It may sound trite, but businesses need effective leadership to thrive. Law firms may have their own quirks, but they are businesses first and foremost. It is surprising, then, that partners and senior lawyers often have little or no leadership training on their way to the top.
Lawyers who reach leadership positions usually do so because of their legal experience, billing rates, client relationships or a combination of these factors. Rarely do they get there because they know how to lead. Becoming a leader and then learning how to lead is counter-intuitive, so why is leadership so often overlooked in a lawyer’s training?
Do Lawyers make bad leaders?
There are certainly many commentators that think so.
Common reasoning for this includes the belief that lawyer and leader personality types are mismatched:
- Common law legal systems are adversarial in nature. Contentious legal training encourages lawyers to seek out the flaw in any argument. If a leader adopts such an approach towards his team it will be hard to instil a co-operative spirit.
- Innovation is key part of effective leadership. So what effect does working with laws and precedents, day in, day out, have? Does such knowledge and a lawyer’s logical mindset impede creative thinking?
Any lawyer reading this will be able to think of many situations in which they have had to put up with woeful leadership from someone in their organisation.
So maybe lawyers do make bad leaders. But there will always be exceptions – good leadership skills can, and should, be acquired.
Just because the majority of lawyers are intrinsically poor leaders, it doesn’t mean you have to be. In fact, it just makes you that much more valuable to your firm if you possess, or develop, those skills.
Furthermore, some vital skills for lawyers are also vital skills for strong leaders:
- Sound judgment and decision-making abilities
- Listening skills
- Effective communication
Before looking further at what makes a great leader, there is a critical question to ask yourself ‘why do I want to lead?’.
The Purpose of Leadership
The purpose of law firm leadership – at its zenith – is to make yourself obsolete. To have embedded your own philosophy and values so effectively in those below you that they intuitively know how to act without your input.
In Richard Branson’s words: “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple”
Leadership is not all about you. If you want to be an effective leader, your intentions should altruistic. How can anyone respect a ‘leader’ who only wants leadership for the sake of their own vanity? There has to be a higher purpose – the good of the firm and, by extension, everyone that works with you.
If you make leadership your only goal, you expose yourself to the likelihood of becoming a poor leader. You will know the kind – overbearing, bullying, egotistical; the kind of leader who thinks shouting down all opposition to their opinions is ‘visionary’.
If your only focus is you, as a leader, you close off some of the most powerful leadership techniques there are, such as:
- Listening to others
- Surrounding yourself with a team of experts.
True leaders are not insecure that their team know more about the subject than they do. In fact, they turn this to their advantage. They harness constructive criticism and use it to improve their plans. Or have the good judgment to discount purely disruptive objections.
Leadership as a collaboration
If you look as leadership in terms of guiding your team towards a common goal, you will be much more effective.
No two members of your team will be the same. One size does not fit all. So your leadership approach cannot be a matter of ‘take it or leave it’.
A strong basis of leadership
There are common techniques to a successful approach:
- Listen to your team and talk less.
‘Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak’ – Epictetus, Fragment VI
- When you do talk – communicate effectively. Make your point as concisely as possible and, above all, in a respectful manner.
- Make firm decisions – it is the leader’s role to take decisions so that progress can be made. However, that doesn’t mean they have to be taken hastily, arbitrarily or without consideration for the opinions of others.
- Be patient, fair and consistent.
- Be an example to your team, someone whom you would wish to follow. You should act with integrity and keep your promises.
- With that in mind, identify leaders who inspire you. Analyse what it is that draws you to them. Use them as role models. Self-improvement is the sign of a potential, competent leader strives.
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