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Practice Management Q&A

What Does It Take to Develop Effective Law Firm Leaders?

by Dr. Larry Richard and Susan Raridon Lambreth

March 2006

When we were growing up, it was a well known orthodoxy that the electron was the smallest particle known to mankind; that a growing child needed to eat lots of whole milk and eggs cooked in fresh, creamy butter; and that leaders were born, not made.

Science has a way of adjusting conventional wisdom, and years of research and scientific evidence have taught us that there are myriad sub-atomic particles so small that they make an electron look like the Rock of Gibraltar; that too much of the "whole milk-eggs-and-butter" diet may contribute to heart disease; and most recently, that there isn't much by way of birth that makes one a good leader; that leadership can actually be learned.

This is good news for lawyers, because most of us are not born leaders, we haven't really given much thought to leadership, and certainly we're not trained as leaders in law school. In today's fast-changing environment, the need for leadership is greater than ever, but the supply of effective law firm leaders is thin. As a result, there is a great need to train lawyers to be leaders - not just managers -- in today's law firms.

What's driving this need? It is primarily the tremendous change affecting the legal profession generally and law firms specifically and the uncertainty that accompanies it. Well-known Harvard Business School professor John Kotter noted that when rapid change and uncertainty in the external environment increase, so does the need for leadership. If you look at the legal profession over the past 10 years, many familiar and even axiomatic, aspects of law practice and the management of lawyers have morphed from rock solid traditions to "anything goes." For example, we used to count on retainer clients who regularly provided us work and reduced our marketing costs. Today, clients shop around, have ready access to previously confidential information about legal providers, are far more sophisticated than ever before, and regularly change outside counsel on a case-by-case basis. For another example, lawyers used to find a firm and make it their home for the duration of their career. Today, partners are more like sports figures, periodically switching to the team that pays the most or who adds the most value to their client base. In times of this type of dramatic change, leaders are critical to offer a vision to lead people through the unknown.

In the face of such change, what does an effective leader need to do to guide the law firm to a healthy and successful future? And how can we find or develop these leaders? Here are leadership tips in five main areas that can help you or your firm develop more effective leaders. These tips are drawn from solid empirical research in universities and the business world as modified by the authors' experience in applying them to law firms over the past 15 years:

Leadership vs. Management

It's important for lawyers to realize that leading is not managing. Professor Kotter's research tells us that "complex" organizations need management, while "uncertain" organizations need leadership and these conditions can be independent of each other. An organization can be complex but stable; complex and rapidly changing; simple and stable; or simple and rapidly changing. These conditions will give rise, respectively, to a system that needs management but not leadership; a system that needs both; a system that needs neither; and a system that needs only leadership. Management is about making sure that clear goals are established and then carried out, despite organizational size, number of offices, sub-specialization, and other forms of complexity. It is focused on the short-term (usually one-year increments), and depends on analytical, rational, data-based, cognitive strategies to be effective. Leadership, on the other hand, is focused on a longer time horizon (five years or more); is much more people-focused, inspirational, emotional, non-linear and visceral. To lead, you must gain buy-in and commitment. When the people you are leading are also owners of the firm, the need for buy-in is even greater.

As described above, these are highly uncertain times in law firms. There has been dramatic change in the profession and many firms face uncertain futures. When long-established firms can vote to dissolve, almost overnight, there are lawyers in many firms who do not feel secure about their firm's future or their own. At the same time, at least the medium-sized and large law firms around the world have also become fairly complex organizations. As a result, most law firms today need both leadership and management. For reasons described below, the management of law firms comes more easily to most lawyers than the leadership function.

Too many law firms today are focusing on training their leaders in management skills - even though this comes more naturally to many lawyers -- rather than leadership skills where they need more development. Some law firms have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a "leadership training" program with a business school, only to discover that the business schools are experts in "management" skills, not in "leadership" development and that their programs were missing major elements of leadership training that they sorely needed. Most leadership development work is done with consulting firms or in partnership with research organizations like the Center for Creative Leadership.

Law firms need to ensure that they identify the management vs. leadership skills their leaders need to develop for their firm's continued and long-term success. They then need to develop programs to enhance the competencies needed for each of these skills.

