Reach for the stars

Leadership is a key factor in any law firm, as successfully promoting the talents of individual lawyers is key if it is to fulfil its potential.  Kevin Walker looks at how leadership skills can be developed as lawyers progress through five key stages.

Law firms have to sell the talents of their people — there is no other product.  It is for this very reason that leadership is such a vital factor.  Leadership is about people.  In an environment that depends on highly motivated individuals doing a great job for their clients and building a successful business, leadership (or lack of it) has a huge commercial impact.

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

However, leadership is not solely the domain of senior partners or managing partners.  There are many examples of specialist teams being well led by individuals with no aspiration to be managing or senior partner.  Just as technical skills can be developed and fine-tuned, so too can a fee earner’s leadership and management capabilities.

Given its importance, it is something of a paradox that leadership capabilities are rarely developed in legal professionals.  Instead the major focus of training tends to be on technical expertise.  This is a very different scenario to leadership development in a typical UK plc.

Here, companies recruit people with both a technical degree and a business focus.  They are recruited for their ‘fit’ with that company and their management potential.  After a formal induction programme, their effectiveness as a team member and their self-management capabilities are monitored and developed.  In time they are given project leadership training to equip them to head up a particular project in their area of expertise.  Given their success in this role, they will then be given functional team training and, in time, business unit training to equip them with the necessary skills and experience required.  Throughout their career, there will be reviews of their performance, and their development will be checked and linked to the business needs of the company.

In contrast, law firms recruit people for their degree qualification but rarely for their business focus.  They are selected for their intellect and over time carry out work on client projects, reporting to a partner.  Gradually they may develop their own client portfolio and, if they are technically brilliant or are able to generate significant fees, they will be promoted to partner.  Given their success at this level, they may be given the role of practice or sector head.  In time they may even become senior or managing partner of the firm.  Rarely is formalised leadership training given for any of these roles, and yet these fee earners are expected to lead and inspire people to achieve the firm’s business objectives.  Leadership development, if it happens at all, is almost ‘accidental’.

Contrary to popular myth, leadership is not dependent on inherent charisma.  Leadership skills can be developed in fee earners as they progress through five key stages.

Stage one is focused on the behaviour of self-management.  As new recruits into a professional firm, individuals usually spend their first few years as part of a team (sometimes also working alone).  They are required to make an individual contribution.  Some of the vital attributes of future leaders are established at this stage — personal motivation, interpersonal skills, communication, client and colleague relationship skills, juggling multiple priorities, managing personal performance and aligning personal values with the firm’s values.

If the individual or their firm fail to recognise the need to develop skills in these areas at this stage, they will be missing the foundation skills required in later leadership roles.

Stage two occurs when the fee earner begins to lead teams of peers and project teams.  It is at this level that the skills of influence and negotiation, achieving consensus and maintaining enthusiasm are necessary.  This is particularly evident in projects where there is no formal leadership authority.  For those 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 sees fee earners leading and managing others.  Although this may seem the easiest transition to make, it is often the point at which serious mistakes are made, which can be damaging for both the individual and the firm.  This stage of promotion is often made by the most technically able and (or) those who excel at generating fees.  However, some can find it hugely difficult to make the transition from a focus on personal performance to achieving performance through others.

At this stage, motivating, coaching, management and listening skills are important.  As well as the ability to measure the performance of others, the promoted fee earner must have the skills to motivate, listen actively, manage and coach those in his or her team.  This requires time dedicated to the leadership and management tasks that the role now demands. 
When individuals fail to change how they allocate their time at this leadership level, they can seriously hold the firm back.  They are also likely to cause high levels of frustration and attrition in their teams.

Stage four is about leading those who manage others.  At this stage partners might be managing a business unit, office, practice area, group or industry sector.  They will certainly be leading fee earners, support staff and other partners.  They are likely to have a budget responsibility and fee income targets that need to be achieved through many people.  Often they will be leading people with more years’ service, greater technical expertise and more voting power than themselves.  The art of influencing others and communicating the firm’s vision are therefore fundamental.

These individuals also need to lead by example and must demonstrate key qualities such as integrity, honesty, trust, consistency and fairness of approach.  They need to have a genuine interest in the individuals they lead and have excellent empowerment and delegation skills in order to ensure that the group achieves its objectives effectively.

Stage five finds the individual leading the firm.  At this level all the leadership qualities and characteristics learned at the earlier levels become more focused.  Together with a management board, the leader at this level becomes the guardian of the culture of the firm and the driving force for change.  Now there is an even greater need for the ability to inspire others through a vision and a collective belief in the firm.  Stage five leaders must possess excellent change management skills and have the ability to act as the spokesperson or public persona of the firm.  As well as guarding the firm’s culture, they must be prepared to enforce standards and discipline, while at the same time recognising individual contributions and celebrating success.

Following this five-stage ‘route map’ will prepare a professional for the challenges ahead.  It will also provide a firm with a pool of leadership ‘stars’ who can be prepared for and placed at the right leadership level.  Each stage provides firms with a ‘shopping list’ of key attributes to identify, build and measure in their current and future employees.  Most of these attributes can be developed through training, coaching, mentoring and other forms of personal development.  Leadership need no longer be accidental.


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