Lawyers don’t lead, they manage

I can do no better than quote Warren Bennis:

There is a profound difference between management and leadership and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial.”

Think about it. How much leadership is shown inside a firm?

There is a lot of talk about “we can do this better”, “administer the system better” but how many times has someone come along, in a position to influence the debate, with an innovation agenda?

Innovation is one of the hallmarks of a leader – someone who can see far enough into the future to make the investment of time and resources worth the effort. In short, “will this idea pay off”, not thinking “let’s see how long we can continue to milk this one”.

Leadership plays out where, rather than copy the best firm in the locality, the leader closes his/her eyes to the influence of their website, advertising, client roster or presence, and sets out on a course which they believe is right. Leaders are original thinkers and want the firm to stand for something.

Leaders also focus squarely on the people dynamic where managers focus more on the systems: usually with the focus being on the time recording, billing or work in progress.

Leaders invest in their people, have established mentoring programmes in place and don’t leave things to chance on the basis that lawyers will enable their skills by a process of osmosis i.e. by working with other lawyers.

Managers tend to rely on fear whereas leaders build and develop trust with their followers. That is not to say that people are not willing to challenge the leader but they do so in a way which is not personal but is fixed on the issue. They want to see it work so that it reflects well one everyone.

Managers are focused on next month’s billing. Leaders look to the next 2-3 years as to whether the practice area and people are going to deliver the results that are needed to see their people and the firm grow.

The manager accepts the status quo whereas the leader seeks to question everything. There are no sacred cows to the leader.

Finally, the manager is constantly looking at this month’s bottom line whereas the leader is a deep blue ocean thinker and is more interested in getting the most out of the market, the firms and its people.

Law firms if they want to break out of the chains of mediocrity need to invest in the process of leadership development. Great firms don’t leave things to chance.

Law firms being privately owned naturally have a tendency to scrimp and save on training or people development. They think that having to pay for a practising certificate and CPD training is more than enough. If they do run any internal courses they are frankly a waste of time. They are on the wrong subjects, too broad and don’t facilitate any learning.

I am not saying that all the usual stewardship issues that each and every partner has to cope with every day is not important but ask you ask yourself the simple question:

“Is my role more about doing things right or doing the right thing, and how will I know which is more important at any given moment in time?”

Not easy but all those in a position of responsibility must start taking the issue of leadership much more seriously.

One of the major problems holding back a law firm is the lack of credible leaders. What you have is a lot of operational people but no one willing to take a leadership role. Often this is because the direction of the firm has been passed over to a small group of individuals who have the overall say in the direction of the firm but they sometimes are no better equipped than anyone else to fashion a vision, look to the future and get the best out of everyone. It is likely that they are the most senior people or who have billed the most in the past. You don’t normally see management boards filled with 30 something partners.

But that doesn’t mean that those beneath them can abdicate their leadership responsibilty. If anything it places a greater emphasis on the subject simply because the board is too far away from the action.

It is stating the obvious but the firm’s direction, values and ethos is not something that one person can control. Everyone in the firm must be inspired to believe in the brilliance of the firm and the people within it.

Law firms need to recognise that a word here or a slogan there won’t cut it in the leadership debate. You know the saying: “Walk the Talk”. Unless the leader acts the vision, values and supports the collective good of the people having a slogan or saying will count for nothing.

Going forward it is important for firms to start talent spotting. To identify those people that have the potential to shape and change the firm in the most meaningful way. Leadership needs to be spoken about openly. It isn’t a bad word. It doesn’t mean power to those who have it and servitude to those who don’t.

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