Personality Traits of Leaders

It's an age-old debate-are leaders "born" or "made?" More than 45 years of leadership research has failed to identify a universal set of "right" personality traits that make one a good leader. Certain personality traits can certainly make it harder or easier for a particular individual to learn specific leader behaviors, but the key driver of a leader's effectiveness is doing the right behaviors.

When a leader continually demonstrates certain key behaviors, constituents tend to rate the leader as better rather than worse, and are thus more likely to follow that leader. And since behaviors are largely learned (whereas traits are largely based on genetic predispositions), leaders are more "made" than "born". This is good news for lawyers, since most of us are not natural leaders, and many of us need to become more effective as leaders.

If the "born" leader theory is discredited, and there is no "right" set of personality traits, does that mean that personality has no role in leadership excellence? Nothing could be farther from the truth. Personality plays a key role, principally in making it harder or easier for a particular individual to learn the key leader behaviors. If you have the right personality traits without the resulting behaviors, you'll see no improvement in leadership effectiveness; but if you do the right behaviors, even if you don't have the best personality traits, you'll be a long way along the road to leadership effectiveness.

These principles apply with even more force to lawyers who need to function in a leadership role because the typical lawyer has a number of personality traits that are very strong and very different from those of the general public. More to the point, these traits tend to make most lawyers better as lawyers, but they pose a significant impediment to most lawyers switching into the leadership role.

For example, according to research conducted by one of the authors, Dr. Richard, the kinds of people who are attracted into the legal profession-and who stay and become successful-are less sociable, and more skeptical, more urgent, more analytical, more autonomous, and more defensive and thin-skinned (yes, more defensive!) than the general public-by a wide margin.

These traits typically make them good lawyers, and it's a fairly easy transition for most lawyers to move from the lawyering role into the management role. But, leadership requires almost the opposite traits, which means that the qualities that make you quite a good lawyer can make you a mediocre leader. Or, to put it another way, most law firm leaders need to be effective lawyers, leaders, and managers, and the qualities that make them good at two of these roles can be incompatible with being good at the third role. Thus, the best lawyer-leaders are adaptable-they've learned how to be, for example, skeptical in their lawyer role and yet trusting and nonjudgmental in their leadership role. However, this adaptation is not easy for most lawyers but can be accomplished through leadership development programs over an extended period of time.

Characteristics of Effective Leaders

According to extensive research described in the book, The Leadership Challenge - How to get extraordinary things done in organizations, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, most constituents admire leaders who are:

Application of each of these characteristics to the legal profession is described below.

  1. Honesty is the most important characteristic people look for in their leaders, in two senses of the word. First, constituents want their leaders to tell the truth. Second, they want their leaders to act consistently with their stated values and principles. Essentially, constituents watch to see if a leader "walks his talk" and does what he says he will do. This means treating members of your group or team fairly and consistently within the values you articulate. It means you must be sensitive to what you say and make commitments to, so that there is no disconnect between what you say and do. Most lawyer-leaders are pretty good at this, although we all know some exceptions to the rule.
  2. The second most important characteristic is competence. In a law firm, most lawyers simply will not accept an individual as a leader unless s/he is believed to be an excellent lawyer as well. This will be covered in more depth below.
  3. Another thing that constituents look for in their leaders is that they be forward-looking. This does not mean that they have some prescient powers but they need to have an overall sense of strategic direction for the organization and recognize the importance of their organization having strategic direction, rather than getting mired in the minutiae. It also means that their focus is on creating a potential future, rather than dwelling on the past.
  4. Lastly, constituents want their leaders to be inspiring -- motivated and motivating. They need to be optimistic, though not a "Pollyanna." According to Kouzas and Posner, people want their leaders to be "enthusiastic, energetic, and positive about the future." Leaders need to create a vision that connects with their constituents at an emotional, visceral level. Cognitive leadership is simply not very effective.

Leadership Competencies

Recent leadership research shows that leaders need to be very good at three or four behavioral competencies, at a minimum, in order to be seen as effective. (A "competency" is a cluster of learned skills.) Remember, it's not a question of whether the leader is objectively skilled, but whether constituents perceive the leader to be so. The two are usually related, but the emphasis should be on the perceptions held by constituents about a leader's behavior.

