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Law Practice Today


Nine Simple Actions to Create A Culture of Leadership

Anna Rappaport


  • Effective leaders create other leaders to support them.
  • Here are nine simple actions that you can take to foster a culture of leadership in your firm.
Nine Simple Actions to Create A Culture of Leadership

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Great leaders don’t perform in a vacuum. They can’t do it all themselves. Leaders rely on managers, directors, informal ringleaders, administrators, committee chairs  and others to provide ideas, vision and insights, and most importantly, to take initiative. Any leader you admire, whether it be Gandhi, Steve Jobs, or your favorite politician—anyone who has a significant impact on his or her organization or on the world at large—inevitably has other leaders supporting them.

If you are committed to achieving the next level of growth or excellence within your firm, it is essential to nurture and incentivize leadership qualities among your staff and colleagues. However, lawyers are notoriously difficult to lead. How do you bring out the leadership qualities of hardworking lawyers who are often, due to natural inclination and the incentive structures of law firms, more disposed to focus on billable hours and client development? Here are nine simple actions that you can take to foster a culture of leadership in your firm.

1. Publicly appreciate those who take initiative

Public recognition of a job well done is an exceedingly valuable tool. It not only helps the individual receiving the recognition to feel appreciated, but also sends the message to the firm at large that those who make positive changes will be supported and valued. This increases the likelihood that others will be similarly proactive in the future, and positively influences the firm’s culture. Recognition should apply to people at all levels of the firm. If a secretary spearheads the overhaul of the filing system, an associate instigates an upgrading of the firm’s software systems, or a partner leads a cross-selling effort involving wrangling partners across the firm to participate, all should be recognized publicly for their leadership and commitment to the firm.

2. Write thank you notes for leadership actions

Another great way to encourage leadership is to send handwritten thank you notes to people who are doing a great job in leadership positions. Doug Conant, former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, led a very successful turnaround of that company and is known for his effective leadership skills. Over 10 years, he wrote more than 30,000 notes to employees celebrating their accomplishments and contributions, and he credits the practice of writing those notes daily as one of the keys to his success in increasing engagement and the bottom line. Leadership can be very difficult. It takes time—lots and lots of unbillable time—and can also be emotionally draining. Real leadership involves making choices and defending those choices. Inevitably, some people will be unhappy. With all the challenges of leadership, knowing that someone you respect and admire understands and appreciates your efforts goes a long way toward keeping people motivated and willing to continue stepping into the breach of leadership.

3. Look for potential

Most lawyers are so busy dealing with clients, billing hours, managing employees, and navigating periodic crises that they don’t put a lot of energy into looking for leadership potential in others. Nevertheless, great leaders do this constantly. It doesn’t require a lot of dedicated time. Rather, it is a mindset. Next time you are in a meeting, notice who is actively engaged and seems like they might have more to contribute. Next time you see someone doing a fantastic job in one role, think about the qualities they are exhibiting and consider where else those qualities may be valuable. For example, if Jennifer is being strategic, thoughtful and committed in running the firm’s women’s initiative, consider her to head up the advisory committee tasked with making recommendations regarding an overhaul of the firm’s compensation structure.

4. Drop in on committee meetings

This serves several purposes. First, it is a great chance to look for potential, as outlined above. Second, it sends the signal that the work of the committees is important enough for you to take time for it, thus motivating more engagement and better results from committee efforts. Third, it gives you a better understanding of what is really going on in the firm, what people are thinking, what institutional obstacles may be hindering progress, etc. Finally, it gives you a chance to coach the leaders of those committees. After a meeting, you can complement them on things that they are doing well, or offer suggestions on how to be more effective.

5. Ask them to develop solutions

As a leader, you are often presented with problems and asked to come up with solutions. This is a great opportunity to call on others to step up regarding their own leadership. Ask them to develop a proposal for how to address the issue, then schedule a short meeting to discuss and give feedback on their solution. In some cases, it may be appropriate to invite them to spearhead the implementation of their solution. Yet, even if only you can implement the solution, this approach still prompts them to think like leaders, and puts the onus on them to contemplate options, conduct research or strategize, which should take some of the work off of your shoulders and may provide a wider range of potential solutions.

6. Hold office hours

Knowing what is happening in your firm is hugely valuable. If you have even one hour per week where anyone in the firm can come talk with you, it not only keeps you apprised of matters that may not otherwise make it onto your radar, but it also provides the opportunity to invite those seeking your guidance to come up with proposed solutions. If these office hours are held at a time that most people don’t want to be in the office, like early Monday morning or late Friday afternoon, it minimizes people taking your time for trivial matters.

7. Ask people their opinions

Some of the best leaders are not the ones who naturally put themselves into the spotlight, but rather those who quietly observe. By asking partners or associates for their thoughts about firm strategy, current initiatives or the direction of their practice, you will get a sense of who may have the vision to become a leader in the future.

8. Plant seeds

Inviting people to step into leadership positions or sharing with them your vision of their capabilities is a powerful tool for creating leaders. “You would make a terrific practice group leader.” “You have great vision and people skills. You should consider applying to the executive committee.” In some cases, the person will jump into an opportunity immediately. Other times, the seed grows more slowly. They need to weigh options, think through scenarios or navigate personal circumstances before they are ready to step into a serious leadership role. Regardless of the time frame involved for any one individual, the practice of consistently planting leadership seeds, over time, yields practice group leaders and committee members who are highly motivated and who do a great job in their leadership roles, rather than leaders who are just in it for the title or otherwise not taking their leadership roles seriously.

9. Ask leaders to identify other leaders

Creating a leadership culture is not a one-person job. When meeting with other leaders in your firm, ask them to name people on their teams who have leadership potential. Ask who could take some of their responsibilities off their plates or who might excel in other leadership positions. Increasing the number of proactive leaders in a firm and dispersing leadership responsibilities among a greater number of people means that more time and energy becomes available for strategy and other activities crucial to the long-term success of the firm.

Actively and consistently implementing even one of the approaches listed above has a palpable impact on a firm’s culture and bottom line.