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March/April 2020

Taking the Lead

Firm Leadership Is a Team Task

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

The staff looks to all your firm’s partners as leaders. The staff seeks their opinions and guidance. Sending the wrong message, even by accident, can damage firm morale. One of our colleagues, Kim Vance, is a popular speaker on this topic and allowed us to share her thoughts on the importance of all law firm partners setting the right example through actions and words.

Every Partner Sets a Personal Example 

Vance teaches that although senior leadership must be engaged with all levels of their firm, they have limited time and cannot engage daily with everyone. Therefore, it is critical that all partners act as front-line leaders within their firm, particularly for the staff with whom they interact daily.

Partners who are not in senior leadership often forget that they play a unique role in leading their firm’s employees. “Regardless of whether they have a formal title or role, they still possess the most powerful leadership tool, which is their own personal example,” Vance said.

This type of leadership does not come naturally for most people. Some partners do not see themselves as leaders because they have no leadership title. Other partners understand that they are leaders if you ask them, but over time they lose sight of their responsibilities in this area. However, every partner is a leader regardless of their position and regardless of whether they realize it.   

Vance’s presentations advise us with these four important points:

The first principle: Do no harm.

Partners in a law firm are always on stage. They must avoid actions that undermine senior leadership and create dissent. For example, senior leadership will inevitably have to make difficult choices for the benefit of the firm. Perhaps they must eliminate a position that is no longer needed, or they must reorganize staffing assignments. Those choices will be unpopular with some. Indeed, they may be unpopular with you. How you respond to those choices sets the tone for other firm employees. Vance uses the water and gasoline analogy: “Always be water when interacting with your team. Never fuel the flames of a team member’s discontent even if you agree that senior leadership has made a mistake.”

Going beyond “do no harm.”

It is also important for each partner to actively promote a positive culture. Every staff member will inevitably have questions and concerns from time to time. Partners must create an environment that welcomes staff to raise concerns and questions. Vance advises partners to let staff know that there is always an open door and demonstrate engagement with staff who take advantage of this opportunity. For example, if employees ask a partner for more money, never say, “That’s never going to happen” or anything remotely similar.  Instead, let the staff members know that you will go to bat for them, but that you need their help in making their case with hard data and persuasive arguments for why a raise is warranted. You are not promising them a raise, but you are demonstrating your concern for their request and a willingness to help if they do their part. The raise that they want may not be possible, but your engagement may make the difference between a disgruntled employee and one who remains committed to the firm. That’s smart leadership. 

Understanding is a two-way street.

All partners need to take the time to understand the issues and challenges that senior leadership handles on behalf of the firm. That enables a partner to help firm employees see the big picture when discussing issues and concerns. Employees who understand the big picture are more likely to view firm decisions in a positive light, including those decisions with which they don’t fully agree.

Encouraging the entire team to lead.

Vance’s last point notes that a few of your partners may instinctively lead in this manner, but most will not. Members of the senior leadership team must routinely encourage fellow partners to participate in this part of firm leadership. Educate your colleagues about their capacity to either support or detract from the firm’s vision and goals within their spheres of influence. Be specific with them about how they can lead even without a leadership title. As you go through this process, Vance counsels us to assume the best in your colleagues. If they are not doing their part, it is probably because they have not thought through these issues. Give them a vision for their leadership role, and they will likely embrace it.     

Let’s not “light any matches” with our words. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have good morale, and it’s easy to contribute to it.



Linda Klein

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law[email protected]