Leadership Training for Lawyers Reaps Benefits for Firms

February 16, 2018

In today’s highly competitive legal market, leadership is more required than ever.

Partnerships that provide leadership training for lawyers do so because while many managing partners may be considered a “natural-born leader,” they realize that every leader can grow and develop to be as effective as possible.

Partnerships with leadership development programs tend to broaden their client base, show an increase in profitability, experience greater collaboration among teams of attorneys, and develop well-rounded lawyers with a range of skills.

It’s important to learn how to develop the right training program for your firm, and the desired qualities to be taught. Here are some guidelines to stimulate your thinking.

The Challenge

Leadership development, which is a foundation in corporate and entrepreneurial companies is not often practiced in the legal industry. In fact, most firms don’t have any leadership training for lawyers in place.

“That’s a mistake. Firms need leadership training for lawyers now more than ever,” said Patrick McKenna, an international law firm consultant. “But a lot of firms don’t provide training. In fact, many managing partners and practice group leaders don’t even have the foggiest idea about what their responsibilities are or what their role is.”

But McKenna said law firms are slowly but increasingly realizing the importance of leadership training through programs aligned with the firm’s culture. As a result, they’re boosting the bottom line.

“Those firms that are well organized as teams — with leaders encouraging collaboration — will see their profitability rise,” he said.

When firms develop and need to execute their leadership succession plans, they gain another benefit of leadership training. It helps to have leaders already in the pipeline long before the managing partner or other leaders step aside. Such a plan lays the foundation for a smooth and seamless transition.

The Right Program

The firms that do embrace leadership training use a variety of teaching methods, some with the guidance of outside consultants, some through graduate-level business schools and some at their own “universities.” In 2016, the large national partnership Jackson Lewis established its Jackson Lewis Leadership Academy to develop the firm’s future leaders.

While the ways in which these firms conduct training programs differ, they share certain commonalities:

  • Open dialogue: Partnerships need to communicate clearly and firm-wide about the rationale and objectives of the program, as well as who will be participating.
  • Participation selection is key: Firms should begin with a diverse pool of attorneys who are “high-potential leaders” and have experience practicing law for a similar number of years
  • From the top: Current firm leaders must have hands-on input in customizing the program. Firm management must walk-the-talk, modeling in practice what is being taught to those in the leadership develop training. This helps pass along the firm’s culture, among other benefits.
  • Stretch it out: Treat leadership development as an ongoing process rather than an event. Curriculum crammed into a seminar is less effective than when a program is spread out over time, allowing concepts being taught to take root in practice.
  • Take the temperature: The program is most effective when it includes assessment elements, both of the participating leaders-to-be and of the program itself.
  • Put it in practice: As the content of the leadership training for lawyers is being delivered, those involved should be encouraged to employ the skills they’re learning with peers and clients alike. Keep in mind clients are drawn to lawyers who know how to lead confidently.

The Right Traits

Leaders possess many traits that help them guide their troops, but some don’t get mentioned enough in the volumes of material about leadership. Some characteristics don’t manifest in real-world leadership situations at all.

These are a few that must be taught in leadership training for lawyers and applied on the job:

  • Shut up and listen: Encourage leaders to step back, be quiet and allow others to shine — not all the time, but often enough. Effective leaders, don’t always have to prove that they’re the smartest person in the room.
  • Get your hands dirty: When those in your charge see you performing tasks supposedly “below your pay grade,” they can relate to you, respect you and follow your lead.
  • Engagement vs. assignment: Whenever possible, get people involved, participating in and even volunteering for what they do best — rather than simply assigning them tasks. “You as a leader need to get rid of the idea that you have to constantly assign stuff,” McKenna said. “Engage people instead, and the best way to get people engaged is through brainstorming together as a group.”
  • Don’t delegate critical duties: Yes, you often do have to assign or delegate, but often you’re the one who has to deliver the really important work. Leaders should deliver bad news such as a decrease in revenue, office closures or layoffs.
  • Vision: You need to lead your law firm’s strategic planning initiatives, chart the course, and steer the ship. Naturally, it’s best to involve others and lead with humility, but you’re still the leader. Create and demonstrate your vision for the firm.

Leadership Training for Lawyers: Summary

Law firms can benefit from the leadership training for lawyers that other businesses have successfully employed. Firms can receive the same benefits that other types of companies hope to gain: amore engaged organization; clear focus on goals and results; higher retention of high-performers; and a stronger culture.

Programs can include discussions, case studies, storytelling, modeling, role-playing and other educational means.

Partnerships that offer such programs will develop the next generation of successful law firm leaders.

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