A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu


Leading a law firm these days may be one of the great roller-coaster rides of modern management. Exhilarating, breathtaking, unexpected twists and turns, even moments of fear.

Today’s law firm leader is asked to do it all. I believe this (almost always unspoken) expectation sets us up for disappointment.

In an attempt to think through the new challenges of law firm leadership, I have been working on identifying the top 5 attributes for today’s successful leader. I thought I would share the exercise here, and solicit your participation in the discussion.

The exercise began with the creation of a list of critical attributes.

Adaptability. It is no news that the market is changing. Fast. More competition, new work models, a global economy. What worked yesterday may not even keep you in tomorrow’s conversation.

Charisma. There is no doubt that a leader needs to be able to connect and motivate the rank and file of a firm. Charisma is a vehicle through which confidence can be gained.

Communication. A clear understanding, firm-wide, of issues and opportunities relevant to strategy and operation is essential. Accomplished leaders possess the skills attendant to this understanding.

Conviction. A leader’s road is rocky. In order to succeed, effective leaders have to stay the course when difficulties are encountered.

Curiosity. To be inquisitive opens a leader’s mind to additional options and factors relevant to strategy and decision-making.

Decisiveness. This may be particularly challenging for the lawyer leader, trained to see all the ways in which things might go wrong. But in the current market reality, one must be able to see alternatives, evaluate risk/benefit and make a decision quickly.

Delegation. The greatest leaders understand that no one can do it all. The wisdom and ability to leverage personal time and talents, build highly competent teams, and delegate responsibility defines how much will be achieved.

Experience as a leader. Many law firm leaders gain their first experience in leading people when appointed/elected as the leader of their firm. Everyone makes mistakes. In an evolving market we are constantly learning. But the complexity of law firm leadership is not an ideal laboratory in which to gain initial experiences.

Humility. Great leaders recognize their role as a servant to their partners. Ego centered individuals often attempt to build monuments to their greatness at the cost of their firm and partners.

Integrity/Honesty. Honesty and integrity should be a given; but as we have seen in too many firms of late, it is not universally present in business leaders.

Self-Awareness. Leaders don’t fool themselves. They have an awareness of who they are – of personal weaknesses and strengths. They understand what they are doing, how they are performing, how they are being received, what is working and what isn’t. This awareness provides the foundation for improvement.

Smart.  There is a degree of intellect necessary to assimilate, evaluate, decide, and communicate.

Visionary. It is almost impossible to lead (as opposed to manage) without a clear sense of the path. Not all professionals possess the capability of seeing how their firm can successfully navigate the competitive landscape of tomorrow.

My Top Five

Though not complete, the above list includes many of the attributes of successful leaders. As I review it, and reflect on the great leaders I know, here are the five I put at the top of my list.

  • Honesty/Integrity
  • Experience as a leader
  • Adaptability
  • Self-Awareness
  • Visionary

I will follow a leader who is grounded in what is right, knows where they are going, can change with the moving marketplace, has awareness that allows for self-improvement and has done it before. It was hard for me to leave communication out of my top 5.

What attributes do you value most in a leader?