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November/December 2019

Simple Steps

Five Ways to Develop Law Firm Leaders

Allison C. Shields

According to an article titled “The Future of Leadership Development” in the March 2019 Harvard Business Review, despite the proliferation of leadership development courses available today, “[s]everal large-scale industry studies ... indicate that more than 50 percent of senior leaders believe that their talent development efforts don’t adequately build critical skills and organizational capabilities.”

Is the same true in law firms? In fact, it may be worse. Many law firms do not have their own leadership development programs and do not invest in sending potential leaders to available lawyer leadership development programs.

“The State of Law Firm Leadership 2018,” a white paper published by Patrick J. McKenna and David J. Parnell for the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute in August 2018, found that many law firm leaders are ill-prepared for the position and are given little to no training or leadership development. It reports that most do their jobs with either a vague job description or none at all. More than half of managing partners take over the job with a transition period lasting less than three months, and 30 percent reported obtaining no guidance whatsoever in their new role. 

Given these statistics, it is not surprising that 74 percent of law firm leaders in the study report that their firms have no specific qualifications for the next firm leader, and more than 70 percent state that there is no formal agreement about compensation for the firm’s leader after he or she steps down from the position.

While the law firm leadership study focuses on managing partners (with various titles), similar challenges face law firm leaders of all types. So what steps can law firms make to improve their leadership development?

Make Leadership A Priority 

To improve leadership development in law firms, current leaders need to commit to making leadership a priority and an integral part of the firm’s culture. Develop a comprehensive job description for all leadership positions and then match skills, behavioral attributes and core competencies to create a set of qualifications for the positions. Then reinforce those expectations at associates’ meetings, practice group meetings and as part of lawyer performance evaluations.

Make leadership a regular agenda item for partner meetings. Review core competencies and qualities desired in partners and firm leaders. Discuss the progress of potential leaders and of leadership development initiatives. Talk about what the firm is doing to develop the next generation of leaders, whether there are enough leaders in the pipeline and, if not, how to develop existing talent or seek new talent to fill that gap.

Similarly, identify lawyers who do not seem to have leadership potential or are not interested in leadership positions and provide other opportunities for them to contribute and thrive within the firm in other roles.

Set Goals and a Strategic Direction

Leadership is all about defining the firm’s strategic vision and setting specific goals that advance that strategic vision. If the firm’s vision includes longevity and continuity, leadership development has to be a part of that vision. Define what successful leadership development looks like.

Help individual lawyers set goals that align with firm and leadership goals. Provide opportunities for lawyers to build their skills or to work alongside partners or other more experienced lawyers.

Ask questions like:

  • How can the firm create sustainable, long-term change and a business strategy that is flexible enough to withstand the rapid rate of change in today’s legal marketplace?
  • How can the firm get all of the firm’s leaders and partners to operate effectively and work together to achieve the firm’s strategic plan?
  • How can the firm create effective teams and get lawyers to work together?
  • How can the firm communicate goals and plans effectively throughout the firm?
  • How can the firm attract and retain the best talent?
  • What are the firm’s current needs with regard to leadership development?
  • When will leadership transition take place?
  • How will leadership transition be accomplished?
  • Who will be involved in the transition?
  • How much time will be needed to transition not only new managing partners but also new partners, practice group leaders and others?

Identify and Cultivate Potential Leaders

Don’t wait until existing partners are about to retire or leadership positions become available to look for new leaders. Start cultivating leaders early, from the day a lawyer starts at the firm, to avoid a talent gap and ensure a smooth leadership transition. Define and look for leadership qualities in candidates seeking to come to the firm. Actively recruit potential leaders who demonstrate those qualities.

Promote innovation and new approaches, such as design thinking; allow younger lawyers to generate client-focused options and test strategies or solutions; and provide them with feedback to develop their ability to innovate. Offer mentoring and coaching to help lawyers apply new skills they have learned. Allow potential leaders to participate and observe leaders in action so they can see how skills and core competencies apply in real world situations. Provide lawyers with time to focus on training and development opportunities, and then follow up to reinforce what has been learned.

Effectively Gather, Manage and Distribute Knowledge

That so many law firm leaders feel overwhelmed or unprepared for the job indicates that firms are not transferring necessary knowledge and information to rising leaders and others within the firm. All too often critical information is hoarded or intentionally hidden by a minority of partners. In addition, as long as things seem to be moving in the right direction, most partners don’t actively seek this information.

But to ensure a smooth leadership transition, this needs to change. Knowledge needs to be shared more freely and more broadly. And sharing shouldn’t be limited to just data; it must include intelligence about and access to clients and other resources, as well as information about firm processes and operations.

Law firm leaders need to consider the most effective way to share and distribute knowledge to those who need it. There are many options to choose from, including one-on-one mentoring and coaching; retreats and leadership activities and projects; online learning and webinars; remote personalized learning platforms; and group meetings with feedback, classroom training and individual exercises.

The best leadership programs may include a mix of several of these options, both to accommodate different learning styles and schedules of the individual lawyers and to encourage interaction among present and future leaders.

Lead By Example

Rather than lamenting the lack of next-generation leaders in the firm, claiming that younger lawyers “just don’t get it,” good law firm leaders encourage and motivate lawyers to become law firm leaders through their example. They are clear about what it takes to become a leader and what the benefits of leadership are. They demonstrate the core competencies and qualities the firm expects from future firm leaders and are willing to be held accountable.

Good law firm leaders anticipate needs and develop strategies to meet those needs. They effectively communicate those needs to other stakeholders, whether those stakeholders are clients, partners or other firm employees, and then high-quality leaders obtain buy-in. They inspire, motivate and guide the firm’s lawyers toward a common goal.

Create performance criteria and an evaluation process for both potential and existing leaders. Identify the different kinds of leaders and the different paths to leadership and communicate them consistently.

Demonstrate strategic thinking, decision making, business strategy and business leadership. Engage in self-development and continuous learning activities, and encourage others within the firm to do the same.


Leadership development is not a one-time event; it is a continuous process that must be integrated into the fabric of the firm and constantly updated and improved. But by making leadership development a priority, setting strategic goals for leadership development, actively gathering and distributing knowledge, identifying and cultivating potential leaders early and demonstrating those qualities the firm desires in its future leaders, law firms can prepare their future leaders for a smooth, successful transition.

Allison C. Shields

Allison C. Shields is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA 2013) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA 2014). Email her at [email protected]