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Leadership Advice for Lawyers

Based on a SLAW post I wrote in 2017, I was recently asked to speak at a conference for women lawyers on leadership. The article focussed on how to effectively lead practice groups and client teams. The date of the original article serves as evidence that I’ve been encouraging leadership skills development in lawyers for a long time, but it really began in the early 2000’s when I developed my initial processes for practice group management. Back then, I quickly realized that most of my training and support would need to be with the practice group leaders. They set the tone for the group, and it was all too easy for them to establish a dysfunctional team environment as the skills required for being a great leader can be the opposite of those needed for being a great lawyer. I learned that law firm leaders are trained, not born. And being lawyers, they needed to understand context and intent before changing behaviours and actions, so we needed a strong game plan.

Lawyers take on all sorts of leadership positions, inside and outside of a firm. They serve on boards, they often serve as Chairs, they sit as Managing Partners, members of Executive Teams, as Practice Group or Client Team leaders…just being a Partner in a law firm is a leadership position. Mentoring or delegating work makes you a leader in a way. Leadership is such a frequent occurrence for lawyers, it’s a shocking gap that it is not part of the law school curriculum.

But I get it, because it’s hard, and it’s a life-long pursuit. For a lawyer to develop good leadership skills, it takes planning, practice and stamina. It’s a skill that must be consciously pursued – it’s not something that is miraculously achieved after simply showing up for work every day, year after year. It certainly can’t be taught in a blog post. But we can make a start, so here goes…

1. Learn what a leader truly is

Before we train up new leaders, we need a better description of what a strong leader looks like. My view is that a great leader is:

  • They aren’t necessarily the top in their field: Lawyers are intelligent individuals who follow those they feel are legitimate and respected as a lawyer. That’s why so many firms ask their top billers to move into leadership positions. But that makes little sense. They may have very little management experience and placing them in that position takes them away from their core competency. In essence, it ensures they are less valuable to the firm. Instead, pick an up and comer who is recognized as a developing expert in their practice area AND has shown some strong administrative skills. Now, the client relationship manger of a client team may indeed need to be the head of that client team. But assign them a number two who can assist with coordination of the team, monitoring the budget, helping with communications, etc. That person might be the heir apparent of that client team as well. At any rate, group leadership is not about ego, it’s not about the title. It’s all about effective management.
  • They are proven to be a capable administrator. You won’t know if a lawyer can be a capable leader unless you give them a chance to develop their leadership skills over time. Toward this end I recommend that 3rd year Associates and upward all be required to do some level of administrative work. Sit on a committee and later, chair a committee. It could be the social committee to start. With experience, the lawyer moves to more important committees: student recruitment, technology, HR, marketing, finances, compensation, etc. The mistake many firms make is to put untrained Partners into key admin positions. An untrained manager takes twice as long to do half as good a job. And meanwhile, this seriously cuts into their billable time, making them of less value to firm and perhaps even a deficit. If you want your lawyers to be an active part of running the firm, put them onto a management training path.
  • They are focussed on developing great team members. Great leadership is about spreading the work around and taking the time to ensure that everyone on your team is growing with each year of practice. It’s calling out quiet members of the team in meetings so you can hear their perspective. It’s encouraging all team members to have a personal development plan, and knowing what those plans say so you can support them as much as possible. It’s not about promoting your own career. It’s about supporting and promoting the careers of others.
  • They guide rather than dictate. Many of us have experienced dictatorial leadership styles where the leaders seem only to care about themself. Frankly, it’s hard to be led by these people. It’s hard to care about what they care about. It’s hard to give them loyalty, to put in that extra effort. The most effective leaders don’t drag their followers kicking and screaming to the water. They guide them there. They engage them in conversation; they ask critical questions; they recognize the contributions of others to encourage more of that positive behaviour. This takes a bit longer than ordering people about, but it produces a significantly more powerful long-game.
  • They also focus on the client or clients. An individual lawyer is most concerned about filling their time, meeting their targets, and growing as a lawyer. A leader, on the other hand, is concerned about the client base: do we have enough clients, are they the right clients, are we providing them with the right services, is our client service level what it should be, are we able to grow the work in any way? This goes beyond individual concerns and focusses on the client base of the group as a whole.
  • They are accountable to their team, and to the firm. In addition to establishing goals for the group, they put accountability and reporting processes into place to ensure they do what they said they would. This can be in the form of regular plan review in team meetings. It could also include quarterly reports to the firm’s executive committee.
  • They ensure they are good at time management. Too often, lawyers are put into leadership positions and start to do a good job until a big deal or a trial comes up. Then everything else is on the back-burner. But leaders can’t do that. They must find the time to keep up with their leadership responsibilities. It can help to assign a second to assist: but ensure that you don’t over burden them with responsibility over a prolonged period of time.

If your internal response to this list is “well our leaders certainly don’t practice these principles”, you’re right. Most firms don’t hold their leaders to this standard. That doesn’t mean this should continue. Set a new bar for leadership in your firm. Show them how it’s done properly. Be the Jacinda Ardern of your law firm.

If another of your internal responses is – good grief, when does anyone have the time to do this well – here’s the thing: strong leadership takes a bit more time to set up, but makes things significantly easier to manage over the longer term. Because most law firm management is about dealing with mistakes. And that’s the most time-consuming management task around. Rather, spend some front-end time setting goals and action plans, then work together to make those a reality.

