Why Is Leading Lawyers So Challenging?

Sally Sanderson, a multi-award-winning consultant to law firms, shares her thoughts on why it is so challenging to lead in law firms. 

I have worked with 1000s of lawyers over the past twenty-five years and am always impressed by their drive to deliver for clients, their expertise, objectivity and intellect.  So why do many lawyers, when they become senior, find it so challenging to lead a team of bright, motivated professionals? Everyone will have come across partners who are inspiring and effective leaders, but they are rare. Sometimes when I sit with HR Directors to identify role models in their firm, they struggle to name more than a handful. 

Many partners tell me leading teams is the bit of the job they find most challenging, the least rewarding and during the pandemic many complained of the stress of having to spend time looking after their teams. Time they didn’t have.

Clients first culture

Leading in law firms is indeed challenging because time is such a premium and the culture is clients first.  However, it is also because lawyers are trained to be objective and to distrust some of the ‘fuzzy’ stuff that would help them lead, inspire, manage different personalities and deal with difficult conversations.  In their daily life lawyers react, analyse, solve, advise and move on to the next matter.  This objectivity and pace are at the expense of what helps us to lead.  The more our brain builds our ability to analyse and synthesise facts, the less we use the neurons that enable us to empathise, to read others and adjust our conversation. Eventually, after years, those neural pathways get harder and harder to use or even die away.  

By the time a lawyer starts to lead in a law firm that process has taken its toll.  They are experts in their field but find that leadership is tricky and time-consuming, that people’s issues are messy and that logic doesn’t always win the day.  Leadership, for many, proves far less satisfying than working with clients and so quickly slips down the to-do list. Conversations get squeezed or avoided. 

At the same time, millennial lawyers are arguably ever more demanding of their bosses – wanting good quality work, to be inspired, to be given helpful feedback and to be coached so they can progress quickly.  They are looking for positive role models and if they don’t see them, they move. 

Addressing the challenge 

The legal profession needs to address this challenge. So, what can we do about it?  First, we need to recognise the importance of leadership in law firms – from senior associates upwards. Law is an academic profession but it is also a people business, and if you don’t invest in supervising, managing and leading, you cannot deliver good quality work for clients at a price they want to pay and you cannot make your firm competitive or an attractive place for talent. We need to reward lawyers when they lead well and tackle partners who display poor or damaging leadership behaviours – even if they are one of the highest billing partners in the firm.

We also need to provide the right leadership development opportunities. A one-hour session on leadership for a new partner does not cut it.  It might be a start, but that is all.  Week-long leadership development programmes are the norm for other sectors and such programmes build on the supervision and management skills developed and honed throughout a career.  In the legal sector we settle for something shorter and hope that because they are bright they will pick it up – yet we don’t give them time to practise and embed the practices which are soon lost when they return to their desk and clients.  This is grossly unfair on new leaders and their teams. 

Self-awareness is a foundation for leadership and so lawyers also need the opportunity to develop insight into their own personalities and the impact of their behaviours on others. In my coaching work, I noticed that leaders in law firms often miss out key bits of a leadership conversation and that this was linked to their personality.  They prioritised some things they need to say to direct, inspire and keep things on track, but missed out others.  It was over several years of listening to and coaching partners that I developed the ABCDE model in my book ‘Leading Lawyers’.  Leaders I have coached have used it to have better conversations with their teams about their deals and cases and with individuals about their performance. It doesn’t cover everything leaders need to know and do, but it’s a practical toolkit for time-poor leaders.  

About the author: For over 25 years, Sally Sanderson has developed and coached lawyers using personality profiling to increase self-awareness and speed up behavioural change.  She specialises in leadership, emerging leaders, people and project management. Her clients include global firms and niche practices.  Her book ‘Leading Lawyers’ will be published on 16 November at £19.99: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Lawyers-practical-toolkit-leadership-ebook/dp/B09GW9N14N/  

Or, for readers outside the UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Lawyers-practical-toolkit-leadership-ebook/dp/B09GW9N14N/ 

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