The Essence of Leadership for Lawyers

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

More advice has been written about leadership than just about any other topic in the social sciences. My clients often ask me if I can distill this leadership wisdom into a very short synopsis that’s tailored to lawyers in senior leadership roles. I’ve resisted doing this because there are so many good books on leadership (although very few of them address leadership in law firms). If you want to dig into that literature, start with The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, which in my view is the best and most well written evidence-based summary of the practical principles of how to successfully lead others. For those with less time on their hands, here is my attempt to reduce what we know to a “one-pager”.

First, let’s recall the important distinction between “management” and “leadership”—management is a system of behaviors designed to control complexity, create order and produce consistent execution of tasks and strategies that get the work done.[1] It’s internally focused. By contrast, leadership is a system of behaviors designed to respond to change, uncertainty and unpredictability, and is externally focused. Leaders do two things—they identify a goal or direction, and they mobilize others to voluntarily go in that direction.

You can manage documents, inventory, information, systems, products, people, time, and many other assets. You can only lead people. That’s it.

In the legal profession, we’ve had complexity since the late 1970’s, and accordingly, we’ve had managers since then, including managing partners and practice group leaders (they’re really practice group managers.) But the accelerating pace of change didn’t really start to move exponentially until around the mid-1990’s, so until then, leadership wasn’t much talked about in law firms.

Since then, the dramatic increase in change, uncertainty and unpredictability has fueled the demand for leaders. In most corporations, managers manage, leaders lead, and both execute these roles as full-time jobs. In a law firm, however, most managers are practicing lawyers first and managers in their spare time. Being a manager does not necessarily mean you are a leader, and for most management roles in today’s law firms, those in management roles are not also leading. But the opposite is not true—those in leadership roles in law firms almost always wear both hats—management and leadership. And yes, most law firm leaders devote their principal efforts to practicing law, and devote a smaller amount of time to leadership efforts. But increasingly we are seeing the “all-in” leader—the lawyer who all but stops practicing law in order to devote full time attention to the task of leading. Usually this is the top role, which may go under several names—managing partner (shouldn’t we call it “leading partner”?), Chair, CEO.

There are many forces at work driving the most senior law firm leaders towards an “all-in” role—the knowledge explosion, the growth in size and scope of law firms, the increasingly complex responsibilities of leaders, the competition from other providers of legal services, the decreasing loyalty of clients (and the increasingly important role of the top leader in maintaining client loyalty and satisfaction), and, perhaps most important, the aforementioned accelerating rate of change and uncertainty.

As uncertainty increases, leaders have less and less ability to gather all the necessary information needed to make good decisions. Hence, leaders are almost always in a position of having to make decisions on the basis of insufficient information. But if you’ll recall, the two responsibilities of leadership are (1) setting a direction, and (2) getting others to voluntarily move in that direction. This second task is inherently based on trust. When a leader doesn’t have complete information, s/he must, by necessity, ask his/her constituents to “trust me—this is the right direction for us, even though I don’t have complete information.” Trust is built through relationships, and that takes time. The busier your lawyers, the more geographically spread out is your firm (or your clients), and the fuzzier the information supporting the goal, the more you as a leader need to gain the psychological buy-in of your constituents. And there’s simply no substitute for face time in this effort.

Everything I’ve said so far applies to leaders in general. But in a law firm, we have the complicating factor that lawyers are atypically high in a personality trait called “Skepticism”[2]. This means that the process of building buy-in is harder to do and takes longer to achieve. Moreover, most lawyers are also very low in psychological “Resilience”, which means that they will be more thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism or rejection. You always have to factor this in by anticipating defensive responses from anyone whose opinion or behavior you seek to change. A simple request to “follow this new direction” can easily be interpreted by a low-Resilience lawyer as a criticism of their current direction, even if that’s not what was intended. And when you, the leader, are also low in Resilience (which is highly likely, based on the statistical distribution of this trait among lawyers, it can make your task even more challenging. Why? Because leaders get criticized more than other people do, and when a low-Resilience leader gets criticized, s/he is more likely to get defensive, wounded, hurt, or otherwise react ineffectively, and this further impedes the ability to get your constituents to buy in.

