Despite the fact that lawyers are intelligent and highly qualified professionals, they seem inherently ill-adapted to leadership and management roles. Why is this the case? What impact does it have on a practice? And if firms are to survive the legal industry’s current state of flux, how should they address developing great leadership in law firms?
You may be a great lawyer, but are you also a great leader?
In early 2014, the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) found that one of the top five issues for law firms was managing partner communication and staff management skills.
This led ALPMA President Tony Bleasdale to observe that, “While most managing partners and partners are excellent lawyers, there are few that are natural leaders, great people managers or strong communicators.”
Why are lawyers such bad leaders?
It is well documented by industry commentators that lawyers are simply not hardwired to be managers or leaders. In fact, the very qualities and thinking patterns that make us good lawyers are the things preventing us from succeeding in management roles.
Research conducted by Dr. Larry Richard  at the Hildebrandt Institute (now part of the Thomson Reuters Group) indicates that, on average, lawyers score significantly higher than the rest of the population in six key behavioural traits. They are highly sceptical, autonomous, antisocial and resistant to new ideas, have a high sense of urgency and are easily discouraged by setbacks. This places them at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to leadership and managerial tasks.
Compounding this, lawyers who assume management roles generally have no prior experience, formal training or mentoring. More often than not, managing partners are appointed solely on the basis of seniority or success in building a client base.
The impact of poor management and leadership on a practice
Inexperienced, untrained and/or incompetent leadership and management generally translates to high staff turnover, floundering client relationships, poor service quality and a lack of strategic direction, culture or consensus within a firm. The result is a drastically underperforming practice with frustrated partners and unhappy employees.
While it is possible for firms to weather these issues for a while (and many firms do), a significant external event will eventually necessitate a make-or-break leadership response. Amid the legal market’s current state of flux, firms without solid management won’t be able to achieve the strategic business plan and optimal profits they’ll need to survive.
So what can be done?
1. Get the right people
While it is rare that you will find the ideal leadership candidate within your ranks, there are some attributes that will better equip a lawyer for a leadership role.
Look for someone with a proven track record of:
- Keeping objectives of the firm in proper perspective.
- Putting the good of the firm above personal goals.
- Making and implementing strong decisions.
- Getting along with others.
- Driving and motivating a team.
- Communicating and delegating effectively.
2. Hire a non-lawyer CEO
Consider hiring a non-lawyer CEO to drive the business forward, leaving partners to focus on what they do best. This is becoming an increasingly popular choice for mid to large-sized firms, and something we will definitely see more in coming years.
3. Address skill deficiencies
Identify areas where your managers’ skills could be developed and arrange formal training programs to enhance requisite competencies for those skills. The investment will be worth it. You might also consider hiring an external coach to work with your managing partner to assess and enhance his or her strengths, weaknesses and personal leadership style.
4. Establish accountability
This is especially important in circumstances where the managing partner is balancing his responsibilities with existing lawyering work.
Instituting accountability requires:
- A detailed job description articulating expectations and priorities of the managing partner’s role.
- A system of regular performance reviews.
- Defined performance indicators.