Great business owners know that to remain a leader, they must constantly be seeking out new ways to improve both themselves and their teams, strategies and systems. In our current legal climate, top-performing partners and leaders must do the same. Law firms are increasingly subject to the same market forces as any other business – changing client needs, innovative technology and alternative legal service providers being three of the biggest opportunities for law firms to distinguish themselves. The upshot of this is that impeccable legal skills are a given. They do not in themselves guarantee success. In today’s conditions, developing (or maintaining) a thriving legal practice demands that partners extend themselves in new, broader ways.
This “leadership gap” could be filled by external management specialists (i.e. legal ops). This growing role has been met with some skepticism, as many lawyers are not convinced that legal ops add to a firm built on providing legal solutions. We respectfully disagree with this assessment. As strategy, leadership and culture take on an increasingly important role in differentiating your law firm, the need for specialist advice in this area also increases. However, one way to cut out (or cut back) the need for legal ops is for partners to develop the business and people skills necessary to be great leaders themselves.
So, if the thought of outside managers taking up leadership positions in your firm makes you shudder, it might be time to start “thinking like a business owner”.
1. Embrace challenge
Successful leadership means that you are not afraid to be challenged. Surround yourself with the best people you can find (even if that means hiring people who might be more talented than yourself!). As a profession with an undeniably conservative streak, lawyers may prefer to do more of what they know rather than proactively seek change – but change is coming regardless. The savvy partner will recognise these forces as opportunities for manoeuvring upwards, rather than threats that might drive your firm downwards.
2. Continual skill development
Leaders help both themselves and their team to acquire and develop new skills necessary to stay on top of the market. The drivers of the commercial world are emotional intelligence, negotiation, collaboration and relationship management. All partners will be familiar with the last to some extent. Those who achieve partnership are almost universally “rainmakers” capable of generating work for the firm. Increasingly, we expect the other “soft skills” to become key to navigating the evolving legal industry.
These skills will interface over many different areas, and an investment in their development will pay for itself many times over. Changing client expectations present a new playing field, where achieving client satisfaction involves more than raw provision of legal services. As a result of technological innovation (especially cloud development), clients may expect to have greater access to their file, for example.
Not only relevant to staying on top of the market, talent retention is a key issue for law firms going forward. Knowing how to hang on to your star performers will set your firm apart in a market rife with lateral hiring. Research increasingly shows that millennials (and older generations past a certain price point) are more influenced by culture, flexibility and respect than salary. Mastering soft skills gives you the best chance of keeping talent.
3. Leave the ego at the door
Firms/Legal teams that outperform the market have leaders who move past their own egos and turn up every day to work hard for their firms/teams as a whole. The most immediate challenge might be recognising that future law leaders must be “T-people”: having deep technical specialisation coupled with breadth of business and people skills. If the breadth of skill isn’t there yet, acknowledging it will be a key (but humbling) first step that will pay dividends in future.
Likewise, developing a sound business strategy (and positive culture, if lacking) can involve a deflating analysis of where your firm/team is now and where you want it to be. We’ve written before on the importance of defining your strategy (and the danger of relying on “being the best” alone). By getting it right, however, you give your firm/team a great opportunity to reach (or continue at) the top.
What can you do to become a better leader today?