization performance. Two sources are Korn Ferry Leadership Architect and Zenger I Folkman. They both incorporate research-based data on the key skills correlated with employee engagement and retention, customer satisfaction, organizational productivity and financial performance. They both have competency models, associated 360 degrees assessments, and supporting developmental materials. They both define skills in behavior-based terms. I have a preference for Korn Ferry and will be using that framework to explain why firms may have empowered but ineffective leaders.

Effective leaders at the highest level of any organization develop teams and the firm by spending most of their time using a robust skill-set that includes:

  • Painting a compelling picture of the firm vision and strategy that motivates others to action.
  • Developing people to meet both their career goals and the organization’s goals.
  • Consistently achieving results, even under tough circumstances.
  • Handling conflict situations effectively with a minimum of noise (this means collaboration more often than competition and advocacy for a position).
  • Building formal and informal relationship networks.
  • Relating openly and comfortably with diverse groups of people.
  • Adapting approaches and demeanor in real time to match the shifting demands of different situations.

Lawyers as professionals are trained and valued for their legal expertise and ability as rainmakers. However, to truly distinguish themselves as leaders, they must expand their perspective and skill set. To best advise their law firm and lead organizational strategies to help their organizations thrive, they need to be able to do much more than merely dispense legal advice, advocate for a position, or hold so tightly to their book of business as to exclude opportunities for cross-selling and linking their clients to other lawyers in the firm.

Each leadership skill is learned by doing, not by reading a book, article or blog post, or listening to the lectures of experts. Although it is important to keep abreast of changes in the legal industry and constantly collect data about the external environment, skilled leaders take the next step and put that information to use with grit and a learning mindset—two additional skills that effective leaders possess.

These leadership skills are not taught in law school. They are not easy to develop. They require significant practice time to master. Using these skills to plan and execute any strategy aimed at organizational and not just individual performance also takes time. Time must be devoted to developing the relationships among the team members before jumping into the task performance. This is time taken away from technical legal work and new client development—the tasks that empowered leaders and the people that select and keep them in power have concluded are necessary for credibility, and that are correlated with short-term rather than long-term revenue growth.

It’s difficult to convince a lawyer to spend time on tasks that are linked to preserving or growing an organization over the long term, and not merely an individual revenue stream over the short-term. It’s difficult to convince empowered lawyers that leadership performance is not correlated with their conclusion about leadership credibility. Any ideas on how to do that?

About the Author

Susan Letterman White is an attorney and an organization development/change management consultant. She is managing partner of Letterman White Consulting and a practice advisor with Mass LOMAP. Follow her on Twitter @susanletterman.

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