Certain competencies are more important than others for effective leadership. Particular competencies are more likely to be common to many firms, while others will be unique to a few firms. Examples of common ones include technical competence, drive for results, and integrity.

Technical competence: As described above, if a leader is not also a good lawyer, s/he won't have many followers. This one insight alone explains why, to our knowledge, the "outsider" leadership paradigm hasn't worked in any law firm where it's been tried. The "outsider" leadership paradigm is the failed assumption that an effective leader from another sector-business, the military, government, non-profits, etc.-should be able to come into a law firm and run it effectively like a business. Lawyers will only follow another good lawyer. That's the minimum price of admission (but by itself, it does not make someone an effective leader.) Most law firm leaders today are part-time leaders. They spend the majority of their time practicing law, and a little time leading. This duality actually enables them to maintain their skill as lawyers. A small minority of leaders, almost all in the role of managing partner, devote their full time to the role of leading. While they can be more focused this way, they run the risk of losing their credibility because they no longer practice law. (On the other hand, we've heard plenty of people criticize part-time managing partners. E.g., "How can you hope to lead a $50 million business when you only devote 600 hours a year to it?")

Drive for results: An effective law firm leader needs to focus less on the mechanics of leading and more on achieving the vision that was held out to the firm. People usually judge leaders by their results. Effective leaders know that they can't do it alone. The single most important test for whether you're an effective leader or not: look behind you. If you don't have willing followers, it doesn't matter that you're doing everything "right." And if you aren't achieving the goals you promised, you won't have willing followers for long.

Integrity: A leader's "coin of the realm" is his/her integrity or credibility. Since lawyers have a much higher need for autonomy than the average person, they simply will not follow people readily. A leader increases the odds of having others follow his/her lead by maintaining a fair, unbiased, congruent, consistent, honest and reliable track record.

Further Competency Research

Research shows that until you master the leadership competencies that are important in your firm above the 90th percentile, followers won't really notice them and thus they won't have a meaningful effect. If, for example, you are seen as someone who "drives for results" at a level of 70 percent (on a scale of zero to 100), and you work hard to focus more on results over the course of a year and your rating by your peers goes up to 80 percent, this increase will not result in your being seen as an "excellent" leader. It's only when you truly excel in a competency that people notice and draw favorable inferences from it. (The same is true in reverse for low scores-it's only when you dip below 10 percent that it causes people to truly view you as incompetent.)

The importance of this perceptual problem is that striving leaders who work tepidly on a competency and increase their skill marginally over the course of a year are really wasting their time. A corollary is that one-shot leadership training courses are a waste of time. Through leadership coaching or a comprehensive leadership development program, you should take the best of your firm and practice leaders and help them achieve 90 percent or better levels of skill in three or more competencies rather than spend time on shallow programs that only move them all up 10 percent on one competency.

Competencies are for the most part learned and learnable. One of the essential ingredients here is motivation to be a leader. You can perhaps draft a lawyer into a management role and end up with an effective manager. You can't draft a lawyer-or anyone else for that matter-into a leadership role and expect an effective leader. One of the things that make effective leaders is that they want to be leaders, and they want to be effective. This is by no means sufficient by itself, but it is an important component of leadership.

Leader Behaviors

Finally, leaders need to do five things regularly in order to lead effectively. According to Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge, here are the behaviors that effective leaders do:

Final Points on Leadership

There is ample evidence that leadership is situational-a leader who is effective in one setting may not be in another. Every law firm is different. What makes an effective leader in one firm may not work in another firm. And a leader who is effective in a time of a sluggish economy and a belt-tightening strategy may not be effective in an expansive economy and a growth strategy.

Conclusion

These tips are relatively simple to state. Yet, we've all heard the axiom that "common sense is not necessarily common practice." The real challenge is execution-making small, simple changes to begin to behave in the ways described in this article. If you try incorporating these ideas into your leadership repertoire in small increments, before long you'll begin to see significant results. Good luck.

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About the Author

is a consultant with Hildebrandt International who concentrates on practice management issues and heads the Hildebrandt Institute Practice Group Leader Training Workshops. She can be contacted at 800-223-0937, ext 220.