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.

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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.

Why?

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.