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The power of leadership in legal practices

The power of leadership in legal practices


Firms too often make the mistake of filling leadership roles based on seniority rather than the ability to take the business forward, writes David Cliff

We talk about leadership as a virtuous quality. Leaders are considered special, differentiated from the masses by the ability to bring order and direction in everything from corporate growth to crisis management to the very safety of the community.

Leadership forms a dyad of those who lead and those who are led. For every leader, there must be willing followers – they are two parts of a coherent social relationship that structures and orders different parts of society, whether that is the community at large, or a law firm.

The problem is, there is no agreed concept of just what a leader is. In many cases, a leader is seen as a set of individual qualities, such as “charismatic” or, more in vogue at present, “authentic”.

All too often, firms have laid the mantle of leader upon what was typically a senior partner. As I coach organisations around the country and elsewhere, I find that increasingly this approach results in somebody being promoted to a leadership role due to their professional expertise or time-honoured presence within the firm, rather than any innate leadership skills that would take the firm forward in a modern competitive world. They have failed to see the need to develop these skills and examine them as a discipline quite separate from being a very good senior lawyer.

This does the business a disservice, however, as leadership is a discrete discipline that requires development and support well beyond a few hours of CPD. It is an investment in an organisation’s well-being and that of everyone within it. A leader is a growing, developing entity, and the role requires constant reflection and personal development if one is to be truly effective within it.

Equally, this approach of leadership by meritocracy results in ageing partners getting to the point where they cannot leave the smaller firm as they have become indispensable. For many law firms, the term ‘leader’ still conjures the image of the hero who will come in and sort out a major problem for the company, rather than overseeing others through robust delegation and supervisory arrangements to get the job done and acquire skills while they are doing it.

Many firms work on the basis that compliance with the central values laid down by senior members will allow people to acquire greater status and, ultimately, leadership roles as they clearly establish their credentials. I spend a lot of time working with leaders of firms who resist pushing the boundaries in any way; theirs is the leadership of lacklustre conservatism and risk avoidance. Their firms form the same dull background that so many others do, making it almost impossible to differentiate radically customer-centric firms from those that are more conventional.

Now, we don’t want to make risk-taking capriciousness a central tenet of the legal profession; however, a bit more attention to leadership rather than seniority would allow for a more experimental approach that would differentiate firms within their market space. This would make them more attractive to clients and possibly form the next necessary social movement to make the legal profession more valued.

Effective leadership in law is not about status, it is about facilitation, enablement, and the growth of the organisation and the individuals within it. Anyone not orientated to that is in danger of holding court based on professional status rather than any dynamic leadership skills.

Most avant-garde of all would be for firms to possibly consider being led by a professional who may only have a limited knowledge of the law, but is extremely good at getting things done, opening up markets, structuring and risk assessing organisations, and ensuring quality. Unorthodox, yes, but it is a better arrangement than someone who simply acquires a leadership role due to their professional prowess but has little insight into what leadership really is.

It is vital that firms consider the role of their leadership team and how they will move the business forward, rather than considering how to progress the careers of the longest-serving members. Leadership requires a very specific skillset, and must be developed and considered rather than simply expected because of time served.

David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken