November 01, 2018

Career Steps

Now That You Are a Leader

Wendy L. Werner

People find themselves in leadership roles in their organizations for a variety of reasons. These might include being selected by current senior leaders, an already-in-place succession plan, an internal election, a default opportunity set up by seniority or rotation, or by the need to fill a gap. While you may have sought or looked forward to a leader’s position, you may also have some concerns about your skill sets and how you will actually put your thoughts about serving in a leadership role into action.

Conduct a Self-Examination

First and foremost, assess what you believe to be your particular set of strengths and potential shortcomings in a leadership role. Remember that while you may still be seen as you were before your new role, you have moved into a different framework in your organization. You may find that you have to handle certain aspects of your firm’s governance that you watched from the sidelines in the past. Internal politics, silos, fiefdoms and a reluctance to change that you may have fostered by accident or on purpose may now be far more important to your desire to move your organization or group in the directions you believe will improve it.

Take stock of how you are currently perceived by those who you are now in a position to lead. Relationships that may not have been central to the ways in which you operated in your previous role may now be critical to your success. Do you have fences to mend? Are there relationships with people that you need to foster or develop? Don’t expect these changes to occur overnight. Be prepared for a longer time frame than you may have initially expected. Plan on making this a high priority. You will not be successful without internal support.

What’s your temperament? Are you laid-back and easygoing? Are you hard-driving and tough? What kinds of situations push your buttons? What are the ways in which you relate to others that you may need to assess as you consider how dynamics will be altered by your new role? Think about leaders whom you have had great respect for in your own development. Are there ways that you want to emulate their styles? While you may not be able to completely change your temperament, know that you can only begin to change if you take careful stock of your current behavior.

From where in your life will you be stealing time to take on these new responsibilities? While some law firms are beginning to provide those in leadership roles a reduction in billable hours or less time spent on other firm business outside of their leadership responsibilities, others do not. Will you be able to negotiate a reduction in other areas of your work in order to devote the time necessary to be successful in your leadership role?

How do you feel about implementing change? Often people pursue leadership opportunities because they are looking for opportunities to make changes in the way that the organization is run. What is your plan for creating buy-in to new ways of doing things in the firm? How do you plan on getting influential colleagues on board in making small or large changes in processes or procedures? If you plan on making governance changes, what is the time frame in which you would anticipate making these kinds of changes happen? Are there interim steps that you can take or smaller pilot projects that you want to use as a means of trying out new ways of operating? Do you believe that you have the buy-in that you need in order to make this happen? Understand that no matter what you want to do that it’s likely to take more time than you may initially estimate. Plan on patience.

How will you measure your success? Anytime that you step into a new role and particularly if you anticipate wanting to make change, you can count on pushback. How will you know that you are gaining traction and moving your agenda forward? Think about interim measurements that you can take to determine whether you are headed in the intended direction. For starters, remember that what gets measured is often a signal of what will get done. One of the problems that change initiatives in law firms often face is that the only thing that is often truly measured are hours billed and dollars brought in the door. If, for instance, you want to address an issue like staff or attorney turnover, you will need to look at ways to measure the financial and psychological costs to the firm and clients of losing employees. Unless and until you can do this, you will likely have difficulty implementing any initiative that has not been previously measured.

Ask Others

I recently sat down with two colleagues individually to talk about their skill sets and the ways in which they had demonstrated leadership during their careers. Both were looking for new opportunities and were having some difficulty in determining how their past experience could be valued in light of new alternatives or options. Both were aware that they did not want to inflate their background and abilities; at the same time they didn’t want to sell their prior experience short. Neither had spent significant time documenting leadership activities in previous roles, though both had substantial experience.

We implemented an exercise wherein they would talk about their roles, and I would ask more detailed questions about the ways in which their leadership activities—including both size and scope—had contributed to their successes. I took detailed notes on their accomplishments and asked numerous follow-up questions to get more descriptive content than they had previously provided.

At the end of the process, both were surprised to see the level of specificity and positive outcomes that their work had generated, and they were equally surprised to see the ways in which their work had involved leading others. From this expanded activity process, we could then focus specifically on leadership and they could move forward with these experiences more close at hand.

Of course, not everything that we unearthed was positive. We took note of projects or activities that had not had the desired outcomes and discussed ways in which they might tackle similar projects in the future with their far more successful project activities in mind. We also looked at the conditions that had existed that made certain leadership roles more successful than others. This is an activity that you may want to pursue with a trusted friend or colleague. Having measurable content in hand from the past can help you in a leadership role in the present.

Utilize Available Resources

There are, of course, many resources that provide content about leadership. While lawyers and law firms believe they are unique, and therefore leading in a law firm is different from other kinds of organizations, there are, in fact, many similarities for almost anyone in a leadership role. A lawyer should be able to differentiate when looking at content between what might work in his or her setting and what may not. However, there are excellent resources available that speak specifically about law firm leadership. They include the 2005 First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals, by Patrick McKenna and David Maister; the 2017 book Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees, by Andrew N. Elowitt and Marcia Watson Wasserman; and the 2017 Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas by Laura Empson. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

There are also interesting studies and shorter papers about law firm leadership. “Who’s in Charge? Exploring Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms,” by Laura Empson, of Cass Business School in London, is a study written before the aforementioned book. “Recommended Reading for Law Firm Leaders,” an article by the consulting firm Altman Weil, offers a list of books and articles, some written by its own firm members. Again, this is a place where co-workers and other law firm leaders may be able to provide resources that have been helpful to them.

A New Practice Area

You may want to think of your leadership role as a new practice area. When you first started practicing law, or even after you practiced for a while, whenever you added a new practice area or there were substantive changes in legal precedent, you made sure to read the right resources and asked others who practiced in this area for their input about key knowledge. You likely attended select CLEs, and you may have attended conferences or joined organizations to meet new colleagues with special expertise. Think of leadership as the same thing as a new specialty. What in your past may have prepared you for this role? What special knowledge have you seen other leaders employ? Where do they go for up-to-date information? How are professional services firms employing new leadership models? For the sake of your role, and the sake of your firm, bring your best self to this new opportunity.

Wendy L. Werner

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She was the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s (LP) Law Career Paths Task Force and is currently the co-chair of the LP Book Publishing Board. Email her.

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