The concept of leadership development is finally gaining ground in law firms at a time when effective leadership has never been needed more. The fact is that if a firm hopes to thrive in the legal services market nowadays, it must have effective leaders of all types in place as well as an emerging leader population in the pipeline.
That’s why creating a systematic way to build leadership skills needs to become a strategic imperative. When designing a leadership development effort for your firm, it is important to begin by considering what it takes to lead in your unique culture, among your people.
Defining the Leader’s Role: Competencies and Mind-sets
There are a variety of law firm leadership positions, and each one can carry a host of responsibilities. Generally, though, there are two categories of attributes to consider: functional competencies and mind-sets.
Functional competencies, which are related to the job in question, are often easier to assess. They reflect the core functions that generally capture the essence of what is expected in the given role. For example, for a practice group leader functional competencies would likely include the following:
- Understanding the firm’s business vision and determining a practice group strategy that aligns to it
- Communicating that vision to group members and building investment in goals by developing positive relationships and inviting input
- Measuring, monitoring and managing group revenues and productivity levels
- Establishing and ensuring client relationship and service standards
- Looking for competitive market opportunities and collaborative potential with other groups
- Attracting, training, evaluating, mentoring and promoting talented lawyers
- Building effective communication channels and a sense of team
- Developing future leaders for the group
But there is also a broader mind-set that defines the most successful leaders. Having a mind-set conducive to carrying out the leadership role is just as critical as being able to carry out functional responsibilities. This mindset is what allows emerging leaders to see beyond the concept of managing people to being viewed by colleagues as someone whom they would like to have lead them. While it varies from firm to firm and among leadership roles, these characteristics are often part of effective leaders’ mind-sets:
- Is self-aware and understands personal strengths and weaknesses
- Cares more about the success of the team than personal success
- Is intuitive and inquisitive about people, relationships and judgments
- Shows good judgment, both over time and in multiple circumstances
- Is willing to listen and accept other approaches
- Knows how to accept responsibility and admit mistakes
- Is diplomatic, tactful and able to deal with conflict effectively
- Is sensitive to and welcoming of differences in people
- Is adaptable and comfortable with change
- Can make difficult decisions, lead change and help others adapt
However, when designing a leadership development program, it’s also important to be aware that firms sometimes find they have to consider and test existing perceptions about the characteristics of lawyers who are ready to lead. For example, the number of women and minority lawyers in leadership positions does not mirror the growth of these two groups in the legal profession over time, and various studies have found that preconceptions (conscious or unconscious) as well as factors such as proper mentoring often play a definable part in that discrepancy. (See the sidebar in this issue.) Truly effective leadership development and training programs pay close heed to such factors.
Steps to Developing Leaders: Program Format and Contents
The primary objectives for creating a leadership development program are to both identify and prepare a pool of talented lawyers who will be ready and motivated to lead when needed. These programs, though, can take many forms. The majority of programs pull participants from the entire law firm population, although many choose increased numbers of participants from among underrepresented populations in leadership. Some programs focus specifically on underrepresented populations, such as minorities and women, and present a curriculum designed to address leadership challenges specific to these populations.
The candidates for participation are typically from the segment of lawyers who are between the ages of 35 and 45, with 10 or more years of experience practicing, and who are on track toward making or have made partner. There are a few programs that reach into more senior and junior populations for participants, too.
Some firms have chosen to team with graduate business schools and either put participants through the school’s standard leadership program or have the school’s faculty customize a program to fit the firm’s needs. Other firms design their own curriculum, offering a combination of in-house training and program sessions presented by external consultants. Still others manage their programs using faculty drawn only from inside the firm.
Regardless of their format, however, the best leadership development programs share some common elements:
- There is clear communication to the entire firm about the program, its objective, and the nature of the participant group.
- The lawyers chosen to participate are already viewed as leaders or as having significant potential, they have similar years of experience, and they represent the diversity of the firm.
- The program activities are spread out over time (for example, for 6 or 12 months) to minimize the impact of the time investment, maximize the opportunity for the group to form a cohort, and enhance the potential for learning concepts in depth.
