There is very little doubt that Donald Trump is a big personality. And he certainly knows how to make money. But does that make him a good leader? This question isn’t just idle speculation these days, as at this writing he is a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with law firms and leadership. Well here’s the thing—law firms frequently default, or more commonly, intentionally, turn to the rainmakers (who are often also big personalities) for leadership in their firms. Is this a leadership strategy?
Corporate America is struggling with a very real and documented “leadership deficit” today. According to a recent American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) survey of 547 professionals, including leaders of professional services concerns, researchers found that leaders are deficient in the competencies they themselves identify as necessary for future success. Cultivation of the “soft skills” vital to addressing imminent challenges—strategic planning, change management, knowledge sharing, listening and emotional intelligence, is actively resisted. Today’s leaders are “hard skills” devotees focused on results; analytical bottom liners who are competitive and driven.
Make no mistake, law firms are experiencing the same issues. But in some ways, their situation is worse, because the very structure of a law firm does not nurture the leadership skills needed to effectively run a business enterprise. Traditional business structures are hierarchical in nature, and they promote and cultivate leaders by placing people in positions with increasing levels of business and managerial responsibility. These people get to learn on the job, make mistakes, and develop business judgment and people management skills. Ideally, they then move up to leadership positions based on demonstrated ability.
To their credit, law firms long ago realized the necessity to evolve from the “gentleman’s agreement” model of governance to one that is more business-centric. The 1990s saw extensive infrastructure built to support marketing, business development, technology, human resources, finance and more. An influx of non-lawyers were hired to manage these functions. But as anyone who has worked as a law firm administrator can tell you, these non-lawyers have little actual decision-making power because of the partnership or corporate structure. They certainly have only a secondary and/or consultative role in setting a firm’s strategic direction.
The default leadership strategy for firms has been to turn to their “successful” lawyers to assume leadership roles. Success is defined as those who generate big revenues. In some ways, this makes perfect sense, as these people have demonstrated skill in originating business and managing cases. In addition, successful partners are given a great amount of deference in firm governance, because frankly they have the financial leverage to assert themselves in firm decision-making. But this could leave the firm in the hands of a particular partner who may or may not have the right skills to lead in a strategic manner and guide the entire firm to its highest performance. Even worse, this partner may have professional and personal interests that are at cross-purposes with the good of the firm as a whole. This leaves aside the considerable opportunity and real costs of having unskilled leaders at the helm.
Where firms fall short is in their development of lawyers not as lawyers, but as leaders. The laser focus on the bottom line and the accompanying rewards can stifle the development of the soft skills mentioned above. Ironically, these soft skills are vital ingredients in attracting and retaining clients, not to mention attracting and retaining great attorneys.
Consider the law firm incentives: Attorneys, particularly those interested in making partner, have three things on their minds: 1) billing hours 2) originating business and 3) maintaining and growing client relationships. Law firms are bottom-line businesses, and performance against these measures is what is rewarded. To be sure, law firms are becoming more interested in identifying the core skills and competencies of young lawyers for purposes of compensation and promotion. Many have dipped their toes in the leadership development pool by putting younger partners through programs with an eye to assuming leadership roles in the future. But it’s clear that they have fallen short of embracing the idea that leadership itself is a core competency for success, not just “nice to have” when it comes time to assume a leadership position within the firm. Much of what they have done has been too little, too late.
The “business” of the law firm is not just the practice of law. It is strategic planning, financial planning, change management, and much, much more. This is where the opportunities lie to expand the vision of what constitutes “success” in a firm. We all have stories of colleagues that the firm hated to lose, but who could not find a place to be successful within the firm pecking order. Firms need to innovate to hold on to these people who bring a value beyond or aside from the traditional practice of law.
Embracing leadership as a core competency for young attorneys when they walk through the door may be the answer. Leadership’s inclusion as a core value may be the jumping off point to an alternative career trajectory for the fantastic service partner who has an aptitude for the “soft skills” mentioned; or the counsel who doesn’t have partnership aspirations, but is a valued contributor to the firm’s business and cultural health. This approach allows for the retention and development of those attorneys who demonstrate the potential for leadership, and may be interested in exploring alternatives to law practice at some point down the road. Identifying potential leaders early in their development could mitigate and possibly alleviate the tension found when high earners must divide their time between practicing law and running the firm.
Embracing a “leadership for all” mentality in the law firm environment has no downside. As has been amply demonstrated, and as Donald J. Polden wrote, all lawyers need these soft skills to “lead teams by inspiring others to achieve litigation or transaction goals and meet clients’ needs and demands. Lawyers need to be collaborative and interact with others in positive and effective ways.”
But the leadership model presented can only be successful if the present firm leadership buys in and champions its implementation. As an initial matter, the firm’s partners must incorporate leadership as a business competency into the firm’s value system, and invest in its development. Visible and tangible support for leadership development should be manifested in training from the day a new attorney steps through the door. The firm must find opportunities for developing lawyers to practice this competency via firm committees, active membership in professional associations and by leading cases. Not coincidentally, these are the kinds of assignments that also create strong engagement and nurture the attorney’s investment not only in their own personal success, but also in the success of the firm. Finally, the firm must relax the ingrained seniority and power hierarchies, usually driven by the high earners, which often quiet the voices of these potential leaders. In this way, young lawyers can develop the skills to influence, persuade and inspire those around them within the firm that will earn and solidify their place at the leadership table.
Firms are losing too many great people to a rigid and outmoded Darwinian system. Leadership development presents firms with an opportunity to innovate to meet the changing times. Firms can and should identify, develop and nurture future leaders early. As they “grow up” within the firm’s culture, and as the firm demonstrates its commitment to their growth, these are the people who will have the interest, the investment and the desire to devote the attention necessary to create a vision for success. And they will have the credibility to see it through.
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