Leadership can be a nebulous concept in many law firms. Management is often mistaken for leadership, and great leaders do not always make great managers. My experience with lawyer managers is that they generally avoid risk, promote stability, and value conformity to institutional norms. All of these behaviors are positive in the right context.
Leaders focus more on potential and create opportunities even in chaotic situations. Good leaders can choose among available opportunities and are willing to be accountable for the consequences of these choices. Leaders rely on good managers to ensure that chosen opportunities have the best chance to succeed. Law firms can be a difficult place for leaders to flourish. Depending upon the make-up of the firm’s partners, risk-taking is often discouraged. If risks are taken, they better pay off.
In my practice, I have the privilege of working with both plaintiff and defense firms. Typically, I find plaintiff firms are more comfortable with risk-taking. While I encounter more defense firms being managed rather than led, an evolving legal market is changing that norm. Progressive defense firms are now taking more risks in search of prosperity.
The overwhelming majority of impactful opportunities involve risk-taking. Firms with strong leadership, management, data, and talent have an edge.
To the question of whether a strategic plan will overcome a lack of leadership -- the answer is possibly. For example, if a low-cost producing firm’s strategy is to continue to aggressively manage overhead and rates, good managers with a good plan may well succeed.
Strategic plans that involve increased levels of risk taking will require leadership on several levels to implement and sustain. For example, firms that decide to move away from certain types of work in favor of more profitable opportunities are likely to experience short run difficulty. This is because lawyers may need to retool or move their practice to another firm. Also, clients providing the firm with material volumes of business will be phased out. Finally, the remaining professional and administrative personnel will experience a period of change.
To succeed, a plan of this type will need strong leadership. Firms should assess their leadership capability and make their assessment relevant in the strategic planning process. Firms that can quickly identify and promote their best leaders increase their ability to reach their potential.
Is your firm allowing their best leaders and managers to ascend?