A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today there will be reams written and distributed on the idea of leadership. Characteristics, success factors, how to become one, how to identify one – you can find scores of articles on multiple facets of the topic.

And tomorrow it will begin again.

It would be difficult to find any disagreement that one of the greatest factors in determining whether an enterprise succeeds or fails is the quality of its leadership.

Does anyone believe that leadership isn’t critical to a law firm’s success?

Yet, I would suggest that today’s law firm leader faces a number of challenges that are unique to our industry; and punctuated, if not exaggerated by the transitional nature of the marketplace.

Four Monster Challenges Faced By Law Firm Leaders

Challenge 1: Career risk. Quality leadership demands quality time. And for the law firm leader, every moment spent on the firm equates to time away from serving clients and generating new relationships. The “personal business” of the effective law firm leader often shrinks over time. For all but those approaching the end of their career, this makes accepting a leadership position a risky proposition.

Challenge 2: Limited Experience. The leader in other business environments typically follows some type of leaders career path – often gaining experience in a fairly low-level management position. Over time, effective leaders work their way through positions with increasing responsibility.

By contrast, law firm leaders often acquire their first significant management or leadership role when chosen as a practice leader, or the Chair/Managing Partner of the firm. And while experience is a great teacher, so much of learning is the by-product of mistakes, trial and error. This on-the-job-training creates a risky reality for both firm and leader.

Challenge 3: Disparate Goals and Agendas. Most business organizations are built around a primary product or service. The vast majority of law firms are structured around multiple and diverse practices, serving different markets and market segments. This diversity of service is accompanied by goals and agendas as disparate as the individual partners and their respective practices.

This variety can enrich cultural fabric; but it also makes it difficult to develop consensus around strategic direction and resource allocation. And this absence of alignment robs the organization of its best chance to succeed.

Challenge 4: Lack of Appreciation For The Leaders Role. The three things most valued in a law firms are usually:

  • Origination of new client relationships;
  • Expansion of existing relationships; and,
  • The production of billable time.

Leadership and its skills are simply not on the list of contributions most valued by the typical law partnership. It is, begrudgingly, viewed as necessary; but rarely endowed with the level of appreciation – therefore, support – that facilitates consensus and the decisive assault on a strategic path that foreshadows success.

The opposite is true in most other business enterprises. If you doubt this, take a look at levels of CEO compensation.

What to do?

The smart partnership understands that our industry is in the midst of high-consequence change, and that highly effective leadership is critical to navigating the transition. Great firms invest in the development of leadership skills, and provide significant compensation recognition for those willing to effectively serve.

The prudent law firm leader will seek compensation and career assurance as part of agreeing to serve.  Seeking ongoing opportunities to learn and improve are pivotal to development. And a clear, fair time-frame for transitioning back to a full-time practice is essential. Far too many law firm leaders have found themselves replaced with a new leader during tough times and are without a practice to fall back on.


How does your firm value leadership? What does it do to protect the leader’s transition back to a full-time practice?