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‘Self-aware lawyers’ will be the law firm leaders of the future

Leadership development programmes must provide safe-to-fail training

1 October 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Law firms of the future will be led and managed by lawyers who are professional leaders and managers. That's the view of Mark Rigotti, co-CEO of global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

He has predicted that law firms will increasingly focus on developing leaders and managers from within their lawyer ranks, rather than bringing in non-lawyers to fill those roles.

"Law firms will continue to be run by lawyers who become managers and leaders, more than by non-lawyers, although there will be functional non-lawyer leaders at the higher leadership levels within the firm," Rigotti told Managing Partner.

"However, I think there will be an increasing professionalisation around law firm management and leadership so that people will have more formal training and leadership development on their path to those roles."

By contrast, Steve Billot, managing director of the global restructuring advisory practice at Duff & Phelps, has predicted that most UK law firms will have non-lawyer CEOs in the next five to ten years. He believes non-lawyer managers are critical to law firms being run as commercially-successful businesses.

"Law firms think they are a profession, but they are a business - a professional business, but ultimately still a business," Billot said to Managing Partner. "Partners need to think as a business first and as a profession second."

Research has also found that general counsel favour law firms which have non-lawyer managers.

"The firms that are seeing the largest growth have all engaged non-legal business professionals to help the direction and execution of their strategy. It is this type of firm that we see making the most progress in growing their firm's brand equity," commented Lisa Hart Shepherd, CEO of Acritas.

Rigotti agrees that law firms need to be professionally managed as businesses and to be 'businesslike'.

"I think law has become a business. It is an industry and a profession, and with that is a requirement to run it as a business and to be more businesslike across various aspects of the firm. And I don't see that trend reversing or going away - I think it is here to stay," he said.

"I see law firms of the future being run by professional managers or close to professional managers."

For him, this doesn't mean that non-lawyers should be managing law firms, although he acknowledges that people from outside the industry can bring a fresh perspective and a different set of skills.

Rather, Rigotti believes that, with the right training (which includes how to manage their risk aversion), lawyers can be ideally suited to lead law firms.

"Someone who comes up from within the organisation, particularly a lawyer, brings a deep knowledge of the business. They have lived the sorts of problems that are happening in the organisation, they know the client base, they know some of the personalities and predilections, and all of those subtle influences which run around inside the culture of the organisation," said Rigotti.

"So I think one big advantage that lawyers have in stepping into management and leadership roles is normally that, by the time they do it, they have had a lot of experience with the people, with the clients and with the culture of the firm. With that, they bring an understanding of those dimensions.

"The shadow to that, of course, is that they may carry biases or assumptions, which will inhibit their effectiveness."

As a full-time CEO, the Australian lawyer in London maintains relationships with clients and helps others with client relationships, but no longer advises clients. Rigotti has found that his legal background has helped him to be effective as a leader.

"It helps me in my role because we are a law firm - that is our heart and soul. For better or for worse, law firm leaders will have more credibility if they have had strong legal practices and the degree of validation that comes with that," he said.

"However, on a more substantive level, I think it has been useful to have that background because of the sorts of products we are trying to sell to our clients and the sorts of service delivery standards we are trying to meet, such as being responsive to clients who are very needy. Having experienced that, I can relate to the nature of the problem or the issue, as I actually lived through it."

He continued: "It has given me a connection with partners in talking about something that I'd like to change or I'd like to improve around the place, to be able to bring it back to some real-life experiences. I only have those because I have been a lawyer and have been in their shoes or continue to have similar experiences because of my dealings with clients.

"I think if we had a CEO who was from a different industry, they might not see the problem through the same experience prism."

Rigotti's preference is to develop the next generation of law firm leaders from within the firm's pool of lawyers - provided they are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses - alongside functional professionals.

"All things being equal, I personally have a preference for internally-developed candidates, particularly lawyers, who have all those good things, but who also have a very strong level of self-awareness to know where they might actually not know the answers, or not have the perspective, or not have the experience to solve the problem, and who are open to actually supplementing what they do bring with people from the outside or with others in the organisation who have those skills."

Developing new law firm leaders

Law firm management is not a role which is suited to everyone. It is a skills-based role which requires appropriate learning and development. Being an outstanding lawyer does not necessarily mean that a person has the ability to lead a firm.

However, many law firms fail to recognise this; some even expect newly-appointed managing partners to take on the role without sufficient time to prepare for it, causing them to be 'blindsided' from day one.

Another common oversight is to appoint leaders without considering which skills they need to have in order to deliver results in line with the firm's long-term strategy.

"Firms need to look for leaders who are suited to tomorrow's challenges - too many don't do that or have any idea of what they need in their next leader," Patrick McKenna, author of The Changing of the Guard: Selecting your Next Firm Leader, told Managing Partner.

Rigotti is keen to prevent this from being the case at Herbert Smith Freehills.

"I have a very strong view that law firm leaders and managers will need to be developed and trained into that role rather than falling into it," he said.

"The roles are becoming more sophisticated and complicated, so if we want to give them the best chances of success, investing a little bit in their experience and skills all the way through their careers is a sensible thing to do."

He believes that firms need to value management and leadership skills in lawyers as highly as they value lawyers' client-service skills.

"When we think about the legal side of the business, we are investing in different skills for our lawyers today than we were 10 or 20 years ago so that they can be more effective in serving client needs. In the same way, if we want leaders of the law firms of tomorrow to be more effective, we need to be investing in developing the skills that they will need as they move into those roles," he said.

For Rigotti, real-life experience of management and leadership challenges is key to developing critical skills in pipeline leaders and managers.

"It is not going to be enough to just do a course to develop those skills, it is actually applying them in safe-to-fail experiments or in projects along the way before someone might take on a more formal role," he said.

"One of the things we are looking at doing is making sure our leaders of tomorrow have exposure to management and leadership projects all the way through their careers before they might want to step more fully into the formal role."





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