The New Direction of Law Firm Leadership

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By Ed Wesemann | Jul 30, 2015

conductorThere is no law firm management topic about which more has been written than Leadership. The presumption at the base of most of these discussions is that the most successful professional service firms have the best leaders. And that prompts all sorts of further discussion about leadership styles, techniques, and the eternal debate as to whether leaders are born or bred – i.e., is leadership a function of natural personality traits, or can people be trained to be good leaders?

The legal profession has had an extraordinary run of success over the past 20 years. In terms of gross revenues, numbers of lawyers, and profitability, law firms are the poster children for success. Of course, we assume that if law firms are successful they must have good leaders, so we start looking at the traits that are present among law firm managing partners. And we are disappointed when we find little commonality.

I often think of law firm leaders as being like symphony conductors. Conductors are responsible for running the orchestra. They hire the musicians, select the music, decide the speed and volume of each section, and make sure everyone starts and stops at the same time. There is a local orchestra near here. They call themselves a “Democratic Orchestra” because they operate on what they call a “consensus” basis: new musicians audition for the orchestra as a whole; the music, and how it is played, is selected through consensus-building discussions; and the conductor is elected by popular vote for a one-season term of office. They are, by any standard, a terrible orchestra. But they survive because – being located in a low-population area – they effectively have no competition. Does this sound vaguely similar to many larger and mid-sized law firms?

When you ask most law firm leaders what their most important job is, they respond that it is building consensus. For many firms, this means that the leaders see which direction the consensus is headed and then get in front of it. It’s a bit like many politicians who look at the opinion polls to determine what their policy positions should be.

Unfortunately this consensus model of leadership – so successful for us in the past – seems to be breaking down. As firms grow larger and more international, leaders must deal with a range of educational backgrounds, languages, and cultures within their firms, and even multiple time zones. The result is that leaders find it extremely difficult to reasonably understand what people are thinking, little less gain consensus. And when larger international firms organize themselves in the loose confederations that are involved in Swiss Vereins, the process of developing consensus becomes almost impossible.

As the world changes for professional service firm leaders, they will find that they need a new set of skills. Firms functionally can’t operate with leaders who simply enunciate what is already popular and accepted by their partners. This translates into three demands of law firm leaders in the future:

  1. Leaders will have to be visionaries. That will require the creativity and intuition to be able to understand and plan for the future. The firms with the most accurate paths forward will win.
  2. Leaders are going to have to be great communicators. They will have to be storytellers who can not only communicate their vision but also personalize it in a way that makes it compelling for their partners.
  3. Finally, leaders will have to be builders. They will have to be able to implement by creating strategies to pursue their vision, and by building acceptance and alliances that permit their vision to be achieved.

In short, the easy money in the legal profession has been made. Becoming a successful leader simply by being in the right place at the right time will no longer work. Our future leaders will have to actually do what we have been crediting the leaders of successful firms with doing for the past 20 years.