Leadership Styles on Effective Law Firm Leaders

In a 2008 article on law firm leadership, Richard and Sirkin began by discussing the six possible leadership styles identified by Goleman in his Harvard Business Review article on “Leadership That Gets Results” and argued that in the law firm context these styles may appear as follows: 

  • Visionary leaders in law firms excel at clearly articulating the chosen strategic direction to other lawyers and inspiring those lawyers to move in that direction. Law firms led by a visionary leader can be exciting places to work and the overall morale is infused with hope and optimism.
  • Coaching or mentoring leaders are willing to invest substantial resources in developing the skills of individual lawyers and generate devote a lot of time and effort in discussions with lawyers about their aspirations and fears. Coaching leaders thrive on their ability to create and maintain strong emotional bonds and relationships with other lawyers and, in turn, those lawyers feel more secure in their roles with the firm.
  • Affiliative leaders are concerned with ensuring the law firm is seen as a friendly, supportive and positive place to work and are inclined toward supporting activities that improve and maintain morale and cooperation among the lawyers and support personnel. Affiliative leaders are generally well-liked and have a natural tendency to provide positive feedback. While this approach is appreciated in the short-term it ultimately makes it more difficult for the leader to deliver difficult news when change or improvement is necessary.
  • Democratic leaders are well suited to the legal world since law firms are partnerships and the leader–the managing partner–is dealing with partners who perceive themselves as "equals" and it is therefore difficult for the leader to govern without allowing other partners to participate in the making of decisions and reaching a consensus among the partners regarding the appropriate strategic direction. Democratic leaders must have the patience to listen to others and the courage to allow the partners to have some level of autonomous control about how they pursue the goals and objectives laid out for them in the law firm strategy.
  • Pacesetting leaders are fairly common among law firms since managing partners are often high-achieving professionals focused on individual success as well as pushing other partners to seek and achieve lofty objectives for the firm itself. Pacesetting leaders have little or no time for consultation or accepting feedback and are most likely to say "no, just get it done". They see other lawyers, partners and associates, as falling into one of two distinct categories: those that "get it" and those that don't and probably never will.
  • Commanding leaders direct the law firm with an iron fist–issuing directives without consultation, managing by fear and coercion and publicly criticizing those attorneys that are not measuring up to the performance levels set by the leader.

In another investigation of leadership styles among law firm leaders, the Hay Group, a global organizational and human resources consulting firm, studied 33 partners in a top-tier global law firm and compared the leadership styles used by the high-performing partners with respect to various measures (i.e., revenue, strength of client relationships and substantive skills) to those of their colleagues whose performance was considered to be "average".  Data on each of the partners was compiled from assessments made by associates who had worked with the partners on various matters and some of the major findings of the study included the following:

  • High-performing partners used a broader range of leadership styles than their colleagues in the average group. In fact, almost 70% of the high-performing partners used four or more of the leadership styles.
  • High-performing partners were more likely to use the Visionary, Democratic and Coaching leadership styles. Specific behaviors included providing more information and context to other partners and associates, seeking opinions from other partners and associates before making decisions and participating in mentoring activities to maximize long-term development.
  • High-performing partners had learned to avoid the disruption behaviors of Pacesetter leaders such as setting unattainable goals for associates and micromanaging the tasks that had been delegated to associates.
  • While high-performing partners did use the Commanding style from time-to-time–issuing specific instructions with a strong indication that immediate action was expected–they also made an effort to coach those receiving the "commands" and make sure that they understood why the particular action, and the accompanying timetable, was needed. In contrast, average partners used the Commanding style primarily to intimidate and discourage associates.

For further discussion of law firm leadership, see the Chapter 3 on “Law Firm Leadership” in A. Gutterman (Ed.), Hildebrandt Handbook of Law Firm Management (Eagan MN: Thomson Reuters).

For more on Goleman's musing on leadership capabilities and styles, click here to download a complimentary excerpt from the Growth-Oriented Entrepreneur's Guide to Leadership written by Alan Gutterman and published by the Growth-Oriented Entrepreneurship Project.

Sources: L. Richard and M. Sirkin, “Six Styles: How Will You Handle Your Firm's Reins?”, Law Practice (December 2008), 32-34; Hay Group, The Case for Lawyers Who Lead (Philadelphia, PA, August 18, 2005); and D. Goleman, “Leadership That Gets Results”, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000, 78-90. 


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