Thus, law firm leaders need to do several things to become more effective:

  • Know yourself. Know your personality strengths and blind spots.
  • If you’re low in Resilience, luckily there are several very effective cognitive strategies that can help you boost it to a higher level
  • Understand Skepticism—your own, and how to deal with the Skepticism of your partners

In addition to these tasks, there are several other things that leaders need to pay attention to in order to become maximally effective.

The leadership literature makes it very clear that people, at a minimum, only follow leaders who consistently demonstrate character and competence.

Character includes a number of factors, but they all are related to one another, and they include trustworthiness, honesty, reliability (do you do what you say you’re going to do), authenticity, and fairness. To the extent that you are seen as deficient in any of these, you will have a harder time getting buy-in for your leadership initiatives. Note that this is entirely subjective—it matters little what you think of your character; what matters most is the subjective perception that your constituents have. This is one of the principal reasons that good leaders seek out lots of feedback and place a value on self-awareness.

Competence comes in two flavors. First, the research shows that people only like to follow leaders who are skilled at the things that their constituents value. Lawyers only follow leaders who are themselves good lawyers. A number of experiments have been tried in which very competent leaders who were not lawyers attempted to lead significant law firms. In all cases, the results were less than optimal.

Second, leaders need to also be good at certain leadership competencies. The best evidence suggests that leaders who are outstanding at three to five such competencies achieve the best followership, and those leaders who fail to achieve top performance on any of the competencies struggle to make any headway at all.

There are several models in the literature for what kinds of competencies you need to excel in. I’m going to summarize the research from Kouzes and Posner. If you want to take a deeper dive, the other evidence-based model can be found in The Extraordinary Leader by Zenger & Folkman.[3]

Kouzes and Posner

Character and competence

Kouzes & Posner have been empirically studying leaders for over 25 years, and their database is huge as well as very consistent—it shows that there are five core “practices” (competencies) that the best leaders do very well. (The somewhat jargon-y labels come from their writing.)

Model the Way: Effective leaders set an example for others to follow. Small example—no lawyer will turn in his/her timesheets on time if the leader asking for them doesn’t do so as well. But think bigger—it’s not just about timesheets—your character is on display, and the more you walk your talk, the more others are likely to follow your lead.

Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders create a picture of how life could be different/better if/when we achieve our goals. They go about this in a way that’s likely to evoke an emotional response from their constituents. People do not follow leaders on good ideas alone—those ideas have to resonate at a deeply personal level in order to lead to action.

Challenge the Process: Leaders take risks. They experiment. They make strategic choices with less than 100% information. And they learn from their mistakes.

Enable Others to Act: Leaders foster collaboration among their constituents. They build a climate of trust. They cement relationships. And they help remove obstacles from others who want to move towards the goal.

Encourage the Heart: Leaders liberally recognize goal-directed behaviors by their constituents. They reward them intrinsically—with respect, with genuine heartfelt praise, with recognition. They keep hope alive. They foster mutual respect for individuals, and this, in turn, fuels many of the practices above.

Some of these practices seem foreign to the DNA of most law firms. And for years, we’ve tolerated a lot of lawyers scoffing at “that touchy-feely stuff”. But in the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of compelling scientific research in both psychology and neuroscience that shows the extraordinary power of these practices in driving enterprises towards consistently superior performance and record levels of profitability, not to mention employee engagement, longer tenure, and higher job satisfaction.

I haven’t even mentioned in this article the challenges of keeping and motivating Millennials, who now constitute nearly the entirety of your associate classes, but the good news is that the same principles and practices that foster outstanding leadership also produce the kind of climate that tends to increase Millennial engagement and job tenure.

As I mentioned at the outset, there are many other principles in the leadership literature about what you can do to become skilled at leading other lawyers, but the ones I have covered here represent the 80/20 rule—if you simply focus your attention on these few ideas, you will see extraordinary results.

[1] See John Kotter, What Leaders Really Do (Harvard Business School, 1999)

[2] See my article Herding Cats at https://www.lawyerbrain.com/sites/default/files/caliper_herding_cats.pdf .

[3] The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman (McGraw Hill, 2009)

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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