- The firm’s current leadership has significant involvement, both in formulating program content and in group meetings and training sessions, to drive home that there is a direct connection between participation in this program and what actual firm leaders value.
- The curriculum contains self-assessment elements to raise each participant’s awareness of how he or she is viewed by peers, subordinates and more-senior lawyers.
- Program content is directly tied to the functions and mind-set demands of leadership roles at the firm and participants are offered skill-building opportunities as well as practical strategies for employing those skills.
- Issues currently facing the firm are part of the program content so that participants can fully comprehend the current leaders’ scope of responsibilities and begin being part of the problem-solving process.
- Firm leaders and participants constantly evaluate the usefulness of the program content and, in turn, it is regularly updated to reflect the changing demands.
Tips for Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
As is true with most things, even the best training programs may not produce the desired results for all. Here are four of the key issues to prepare for when developing and implementing an emerging leadership training program:
- One or more participants is not successful in the program and the firm has to decide how to provide feedback on their performance and deal with their career prospects post-program.
- The program is successful in developing potential leaders but there aren’t enough leadership slots to fill and these future leaders become frustrated.
- Leaders or other senior lawyers fail to commit time to the program or are unwilling to act as mentors.
- Potential participants do not see leadership positions as attractive and aren’t interested in the program.
There is no way to control all of these factors, but with a well-planned program, the firm should be able to avoid at least some of them. The following suggestions should help you address each pitfall in turn.
Performance standards. First, the firm must establish performance standards and set an evaluation policy for both the program and the eventual performance of leadership duties. Clarity here will make it easier to give candid feedback to unsuccessful participants, and it can also help the firm determine next steps relating to the lawyer’s career progression.
Program size. It is critical to control the size of the training program. By keeping programs selective, firms can then manage the number of individuals who participate and keep that number aligned with leadership pipeline needs. It is, however, important to be creative in thinking about ways to use people with leadership potential even when there is not a specific role for them to play immediately following the program. Participants should be given a clear message about what it is they are being prepared for and the likelihood and timing of possible assignment to a leadership role once they have completed the program.
Partner commitment. If the firm’s current leaders and senior lawyers do not commit to the program, it will fail. Firm leaders must, therefore, gain consensus among partners that the program is an important endeavor and worthy of the time investment before launching such a program. The firm should also consider rewarding senior lawyers for their participation with billable credit, in recognition of their investment in the firm’s future.
Design of current roles. If the firm’s next generation of lawyers doesn’t aspire to take on leadership roles, the firm may need to carefully examine the viability of those roles as they are currently designed. Are leaders rewarded and appreciated by partners or do they invest countless hours and feel they get no tangible benefit? Do their efforts as leaders enhance their practices and professional visibility or do they struggle to maintain their clients and their practices while devoting hours to firm citizenship? Are they truly allowed to lead or are they regularly second-guessed or overruled by rainmakers or others with power? The answers to these questions will make it clear whether leadership positions are something firm members will aspire to or run from.
Last Thoughts: A Critical, Strategic Exercise
Leadership development programs have only recently become popular in law firms, so it isn’t yet possible to measure their long-term effectiveness in preparing the next generation of firm leaders. It is, however, clear that well-designed programs offer a variety of benefits. The first, and perhaps most significant, benefit is that when firms decide to develop programs of this sort, they are forced to do two very important things: (1) define the leadership qualities and competencies they are seeking, given the requirements of the roles within the firm’s unique culture; and (2) identify a group of individuals who do, or have the potential to, exhibit those qualities and competencies.
All the leadership books in the world cannot tell a partnership what type of leaders it will need, since the nature of each partnership is unique, and so are the capabilities that will allow lawyers to lead their colleagues. Consequently, defining what it means to be a leader—and an effective leader—in your particular
Ultimately, programs that help identify the next generation of leaders strengthen the firm—and motivate talented individuals to have more of an interest in leadership. Once today’s partners see a path to leadership, more will show an interest going forward, which makes investing in these types of programs a critical strategic priority for the 21st century firm.