Law Firm Leadership in the 21st Century

The various traits and attributes of effective leaders identified by researchers must be practiced in a manner that is aligned with the organizational context and external environment in which the leader is operating.  The legal profession has typically been averse to seeing the practice of law as a business; however, as law firms have gotten larger and competition for clients and skilled legal talent has intensified, the need for firms to select and follow strong leaders has become apparent. 

In an article about some of the changes in law firm leadership since the beginning of the 2000s, Cunningham observed that law firm leaders are become more and more involved with the same types of issues as the CEOs of their clients and moving away from their long-standing comfort zones of practicing law and building and maintaining a “book of business”.  Law firms now look to experienced lawyers who have achieved credibility as rainmakers and subject matter experts to lead the ship and people with these qualifications are willing to turn over the details of managing their hard-earned clients to others and focus their skills and attention on managing the firm’s lawyers and non-legal personnel, administration, overall firm business development and long-term strategic planning.  However, in order for this to be effective the law firm leader needs to be grounded in the skills and practices common to successful leaders in other types of organizations.  In addition, he or she should be prepared to build an enthusiastic consensus for implementation of the following initiatives based on ideas suggested by Cunningham in his article:

  • Quarterly meetings of the firm’s executive or management committee that follow the lead of client board meetings and launch with marketing presentations on what clients want from their law firms, business intelligence on what clients are doing for their outside legal services and why, client retention and defection reports, and information from regular client satisfaction and needs surveys;
  • Statements of the mission and values of the law firm that are centered on clients and client service and wide disseminated and incorporated into personnel development practices and firm human resources practices (i.e., lawyers and non-lawyer staff are recruited, assessed and rewarded based on their adherence to the mission and values of the firm;
  • Expanded and improved training in client service for all firm personnel, both lawyers and non-lawyers, with constant attention to improvement of results of client satisfaction surveys;
    Expanded and improved training of personnel engaged in providing internal support services since such services make it easier for others to provide excellent direct services to the firm’s clients;
  • Creation and expanded reliance on client service teams and industry service groups and training of members of such teams and groups on best practices relating to team and project management;
  • Increased use of sophisticated sales strategies based on explicitly expressed desires and demands of clients and their behaviors and more sophisticated sales training for personnel involved in client outreach;
  • Increased involvement of, and delegation of authority to, non-legal professionals trained in marketing, service and sales and integration of such persons into client teams, practice and industry groups, and other levels of the firm’s organizational hierarchy.

While all these ideas sound good, the reality is that it remains rare for law firms to be able to find a lawyer in their midst with extensive training and experience in leadership.  While law firms have begun to follow the path already taken long before by their clients and implement development programs, the effectiveness of such programs requires overcoming certain special challenges such as the following described by Petrie:

  • “Most leadership programs are designed for corporate clients and don’t take into account the different psychology, culture or economic model of law firms
  • Lawyers must assess the ‘value proposition’ of spending time developing leadership using skills as opposed to doing billable work or developing new clients
  • The decentralized nature of a larger law firm means that it is difficult to mandate that partners take part in any leadership development efforts that they choose not to
  • Many partners are left to choose their own development methods, but are often the people least aware of what they need to get better at, or the methods that would help them to improve
  • The word ‘leadership’ in law firms is sometimes seen as a fuzzy concept
  • Rewards and status in a law firm tends to go to those who bring in clients, rather than those who ‘lead’”

While each of the issues described above are very real and have long been a part of the organizational culture among law firms, Petrie argued that law firms could nonetheless make significant progress toward developing “lawyer-leaders” by adopting elements of the an approach recommended by faculty members of the legal practice at the Center for Creative Leadership:

  • Develop a “leadership strategy” that supports and compliments the overall business and financial strategy of the firm and which includes the number of leaders needed to implement the firm’s strategy within a given time frame and the required skills, abilities and experiences of each of those leaders
  • Conduct a formal assessment of the gap between the firm’s current leadership capabilities and those required to implement the firm’s leadership strategy and approve investment necessary to close that gap
  • Mandate personal participation of the firm’s senior leaders in mentoring of younger potential leaders, presentations of content in leadership development programs, review of talent and selection of future leaders
  • Engage senior leaders to serve as the principle chain agents for needed transformations in the systems, policies, technologies and business practices of the firm that support the development of firm leaders

For more on law firm leadership see the recent post on Effective Law Firm Leadership Styles on the Growth-Oriented Entrepreneurship Blog maintained by the Growth-Oriented Entrepreneurship Project.

Sources: J. Cunningham, “Law Firm Leadership in the 21st Century: Say Hello to the Law Firm CEO”, Legal Marketing Reader (blog), February 2012, [accessed June 16, 2015]. N. Petrie, Leadership Development in Law Firms: Current and Future Practice (Cambridge MA: Harvard Law School, August 2011).  Petrie included several interesting illustrative studies of innovative practices relating to leadership development in the law firm context.

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