Law Firm Leaders Will Face Challenge of Moving Firms into Shifting Future

Originally published for Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute on February 3, 2015

This week, I want to share some suggestions on law firm leadership. I do so because I believe leadership, or the absence of it, will make a big difference in how law firms fare during these turbulent times.

Effective leadership is not easy, nor is it for everyone. It requires leadership skills and hard work. No two leaders lead in the same manner, but all successful leaders have a special “something” that their colleagues recognize, and all of them take their leadership responsibilities seriously.

Leading a law firm presents particular challenges. Law is a profession, first and foremost. Lawyers are supposed to be independent actors, obliged and driven to do what is right. And they are trained to spot the “issues” in any suggestion, which means they will find the flaws in any plan the leader presents. That’s why everyone jokes about “herding cats.” To cause lawyers to move in a particular direction involves a higher order of difficulty than in most other settings.

That challenge is even greater in today’s climate of impending change. While nearly everyone acknowledges that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, there is no consensus as to what the new paradigm will be, how we will get there or which firms will survive. In addition, since most firms continue to enjoy positive financial results, most lawyers are not yet experiencing personal financial motivation to change. This uncertainty and lack of a “burning platform” make it all the more imperative for law firm leaders to show their firms the way forward now.

The concept here is leadership, not management. Management involves making things happen, largely based on authority or power. Law firms need a lot of management to ensure their systems function well. But to push lawyers to embrace technology, to rethink the way they do their work, and to take the other steps that will be necessary in the coming paradigm shift will require leadership. By which I mean: establishing a trust relationship with the all of the firm’s personnel in which they willingly follow the course that firm leadership proposes.

So, with that in mind, here are some law firm leadership suggestions:

Look to the Horizon

The leader must lift his/her gaze from the here and now to what lies ahead. What is on the horizon? Where is all of this headed? It is the leader’s duty to develop an informed view of current trends and future developments as a basis for the firm’s direction.

This goes beyond our legal training. Lawyers are trained to know the past and to be current on the present. Gazing into the future is a different exercise.

Articulate a Vision

The leader must see to it that the firm develops a concrete vision for its future. I don’t mean by this any particular form of articulation. It doesn’t need to be a charismatic speech or a Jeffersonian writing. In fact, it will show up in several different forms and settings. But it does need to express in concrete terms, which everyone can understand, the course that is proposed for the firm.

Developing this vision will involve the input of many. In the end, it is the leader’s responsibility to get it done, to express it effectively, and to convince people to buy in to it.

Inspire

Leaders must inspire. Each effective leader does it in his/her own way, but they all inspire. They move their people to action. Law firm leaders need to find their own particular manner of doing this. And like articulating a vision, inspiring the firm is not a one-time event but rather demonstrated many times in many different actions and communications.

You certainly don’t learn this skill in law school either.

Listen

Listening to the people that you’re trying to lead is an essential ingredient of leadership. It facilitates a trust relationship. It connects the leader on a personal level.

Communication is a two-way process. Most law firm leaders are good on the “send” side of communication. The “receive” dimension is at least as important.

Rarely will people follow someone they do not believe cares about and respects them. The clearest sign that the leader does care about and respect the members of the team is to look them in the eye and listen to what they have to say.

Obviously there are many other benefits to listening to your team, but, for the leadership responsibility, it is mission critical.

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