Leadership in law firms is often underestimated and while this tendency finds its basis in a flawed perspective, there are ways in which leadership in law firms also needs to rise to the occasion to prove it wrong.
Richard Macklin joins us to present his insights on the subject. As a former Global Vice Chair and Global Client Partner of Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, he is uniquely positioned as a consultant to speak to the challenges facing leadership in the legal sector.
Motivational vs. inspirational leadership
Richard differentiates between two kinds of leadership. The first, motivational leadership, is common in the legal sector and other traditionally-run industries like investment banking. It’s primarily about a little pep talk and the exchange of performance for promotions and pay rises.
“But inspirational leadership is different,” says Richard. “It’s about getting people so fired up and excited about what they’re doing that they get in the flow.”
This second kind of leadership has a lot more to do with vision. And this is often a challenge for lawyers, who, Richard says, tend to think more about the short term. Time-based billing reinforces this behaviour, since it encourages people to focus on their own outputs instead of on the bigger picture.
Richard warns that the risk of inspirational leadership in a law firm is that not everyone will warm to it – and those who are accustomed to motivational leadership can even feel disenfranchised. But there are ways to mitigate that risk.
How to bring people with you
If you’re going to break people out of silo thinking, you can’t create a vision for an alternative in a silo either. Richard describes how partners can offer strong leadership while inviting the input of others in the firm.
“It’s very much about listening and asking better questions,” he says. “You can still then say, ‘Thank you, we hear you, we understand your perspective, and, while we’re not going to do what you suggest, we will do this…’”
Bringing people in on the vision makes it easier to then empower them to work it out outwork it in their own way.
“If the vision isn’t one that everyone can articulate, follow and express themselves, the leadership has failed,” says Richard. “Vision and values need to be developed together with the people you’re leading, they need to be super simple and they need to be lived by you.”
Offering strong leadership isn’t about rigidity. Richard explains that empowerment is about trusting people on the output instead of trying to control the input. Ultimately, delighting the client is what matters. If that means a lawyer delivers what you need at 4am from their kitchen rather than during the 9-5 at their desk, so be it.
To keep people working out a vision, you need more than financial incentives alone. But while law firms are typically good at offering rewards for hard work, they’re not always good at recognition.
“Rewards are important,” Richard says, “but it’s also important to say thank you – for living the values, for trusting people, for stepping up like a leader. You can say ‘Oh and here’s a bit of money as well.’”
The risk of taking the wheel
Even when you live out the best leadership practices, working as a partner in a law firm is often a thankless task, Richard warns. You can’t wait to be understood or valued by the full partnership. Any fulfillment you feel is going to be set by your own goals.
“You can no longer let the practice run itself while you’re on the golf course,” says Richard. “Now the job of being a partner just gets harder and harder and harder. The target on your back simply grows bigger.”
This difficulty is only exacerbated at chief executive level. It’s a very tough job, managing hundreds of people who all think they run the business, Richard explains. When people step up, they’re usually brilliant lawyers but are still amateurs when it comes to leadership. They might be gifted, but they’re unlikely to have the capabilities of leaders in other sectors.
“Looking outside the legal sector to bring in professional leadership would be a smart approach,” says Richard. “If you’re going to see a culture change, you want to bring in an executive who has spent their life being developed and honed as a leader.”
It might be difficult for lawyers to get behind a leader who hasn’t lived the life of a lawyer themselves. But might be an effective way to dislodge some of the short-term, motivational leader thinking that is holding back a firm’s potential. One way or another, the trend needs to change.
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