Why law firms need better leaders (and what to do about it)

Back when I was studying to be a lawyer, I was generally surrounded by people who wanted to get ahead. Generally, get ahead of each other – it was a very competitive environment. When it came time in 4th year to apply for clerkship positions with the major law firms, the competitive tension became even more pronounced and explicit. Often, people would be quite desperate to beat everyone else, leading to bullying and out and out aggression, as well as anxiety and depression. For young lawyers, this is the proving ground for the next phase – the law firm.

Most lawyers can apply the law to facts. But can they all lead others?

Law firms by their nature are strange beasts. People are hired almost exclusively for their technical skill (and I don’t care what the top tier firm websites and glossy marketing guff say), get promoted for such skill and then generally find themselves out of their depth when promoted into leadership positions.


Often it’s because being really good at the books doesn’t translate into working well in the commercial world. At least not initially. For me, I was out of home and had to support myself by working while I was at university – in fact, I probably enjoyed working more than studying. Some of my fellow students lived at home and devoted their entire lives for those 5 years to study. I was always beaten on marks but was forever resentful of the playing field. Not all this was justified of course, but the recruitment process of most firms exacerbates this bias even further. (In my mind, this makes the first cull based on academic results a fairly arbitrary process).

But probably more importantly, many senior lawyers are not great at understanding and developing human capability over time. (If you are a lawyer and find a boss who is, stick with them!) This I think is because the competitive environment doesn’t value good people skills – in my view, the hardest skill set of them all.

Being out of depth seems to be the default state of any young lawyer – perhaps even mid-career lawyers. I don’t know a practicing lawyer who hasn’t reported this feeling to me. And I know plenty. In that way, there is plenty of intentional social Darwinism that’s at least tolerated if not actively encouraged.

I think this is counter-productive for two reasons:

  • People perform better when they are not stressed to the eye-balls. In a competitive environment under great stress (like a situation where you have far fewer job openings than possible candidates), the great don’t always rise to the top. Those who can adapt to this situation, do. And they aren’t always the same people you want working for you. Look no further than the financial crisis and those lawyers and bankers who perpetuated it.
  • The capability to be a good lawyer is not the same – in fact, it’s almost never the same – as the capability needed to be a good leader in a law firm.

So law firms are problematic from an organisational point of view. What’s the answer? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complex, determined by each firm’s context and works on a number of levels. But a good start for every law firm is to:

  1. Articulate what good leadership in your firm looks like with the same energy as you would articulate what makes a good piece of advice.
  2. Explicitly and actively recognise the value of good leadership through action (forget for now writing nice motherhood stuff on the website).
  3. Understand the individual building blocks of good leadership potential among your lawyers and how that potential might be recognised consistently.
  4. Work to develop that leadership potential rigorously (alongside – of course – identifying and developing technical skills).

People aren’t machines – they have beliefs, ideas, motivations and quirks: this is hard work. And it’s one of the reasons why leadership in law firms is often overlooked. But be persistent – you’ll be rewarded.

How to navigate the individual development market

IMG_20140206_183151 (2)You don’t need Google to tell you there are many techniques out there that help people understand and improve themselves. There are a myriad of philosophies and even more approaches – you can do tests and quizzes, take challenges, go through trials and tribulations.

You can look solely at understanding your cognitive ability, your personality, your level of optimism and pessimism, your level of introversion and extraversion. There are many things that claim to do all of this and more. There are even techniques that come close to delivering on more than one of these things.

So here is a tip sheet on navigating this complex and confusing market.

  1. Get clear on purpose. What do you want to do and why?

Some techniques help you do this, but there’s nothing that replaces reflection, even a fair amount of agonising. Do you want to become a better father? A more caring mother? Know what to do in your career? Improve your social skills? Get better at maths? What is the true purpose you are seeking. Find this out and you’ll save yourself a lot of time. (But be open to the possibility that this will change!)

  1. Find something that is a good match for your purpose.

Depending on the context, nearly all techniques have at least something valuable to offer. But stretched and crammed to fit a purpose that isn’t quite what’s intended, will always yield poor results. Take Myers Briggs for example. As a way to understand & reflect on your own personality, it can be very useful – as a recruitment tool, it can be disastrous. So be careful that you are really getting what you need.

  1. Expect to do a lot of work yourself.

There are no short-cuts to reaching your potential. Be very wary of anything that seems too good to be true. It is. Improving yourself is a necessarily tough and challenging journey. The best techniques provide you with something to re-charge by looking deeply into who you are. It’s not always pleasant – but I don’t know anything worth doing that’s easy.

  1. Don’t be fooled into thinking that what is popular is necessarily better.

Look at the artists that have made it into the Top 10 in the last 5 years. Enough said.

  1. Look at substance over form.

This is related to Tip #4 above. Some of the most reliable models and tools have no fancy graphs or pictures – they have a clear value proposition and do what they do very well: no more, no less. Look past the lovely marketing material and make sure you ask critical questions about the actual product itself and its application to your particular situation and needs. Is there substance behind the information or theory and a clear course of action on how to use the data to achieve your purpose?

  1. Don’t expect a silver bullet.

George Box said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I’m not sure what Box would make of individual development, but I think this quote has some relevance here. Don’t expect to find something perfect – it doesn’t exist. Models and techniques are as perfect as the clever minds that devised them. Do you know any perfect people?

Floreat Complexity Challenge – Answer to Week 6

Check out the challenge for Zone 6 here.

time&spaceA Zone 6 answer is a thing of great beauty and very rare indeed!

Answer C comes the closest of those indicated as it starting to sketch out a realistic vision for the future. As you can imagine, the challenge in putting forth a viable plan at Zone 6, not to mention defending and altering that plan through the role play scenario would be very difficult:

C.It’s now many years into the future – some things are different yet some stay the same. The passing of peak oil and continual threats and disasters afflicting low-lying metropolitan areas in most countries, forced the hand of many governments to switch permanently from fossil fuels. The result has been a spectacular rise of a handful of innovative organisations who’ve managed to produce clean energy cheaply from a variety of sources including by-products of the traditional energy producers, plants and the natural environment. And yet while these advances have been made, less developed countries continue to rely on fossil fuels and have taken advantage of traditional machinery and infrastructure of companies and countries that no longer use it. The result is increasing disparity – not only in relation to incomes and economic efficiency, but also living and environmental standards.

If you’d like to challenge yourself and gain valuable insights into your leadership potential, please contact us to find out more.