YourABA: November 2013
YourABA November 2013 Masthead

Strategies to succeed at law firm leadership

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella

All too often, the difference between a successful law firm and an unsuccessful law firm is the quality of leadership. Exemplary leaders have the power to motivate attorneys and staff to serve clients, collaborate and innovate to the best of their ability, Thomas C. Grella writes in "Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers," a new book from the American Bar Association Law Practice Division.

YourABA spoke with Grella, a veteran law firm leader, about the practical lessons from his book.

What are the ideal qualities of a law firm leader?

Selflessness, generosity and patience. You must be selfless about your own personal needs, regardless of whether you are the one in the firm who spends the most time making the firm a success. The appearance that you are in your position mostly to benefit yourself, or to protect your own turf, will always negatively affect your ability to lead.

You must be generous with your own time as well as the resources you have control over as leader of the firm. If you desire to be an effective leader, you must win the right to be followed by creating relationships. This means that you must willingly, and not begrudgingly, commit your time and the firm’s resources for the benefit of others.

A law firm leader also needs to be patient with others, probably more so than those in positions of leadership in other types of organizations.

Leadership by definition is about taking folks from the present into the future. This requires change. Lawyers usually desire autonomy in their work. They also have an aversion to any type of change that might affect their own individual practice. Leaders should recognize this and patiently guide firm members forward.

What are some of the most common mistakes that law firm leaders make?

First, they believe that position is one and the same as leadership. I learned early on that having a position in a law firm, such as practice group chair or managing partner, only amounts to an expectation by others that you will serve them. It does not mean that they will follow or be influenced by you, which are both very hard to earn in a law firm.

Second, they believe that management and leadership are one and the same. Some folks are great at dealing with the day to day, but that does not necessarily make them great leaders. Leadership is about confidently taking folks from the present into an uncertain future. The term managing partner is ill-suited to what most law firms actually need. Most law firms are in desperate need of leadership, but what they get is management of the mundane problems of the here and now.

What is the best way to hone leadership skills?

Set aside time for leadership development and stick to it. If you are not disciplined in this, something is always going to come up; day-to-day management will naturally trump leadership, as everything seems to amount to a crisis nowadays. I call these regular times "alone time." Leaders need to allow for time to learn, reflect and plan.

How can law firm leaders better manage the demands on their time?

Be disciplined in the following: 1) saying no to perceived opportunities in order to remain effective in your existing commitments, 2) delegating tasks to others who are more appropriate to handle them, 3) committing to be a leader who creates leaders — as new, capable leaders come onto the leadership scene, delegation is made easier, and your time opens up for greater leadership — and 4) understanding that to be an effective leader, you must spend significant time on leading the firm and not allow day-to-day management to crowd out your leadership time.

What is the importance of being able to say no?

A whole lot of bad things happen when you do not have the ability to say no at the appropriate times: personal dissatisfaction as you try to fit too much activity into too little time; unhappy members of your firm as management crowds out opportunities for leadership; and aggravated clients (or whomever else you have made promises to) who have become disappointed with your inability to live up to your commitments. Generally, if you have not mastered the art of saying no, you make it much more difficult to personally succeed.

Is there a key to successful delegation?

Delegation takes discipline and a willingness to give up some of the power that you may feel you have in your position. So first, it requires a right attitude. Assuming that, ask yourself these questions: Is this really something that only I can do? If not, drive it down to the lowest level within the organization. Is this a task that can be given to someone else as a means of development of that other person as a leader? If so, delegate and use it as an internal development opportunity. Is this really something so important that only I can do, or can we risk failure? Mistakes are part of life and are great leadership teaching opportunities. You should never seek failure, but when mistakes happen, growth is made possible. Delegation is easier when you see it as a critical part of your duty as a leader to raise up other leaders.

What is the importance of concentrating on developing your strengths as opposed to improving upon your weaknesses?

This is a hugely important concept. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully our strengths are at least "good." Our weaknesses are often times very weak at best. In areas of weakness, it may take much time and effort to advance to a higher level, and even when you do, it is usually still quite mediocre at best. It is much better for the firm when its leaders understand their gifts, develop those to a "world class" level and surround themselves in leadership of the firm with folks who are strong in their areas of weakness.

What are some tips on conflict resolution?

In any conflict, there is a natural tendency for the participants to either fight or flee. One leads to escalation of conflict, and the other simply masks the problem until it raises its ugly head at a later date. Though lawyers make their livings helping others avoid and resolve conflict, my experience is that they are not as good at resolving their own internal issues. Those who lead lawyer groups need to understand that lawyers naturally tend toward personal autonomy and are generally averse to change as well as rules and procedures that might bind them in their routines and practices.

When conflicts arise, step up and be a leader, regardless of whether you have a "position." Make sure your motives are pure and based on the best needs of the firm. Communicate directly and in person with all of those involved. Finally, always use the process of confronting conflict as an opportunity to find common ground among those involved, and recognize and take advantage of the process as a lesson in leadership. With that attitude, even though you may never look forward to dealing with conflict, you will still be able to see the resolution process as one that is ultimately a lesson in leadership.

Anything else to add about your book?

The principles of leadership are generally very easy to understand. The problem is that in many cases of difficult times, those in leadership positions do not recall these vital principles when they are most needed. My hope was that "Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers" would not only be a resource itself, but also will be a resource of resources for law firm leaders. It is my firm belief that to be an effective leader, one must be regularly immersed in the study of leadership. It is only with constant study that you will recall these principles when you really need them.

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