2. Set clear goals for yourself and a plan for pursuing them.

Great leaders are goal-oriented. Create a personal business plan for yourself each year. Start by identifying the goals you wish to achieve. You may have goals for your practice that might include financial aspects, educational aspects, and marketing aspects. But also set goals for yourself around leadership. These could include taking on admin activities, improving specific leadership traits, becoming a mentor, becoming a better mentor, etc. Once you’ve established your goals, list all of the things you will do to accomplish them.

If you lead a practice group or client team, you’ll also want to work with your team members to create a plan for that practice group or team. Set business goals, then list all of the things the group members will do to work toward achievement of those goals. The goals and action plan should ideally be done with your team, rather than dictated to them.

3. Dramatically improve your communication skills, especially with regard to delegation

So far, I’ve frequently referenced collaborative leadership. But there are times when leading means delegating: telling someone to do something, getting some work out of someone. For the most part, lawyers tend to be pretty good at this. But great leaders learn to become excellent at this. The difference requires two points of focus. The first is to better understand your own communication preferences. The second is the better understand the right communication style for the moment.

a) Understand differences in thought processes and personality types

We all have communication preferences. They might be born of trial and error, an example of someone who communicated well with you, or an example of someone who communicated terribly with you. All of these can help us to form our own communication tendencies. To better understand those tendencies, it can be helpful to take a personality test, and to ask those close to us how accurate the results are.

Next, start reading about other personality types, and think about how those tendencies compare with yours. It should become apparent that there are many different personality types out there, and that they all tend to think and act a bit differently. This means that not every will react positively to your own way of thinking and acting.

Why should you care? Because effective communication is the responsibility of the communicator, not the recipient. It would be easy for you to always communicate in the way that’s most comfortable for you…but it might not be effective. And that means that we must adjust our style to accommodate what the other party needs from us in order to understand what we are saying or asking.

You already know this. You speak differently to a baby than you would to a teenager. But when we speak with adults, we’re not nearly as tailored, and we should be.

You might like things in point form – just the highlights. But others might require context in order to truly understand your directions. You might prefer face to face verbal instructions. Others might prefer written instructions that they can easily refer back to. Know your personality type and its tendencies. Learn about other personalities, their tendencies, and how they interact with yours. Then adjust accordingly.

b) Use situational leadership to tailor your leadership style to each situation

Years ago, I had a boss who had been completely torn down, then built up again by a boss. She thought that was the best leadership style around, and used it frequently. It was one of the most dysfunctional, toxic and unproductive environments I’ve ever worked in.

She did this because it is human nature to pick a favoured leadership style and apply that to all situations. Unfortunately, she picked a really bad style. But even if she had picked a great style, it probably wouldn’t have worked most of the time. That’s because leadership can’t lead with a single style. Successful leaders adjust their style according to each situation. And it’s not a matter of picking a style according to the person you’re leading at the time either. Different styles will work with them at different times, depending on each situation. That’s why we call it “situational leadership”. There are two schools of thought on situational leadership: the Goleman Theory, and the Blanshard and Hersey style. In both instances, the leader chooses a style not based on their own preferences, but on the needs of the individual they are leading at that time, for that particular task.

I love the concept of situation leadership because it requires that the leader take themselves off of automatic, that they consider each situation, and that they consciously decide what leadership style will be the most successful for that particular situation.

Take the time to read up on these techniques. They are well-worth the investment of time.

4. Hold yourself accountable

Law firms have struggled with the concept of accountability for some time – essentially around three fears:

  1. A fear that if we police lawyers in our firm, then one day we might somehow end up being the one who is policed. This has enabled inappropriate behaviours to last much longer than they ever should have in law firms.
  2. The fear of failing to live up to commitments and expectations. If I don’t declare an intent, then I can’t be held to achieving it. This spirit has held back countless firms from creating strategic plans, conducting client feedback mechanisms, or requiring lawyers and practice groups to develop annual plans.
  3. A fear of having to recognize that my actions (or lack of action) might have a negative impact on those around me. In these instances, it’s easy to see why some lawyers see accountability as an accusation and become defensive in response. As US speaker and author Steve Maraboli says: “Accountability feels like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your behaviour harms others”.

Some firms have been able to evolve past these fears, and have implemented accountability processes in ways that are appropriate, and more supportive than punitive.

Regardless of the degree of accountability that is practiced in your own law firm, decide right now that you are going to hold yourself to a higher standard. Because great leaders set out goals and expectations, and hold themselves accountable for those first. Then they ask those around them to meet that degree of personal integrity. Declare who you are, what you will do and how. Then do it. That’s how you earn trust, and eventually, respect. We seek to follow and impress great leaders because they’ve inspired us to do so by setting the bar.

How do we do this?

  • Declare your own goals: as a lawyer, as a member of your practice groups, as a leader. Document them (they can’t just be in your head – they must be in a document).
  • Share them as appropriate: with the Partnership, your mentor, your practice groups, the people you are leading.
  • Create accountability periods where you can formally review your goals and critique yourself on their accomplishment. I like quarterly review periods.
  • Do a daily or weekly self-assessment on your actions to ensure you are on-track.

A final note on this topic: sometimes, leaders make a mistake. Lawyers see admittance of a mistake as a weakness. I think that strong leaders are the ones that admit to being human, and recommit to getting it right next time. Would you rather be managed by someone who never declares their goals or values, and never admits a mistake? Or by someone who declares who they aspire to be, actively works toward that goal, admits when they’ve faltered and commits to trying harder?

Great leadership is not achieved overnight. But thankfully, it can have tremendous, positive impact even while you’re learning to do it well.

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