What Law Firm Leaders Do—and What They Don't Do!
(or "What Law Firm Leaders Do—and What Law Firm Managers Do")
The title of this article is a nod to my favorite leadership article from the Harvard Business Review, titled “What Leaders Really Do.”
The reason I enjoyed that article is that it explained something to me about leadership that I never knew. It is something that, I have since discovered, few seasoned business people know: there is a critical difference between “leadership” and “management.”
Consequently, there is a difference between “acting like a leader” and “acting like a manager.” Neither is right or wrong, and one is not preferable to the other. However, when people are unclear about who is doing which, they will look to the wrong people for the wrong things, and their expectations will remain unfulfilled.
Until I learned about this difference, I was confused as to why certain ‘leaders’ acted very differently than others. I thought the difference was what people were calling ‘leadership style.’ For example, why did it seem like some leaders were really good at ‘inspiring the troops,’ while others were really good at handling complex situations, cutting costs and keeping the firm profitable? It made much more sense once I learned that one of these people was indeed correctly called a “leader,” while the other should have been called a “manager.”
So what is the difference between leadership and management?
- Leadership is about change.
- Management is about the status quo.
Seen in these terms, these two tasks are very different! What, then, is the difference between what a leader does and what a manager does?
Leaders are the people who create a vision, inspire others to hold that vision, and take care of people while leading them through change. Leaders build and foster relationships. They envision and create new products and new services. They see new market opportunities and guide their people there. They have their attention on incentives and other ways to keep their people happy—to keep their 'team' inspired and motivated.
Managers are the people who systematize, automate, optimize, create efficiencies, cut costs, and handle existing complex systems to keep things running smoothly. They work to reliably deliver products and services that already exist, to markets and customer segments that already exist. While they are not uncaring, they might sometimes seem to be, since their primary concern is not on keeping people happy; it is on all of the working parts that keep a business running smoothly.
Clearly, different people have different personalities, capabilities, and skill sets. Frequently, these traits make them more naturally suited for being either a leader or a manager, but not both. As stated earlier, neither role is "better" than the other. However, one of the biggest mistakes that firms (and companies) make is not recognizing this difference, and trying to turn their already effective managers into “better leaders”!
This mistake has led to two common problems that many law firms are experiencing today:
- Most firms possess an overabundance of management and a dearth of leadership.
- People in these firms tend to experience more confusing and unsatisfying interactions with their colleagues because they are looking to managers for leadership or to leaders for management.
For example, imagine that an associate brings a marketing idea he or she is excited about to a law firm manager. How likely is either party to be satisfied with the conversation? Or imagine a couple of associates showing a new docketing system they have painstaking created, to a rain-making partner who is passionate about firm expansion. How much enthusiasm are they likely to receive from this partner about their creation?
Then who are the leaders in a firm?
If you ask most people, "Who are the leaders at your firm," they would probably look to the ‘bosses’—the people making the top-level decisions. While this might be true in some situations, it’s not the best lens through which to search for the leaders.
The real leaders can be at any level in a firm.
Leadership comes from an attitude—not from a position.
Whether you are operating more like a leader or a manager is a question of where your attention is. Do you tend to focus more on change or on better handling what is already in front of you?
The leaders can be the partners, and they might also be the associates. The question to ask is, "Who are the people who are inviting change, ushering change, coping with change, caring for people through change?" Through this lens, a firm leader can even be a file clerk who takes care to make sure that the partners understand the new filing system. At the same time, one of the firm founders might be more of a manager than a leader—and his or her attention on the firm’s efficiency is one of the reasons for its longstanding success.
Most often, the leaders can be found throughout a firm. Frequently, they are surrounded by people with more of a management mindset; and they are rarely acknowledged as being the leaders. As would be expected in such a culture, their desire to provide change typically meets significant resistance.
When the system is more intentional, however, and it is better known who are the leaders and who are the managers, firm members know to whom they can turn and what they can expect in a given situation.
Once again, there is nothing wrong with management. Management is essential for any firm to be sustainable. Without management, a firm will never ‘find a groove’ that works, settle down, optimize, and be profitable. Leadership, however, wants things to keep changing. And that's good because clients' needs change over time. Without leadership, even a well-managed firm will eventually become outdated—and probably extinct!
Now, understanding how important it is for law firms to balance management with leadership, let’s continue exploring the topic of this month’s Law Practice Today: “Law Firm Leadership: Are We Only Managers Now?”
Rich Goldstein, a registered patent attorney, has run IP boutique Goldstein Patent Law for nearly two decades, and has obtained more than 1500 patents for his clients. Rich has also led business, sales, and personal growth workshops and trainings to thousands of people. He is passionate about learning, achieving, and helping others achieve success and happiness. He enjoys writing about what he has discovered to work best on his personal blog www.Richgoldstein.com.