Leaders by example

Legal firms attract very bright people, who enter their chosen profession to put into practice their technical training.  Yet these firms are also businesses.  They buy and sell services, have clients and people to manage, money to collect and profits to make.  Sadly, it is often the case that neither the training of the professionals nor their early career really prepares them for future management, leadership and business responsibilities.

Fees vs talent
Undoubtedly the best-led firms tend to make more money, attract and keep the brightest professionals and seem to enjoy themselves more.  They are also less susceptible to peaks and troughs in the economy and are able to build a client base that is incredibly loyal.

In today’s legal firms, success depends on motivating intellectual and highly capable individuals to move in the same direction and act in the best interests of the firm.  This is leadership, yet our research shows not enough law firms have an established succession plan, methodology for identifying and developing leadership potential in new recruits or methodology for identifying and developing leadership potential in future senior management.

Instead, many staff are promoted because of their superior technical abilities or because they generate large fees from important clients.  While these attributes are hugely valuable, they are not enough to ensure effective leadership.

Creating leaders
Just as technical skills can be developed and fine-tuned, so, we believe, can leadership.  We also firmly believe that good leaders aren’t born – but they can be made.

Unfortunately, some professional services firms are happy to leave the leadership to someone else, typically at the top of the firm.  Leadership, however, is not merely the domain of CEOs, senior partners or managing partners.  Even when a firm may not be recognised as being well led from the top, we see many examples of specialist teams being well led by individuals with no aspiration to be CEO or managing partner.

Leadership is essential at all levels of a law firm, as it calls on subtlety, a high degree of interpersonal skills, the ability to inspire but above all the ability to influence.  For any professional service firm that is people-driven and whose main output is knowledge, leadership can have a tremendous positive impact.

The ‘balanced’ professional
What, then, makes a good leader?  Our research shows that those professionals who help drive their law firms forward and help achieve business goals most effectively exhibit three types of expertise:

  • Business development expertise – winning and retaining business
  • Technical expertise
  • Business management expertise – client service delivery, coaching and motivating staff

These professionals understand the importance of being commercially-minded.  They spend time delivering client service and allocate time to developing both existing clients and new clients.  They also focus effort on leading and motivating their team, while keeping their technical skills up to date.

Today’s fee earners are invariably learning the processes and skills of business development in order to attract both new clients and new work from existing clients.  They are formulating client plans to protect and develop their relationships and they are learning to understand their clients’ businesses.  Some firms have also identified the competencies required by future partners and have, accordingly, built key performance indicators into staff and partner appraisal systems.  However, commitment to investing time and money to developing the non-technical skills is, unfortunately, patchy and should be addressed.

Leadership characteristics
In addition to expertise, there are identifiable characteristics and qualities which good leaders display, and which can be developed in professionals through experience, training, coaching or mentoring.  Feedback from literally thousands of professional staff about what they want from their leaders has enabled us to define five leadership characteristics:

This is fundamental to administering a successful legal business.  It involves schedules, disciplines, checklists and rules that define and monitor performance.  Good leaders are strong managers and ensure that the business operates in a disciplined manner.  They do not shirk the responsibilities of annually appraising their people and are firm in the application of performance standards.

Whether leading a team or a firm, legal professionals are ultimately striving to achieve something.  To ensure everyone works effectively towards this common goal, staff firstly need to understand what it is.  Giving direction requires vision, or at least the ability to paint a picture in words of what needs to be achieved, so that everyone is enthusiastically singing from the same hymn sheet.

The ability to encourage in members of the team a personal desire to help achieve the firms’ objectives is vital.  It is about the careful use of words to motivate and inspire.  Contrary to come views, leaders do not need to be charismatic to inspire.  They do, however, need excellent interpersonal skills to engage members of their team.

Leading by example
This may be an old cliché but it is fundamental to developing the right behaviours.  When the actions of any leader are in conflict with how they demand others should behave, individuals will undoubtedly follow the leader’s actions and not their words.  If a manager demands punctuality at the start of meetings, but continually turns up late, the team soon learns that it is OK to be late.

Team building
All the good leaders we meet seem to think ‘team first’.  They realize that their vision can only be achieved through the synergy created in a high performance team.  That doesn’t just mean bringing in the right technical skills, it also requires the right blend of personalities – for example, thinkers, doers, strategists and pragmatists.

Qualities of leadership
We have asked hundreds of professional staff what they want from their leaders.  The results were as follows:

  • Integrity comes out top – leaders who stick to their values through both good and bad times.
  • Trust – to be able to trust and be trusted.
  • Consistency – in the way they deal with people and situations.
  • Interest – leaders should demonstrate, by their actions, a genuine interest in their aspirations and motivations.

The five stages of leadership
There are certain critical transitions that a professional must undertake in order to be a good leader.  Following this route map will prepare a professional for the challenges ahead and will provide a firm with a pool of leadership ‘stars’ for long-term growth and success.

Stage one – self management
New recruits to a law firm usually spend most of their first few years working as part of a team, while studying for necessary exams and gaining technical skills.  Some of the vital attributes of future leaders are established at this stage, such as personal motivation, interpersonal skills, communication, client and colleague relationship skills, juggling multiple priorities, personal performance and alignment of personal values with the firm’s values.

Stage two – leading teams of peers and project teams
At some stage in the early years, projects will be worked on, often internally, sometimes with clients.  These will initially require good teamwork skills and sometimes a leadership role.  Influencing skills, achieving consensus and maintaining enthusiasm are all necessary at this level.  For project teams that include clients, the professional will need to develop meeting skills, as well as the ability to negotiate and achieve win / win outcomes.

Stage three – leading and managing others
Although this may seem the easiest transition to make, it is often where mistakes occur, which can be damaging for both the individual and the firm.  At this leadership level, the professional will be managing employees of the firm, motivating, coaching, delegating, inspiring and measuring the performance of others.

However, what made the professional a brilliant technical or business development expert can be the very thing that causes problems.  They can find it hugely difficult to change their focus from individual performance to achieving performance through others, while completing their own client work and generating fees.  It is possible to make this transition but support and coaching is necessary.

Stage four – leading those manage others
At this level legal professionals may be managing a business unit, an office, a practice are, group or an industry sector.  They are likely to have budget responsibility and fee income targets, which need to be achieved through dozens (or maybe event hundreds) of people, who often may have more years’ service or greater technical expertise or more voting power.  They may well be dealing with very senior individuals used to getting their own way and who can’t be told what to do.  People skills and the art of influencing others are therefore fundamental.  Here, business development and business management expertise has to be well established and ‘second nature’ to the individual if they are going to be successful.

Stage five – leading the firm
All the leadership qualities and characteristics learned at the earlier levels become more focused.  Together with a management board, the leader becomes the guardian of the culture of the firm and the driving force for change.  Strategic thinking, business awareness, entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to develop a good management team are vital.

We have met quiet, determined leaders as well as the more charismatic.  There can be no doubt that all those we have interviewed had common themes to their leadership principles.  They all have the ability to inspire their partners through their vision and a belief of the firm.  They also influence, rather than demand, and can be trusted to get on with the job.  Above all they have gained the support of their colleagues and have proved false the old adage that leaders are born.  Quite simply, they can be created.

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