chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November/December 2019

Preparing the Next Generation to Lead

Change is accelerating, the complexity of the challenges is unprecedented and lawyers need strong leadership.

Kelli Dunaway

Jordan Furlong calls our newest lawyers the Pivot Generation because many years from now we will look back and recognize that this was the generation around which the old legal market collapsed and the new legal market coalesced, servicing the most sophisticated and well-informed clients. Many Pivot Generation lawyers, however, do not possess the skills and essential proficiencies—that is, leadership, financial literacy and entrepreneurialism—that will be required of successful legal service providers throughout the next few decades.

Corporations, leading professional services firms and the military all see leadership development as a core mission of their organizations. They provide training, structured feedback, experiences and opportunities for professionals to build their leadership abilities and profiles. Lawyer-led organizations have not done as well. The legal industry has invested little in formal training while producing the greatest percentage of the country’s leaders—most of our government, much of the nonprofit world, nearly all law firms and the legal departments at top corporations are headed by lawyers. Put into positions to lead with no training in how leaders behave, we’re setting our people and organizations up for stagnation and failure.

We can change this. We can at least prepare our lawyers to lead by defining what a leader looks like, creating appropriate training programs and providing opportunities to develop their own leadership styles.

We aren’t born with leadership skills. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote that becoming an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice. Becoming an expert leader is no exception.

Leadership and talent development that are valued as much as client service is happening at leading professional services firms. Their mission statements harmonize with their stated and lived values to produce a culture that encourages and celebrates their ability to develop great leaders. If we want to develop lawyers into great leaders who are ready to face the challenges in our “new normal” and beyond, we must also treat leadership development as a critical component of our core values and cultures. But beware: This new focus will likely require an increase in our investment of time, values and money.

What Is Leadership?

Despite extensive research, there is no single definition or profile of a great leader but, rather, a list of generally recognized leadership qualities that cluster into five categories. For example:

  • At their core, leaders have strong value sets. Leaders are honest and trustworthy. They approach their work and lives with integrity and live by an ethos of service.
  • Leaders embody personal effectiveness. They are self-aware, maintain self-control even in trying circumstances and can direct themselves, their lives and their careers even in the face of setbacks.
  • Leaders have strong interpersonal skills. They are socially aware and empathize with their friends, colleagues and clients. They are persuasive and can effectively manage conflict.
  • Leaders have a vision and can look forward and inspire others into that future.
  • And leaders, like all successful lawyers, are competent. They never stop seeking knowledge, are prepared for the tasks of the day and possess strong judgment.

Law firm leadership follows these general clusters. In the May 2015 article “7 Habits of Highly Effective Law Firm Leaders,” Linda Chiem sets out the characteristics essential to law firm leaders: they (1) craft business plans with a strong vision, (2) focus on client relationships, (3) seek visibility, (4) build consensus, (5) confront problems directly, (6) lead with integrity and positivity and (7) put in long hours.

Other Steps Forward

Having a framework for what law firm leaders look like is a great first step in building a leadership development program, but it’s only the first step. Recognizing what it takes to succeed doesn’t change behaviors or culture. A competency model must be built around those desired behaviors. Potential leaders must be trained and mentored in those behaviors with consistent feedback within a system that rewards and promotes the desired behaviors in meaningful ways. Each of these influences and reinforces the other toward the desired behavioral goal.

An important step toward your desired goal is to honestly identify the current success factors that are specific to your firm and your people. That can be done via an internal task force that includes partners, associates and your firm’s business professionals. This task force should also identify the contributions of talented, allied professionals in the law firm who create the value your clients find in their relationship with your firm. Such contributors may include those managing the client relationship, the technical expertise of those working on specific matters or types of matters and interactions with support staff. Be sure to include the impacts a client might feel from pricing experts, client technology teams and the firm’s professional development services. This process can also be done by, or in conjunction with, an outside consultant, but the insights that come from self-analysis of why your business is successful can permanently alter your perspective and impact future decisions.

