To learn how to become an effective leader, one may simply visit Amazon or a good book store and find many books on the topic. Most of these books provide information that might remind us of an MBA program’s professors’ teachings — a lot of information which until we are in a position to really apply it or implement it is forgotten. Or we take one leadership development program from a college or a one or two-day workshop and we learn a little more.
Law firms have many leaders: office heads, practice chairs, department heads, committee chairs, professional staff, and the overall firm leader. In many cases, no formal leadership training takes place and many leaders are uninspiring and may even lack the enthusiasm to become a good leader. This leaves others in their groups or offices performing at less than optimal levels and on their own to get the job done often feeling pressured and stressed.
There are a few things that books and professors don’t seem to directly address. Here are some tips to help partners who lead operational teams, offices, practices, departments, or the firm itself, to implement for leadership impact.
Provide clarity about the strategy. Longer-term vision, or goals for the group/office or firm. Everyone needs to know the game plan. Hold meetings for lawyers and professional and support staff at the offices so everyone knows they matter and are part of making the strategy and vision successful.
Support your team. If people (the C or director/manager-level team, office and practice heads) know you have their backs, they will move forward with confidence. Trust the team. If a leader does not trust his/her team, then make the necessary changes. Without a leader’s trust, the team’s confidence in the leader will erode quickly.
Stay focused. Too many leaders get distracted by whiny people who have non-substantive issues. Try to avoid being a sounding board for things the COO or Office Administrator, or other managers should be addressing. Spending time on things that do not impact strategy, revenue, or firm well-being, is a waste of time.
Give kudos. Everyone wants to know they matter. The human spirit needs recognition. Recognize wins, business development successes, hard work on the part of the team including support staff, and others from areas outside of the practice or office who deserve recognition.
Stay in communication. Have the firm’s support team (communications director, COO, CIO, CFO and CMO) work with you to create an agenda that provides the opportunity for delivering information about the latest resources the firm is investing in, have one or two partners and teams showcase a client case study (helps to facilitate cross-selling), provide an update about financials and client and prospect pursuits. Keeping everyone informed about what is going on makes people feel like they matter, helps facilitate use of firm resource investments, and builds collaboration across practices, departments, offices, and they firm. Communication is a key piece of the leadership platform.
Demand respect. Respect across the firm is important. If a partner is not acting responsibly by yelling at a staff person or another lawyer, that’s a violation of the firm’s code of conduct and professionalism. Ask people who have behaved in this manner to apologize. It will get a lot of attention and respect when a leader stands behind their words. Make sure the firm is a bully-free zone.
Be bold. Try new things that will help the firm become more productive or more collaborative. Enroll leaders in a leadership program to strengthen skills. Help the firm to see a few major resource investments may go a long way toward improving productivity and therefore, profitability. There is no room in today’s law firms for wimpy leaders.
Hire experts. It is always good to have a second opinion, another pair of eyes on firm operations, someone to brainstorm strategies with, or someone to facilitate meetings. While many partners are skeptics (lawyers test the highest of all professionals in skepticism), having an outside expert help out once in a while makes good sense and provides important reinforcement.
Visit clients. If you are a firm leader, office head, department or practice chair, go visit clients and talk with them about their business. It should be mandatory for everyone in a leadership role to meet regularly with clients to understand clients’ goals, businesses, and future legal needs. Take a proactive approach and your firm will reap the benefits. If you are a business leader in the firm, visit your internal “clients” and make sure they know the resources you and your team provide, and you understand their needs and challenges.
Be tough. Get rid of unproductive people, regardless of who is fighting for them to stay. Vote out partners who are not producing or who consistently under produce or produce shabby work. Today’s competitive legal landscape does not allow for mediocrity. Make decisions and move on. The firm will be better off and there will be less distraction.
Being a leader at any level in today’s firms is tough and requires tenacity, empathy, and skill. Leaders are made, not born. Be the best and everyone will follow with respect.
Silvia Coulter is a Principal with LawVision Group and focuses on client acquisition and growth, collaboration, and leadership development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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