Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Volume 40 Number 1

By

About the Author

Rich Goldstein has run an intellectual property boutique firm, Goldstein Patent Law, for nearly two decades. He serves as liaison between the ABA Intellectual Property Law Section and Law Practice Division (LP).

FILLING THE VOID IN LAW FIRM LEADERSHIP

Law Practice Magazine | January/February 2014 | The Management IssueLawyers often get frustrated by a general lack of leadership within their law firms. Senior lawyers often seem unwilling or uninterested in leading the firm, and junior lawyers are often either afraid to lead or do not see it as their role.

Have you noticed a general lack of leadership within law firms? Do you wish that your colleagues, whether above or below you, exercised more leadership? Do you wish you had more of an opportunity, or more permission, to be a leader? If so, you are not alone.

The consensus is that leadership is lacking in law firms of all sizes and at all levels. From senior partners on down to new associates, no one seems to be stepping up to lead firms, or even their own practice areas, in any bold, new directions.
If this sounds like your firm, then you can appreciate the need for leadership. If, however, you are fortunate to be in a firm with a “leadership culture,” you probably can appreciate the value of great leaders. And you can see how every enhancement to the environment of leadership greatly increases results and overall satisfaction, both within the firm and for clients as well.

WHY THE LEADERSHIP VOID?

The most probable cause is that the standard in the legal profession is to follow traditional practices, to be conservative, to maintain the status quo and to avoid being seen as someone who rocks the boat. The result of this “tradition culture” is that, as lawyers, we become good at the management aspects of working within the firm: following procedures and, on occasion, devising more efficient procedures. However, management—even great management—is not the same as true leadership.

Leadership is not about procedural efficiency; leadership is about shepherding through change. As lawyers, we are rarely, if ever, encouraged to be visionaries, to change things up and to get others on board with a new idea. To those who are part of a law firm, the tradition-based culture seems to discourage leadership at all levels.

Associates and entry-level employees feel it is not their place to lead. They often just hope that they work in a firm where leadership exists at the top and will trickle down to them—and then someday they will be leaders too. The hope is that they will be mentored and trained as leaders so they will be ready when they take the reins. But in most traditional law firms, such opportunities for leadership mentoring and training never come, which leads to dissatisfaction and attrition.

LEADERSHIP AND FIRM FOUNDERS

It is undeniable that the founders of any firm that grew from a few people to a few hundred had a “way with people.” It was their leadership ability that allowed them to attract the best clients for the firm and talented lawyers to serve them. It was their leadership ability that pointed the firm in bold new directions, successfully resolved conflict among the ranks and allowed the firm to survive periods of social and economic change. Of course, not all firm founders have leadership ability. Sometimes one or two were responsible for the firm leadership while the other founders possessed the superior lawyering skills. But without at least one great leader, the firm would never have grown or even succeeded.

Younger firms with the founders still at the helm are the most likely to have real leaders. At most older firms, however, the founders have long since retired. These firms are now run by senior partners who rose up through the ranks and whose beliefs, skills and attitudes regarding leadership are often the products of the law firm culture.

BUT AREN’T SENIOR PARTNERS LEADERS?

First, we must dispel the common misconception that a leader is anyone in a position of authority. In a law firm, for example, the people who make decisions for the firm—the senior partners or the firm managers—we might commonly call the firm leaders. That does not mean, however, that they are being leaders or exercising leadership when they carry out their day-to-day activities. Leadership comes from possessing the beliefs and skills of a leader, and taking the actions consistent with being a leader, not from holding a post or position.

Okay, so just being a senior partner doesn’t make someone a leader. But that doesn’t explain why senior partners don’t often act like leaders! With all of the years they spent rising through the ranks, with all of their experience counseling clients, wouldn’t you think that they would feel empowered to confidently lead the firm in new and progressive directions? Why then do senior partners rarely act like leaders?

Once again, in a well-established firm, the senior partners who spent their careers at the firm likely possess the beliefs, skills and attitudes regarding leadership that reflect the culture of the firm, and reflect what they have observed of others in the firm. In the typical, tradition-based culture of law firms, they probably learned that they would not rise to the top by rocking the boat, making bold moves or being a force for change. Instead, they noticed that being conservative and waiting for permission to lead is the way to ascend the ranks. And so the mandate of waiting for permission to lead became a part of their leadership model as they rose through the ranks.

As they moved from first-year associate to senior partner, they did just that: waited for permission to lead. Early in their career, they waited for permission to take on direct responsibility for cases. And then later they waited for and eventually got permission from the existing partners to enter their ranks.

The problem is that if the founding partners—the original leaders—have retired, there is no one left to grant senior partners permission to lead the firm in bold, new directions!

Midlevel lawyers, who are waiting for permission, tend to operate within the space they have been given and follow the procedures they have been taught. The space they occupy, then, is clearly one of management and not of leadership. There is little space for them to do much more than teach the existing procedures of the firm’s traditional culture, because these midlevel lawyers have never experienced any flexibility.

Clearly then the culture of waiting for permission to lead is a culture that leads to a lack of firm leadership—and at all levels.

PICK YOURSELF

If you see a similar pattern at your firm and would like to see a change, the good news is that this culture can change, and you can make it happen. Anyone, at any level, can be a leader. And the first step is easy. As marketing guru Seth Godin says, pick yourself. In other words, don’t wait for permission to take on the mantle of leadership, or to lead your colleagues in a new direction, because the permission you are waiting for will probably never come! Whether you are a senior partner or a new associate, give yourself permission. Go ahead and step into the role of leader.

The next step is also easy: Put your attention on being a leader. While leadership does involve skills that are sharpened over time and with experience, it is mostly a mindset that you can adopt right now. Starting from that mindset, in all of your interactions with colleagues, remind yourself that you have chosen to be a leader. You will begin to notice that opportunities to lead are plentiful. When you don’t wait to be chosen, the opportunities will choose you!

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