The next step is to design a competency model. What do each of those success factor behaviors and skills look like for junior associates, midlevel associates, senior associates, junior partners, midlevel partners and even senior partners? If you prefer, think of these factors as an ideal career map for success in your firm and then ask yourself, How do I and my current professionals stack up against these factors? This competency model should become the backbone of your review process and each competency should be evaluated as a “strength” or a “development need” for each person reviewed in each review cycle. Each development need should be accompanied by meaningful feedback, a plan to improve and resources that can help to achieve that improvement. That plan can include everything from specific training sessions, coaching, mentoring and real life opportunities to use and improve those behaviors and skills.

Train Your Leaders

You should offer leadership training from the very beginning of a lawyer’s career and throughout each stage of a lawyer’s advancement to a new level of responsibility, even if that is not also associated with a change in the lawyer’s title. More focused training should be provided to those with a specific development need.

One type of training program starts with an overview of law firm leadership during a new lawyer’s orientation and then supplements that introduction with regular programs on leadership throughout a new lawyer’s first few years at the firm. Using a blended method of case studies, small group discussions and real leadership challenges the firm faces can help junior lawyers assume the mindset of a leader and understand more broadly the challenges they will be expected to confront throughout their careers. As lawyers evolve, so should the case studies, challenges and training depth. More detailed feedback should follow as the training progresses.

Another vehicle, especially for lawyers primed by first-year, in-house leadership training programs, is an executive education-type program over three to seven intense days with similarly tenured associates from other firms and companies. Case-based and experiential programs will introduce lawyers to a broad range of professional skills, including effective teamwork and leadership styles, that will allow the trainee to begin developing his or her own style. Additional skills taught will include effective delegating tasks, giving and receiving useful feedback, managing projects, developing strategy, collaborating in cross-cultural and cross-organizational teams, design thinking and advanced legal problem solving.

Provide Opportunities to Lead

Because actual development takes place in the white space between classroom learning and opportunities to use those skills, a good training program should focus on what happens in the everyday lives of future law firm leaders. Law firms can then proactively coordinate and provide leadership experiences that are designed to give associates and partners the types of early, supervised opportunities that help them to grow and learn as leaders.

These opportunities can include leading internal initiatives related to important organizational goals. Things such as the improvement of lateral recruiting, integration and retention, diversity initiatives, new lawyer training and mentoring, knowledge development and sharing, employee engagement and community building, technology-related opportunities and efficiencies, pro bono efforts, and empowering associates committees to be more than just a place to lodge complaints. External opportunities for leadership might include charity drives or events, helping local schools, collaborating with organizations like Habitat for Humanity or helping the firm develop a social media and internet strategy for its lawyers.

Tracking the development of these skills should be something firms evaluate as they do with items such as billable hours, technical excellence and client development.

The Role of Partners

Partners have a huge role to play in preparing the next generation of legal leaders.

A great way to empower leading partners is to create a leadership sponsorship program. Unlike mentorship, sponsorship requires senior lawyers to put their personal reputations on the line for younger lawyers and act as their champions. Pair up your leading partners with an associate of high leadership potential and design a program in which they work together to actively solve law firm challenges. Not only might you create long-term symbiotic relationships, you could find new solutions to some ongoing challenges and you’ll help develop leadership talent.

Just as important as preparing junior leaders is helping aging leaders pass on their relationships, knowledge and leadership roles. This is a transition that will be most helpful to start when partners are at the middle stages of their career. The transition process also allows current firm leaders to proactively engage their partners in planning for their next lives beyond the law firm as they gain a more confident understanding that their firm and investments in it—both personal and capital—will continue to survive and thrive. This provides opportunities for training and coaching on retirement planning, retirement career options, and client relationship and leadership succession planning. Helping lawyers find a rewarding retirement option and then planning for it has the potential to strengthen their commitment to the firm’s long-term legacy.


The goal is to find a win-win solution for the firm as a business, the current partners and the future partners. If you can identify what leadership looks like in your firm, train your people to be that type of leader for your firm and continue to give them opportunities to stretch their leadership skills, you will prepare the next generation to lead.

Kelli Dunaway

Kelli Dunaway is the director of Learning and Development at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP. She has worked in lawyer professional development since 2004, when she left the practice of bankruptcy law. She has worked in firms of all sizes in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and the Midwest. With a keen interest in innovation in law firms and lawyer professional development, she seeks creative solutions to the problems within the current law firm model, while steering the industry toward the next model. [email protected]