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Law firm leaders tell us “We now have to accept change as the status quo."

And this means making judgment calls when there is insufficient time to find perfect solutions – or even to get all of the partners to agree.

Many of the “old ways” of planning, leading, organizing, and controlling aren’t as effective as they used to be. If law firms want to grow profitably and remain competitive, what can partners do to quickly recognize the trade-offs when decisions have to be made in imperfect conditions?

What are the strategic priorities and most important cultural values that are non-negotiable and are, in fact, the “glue” that holds the partnership and firm together?

What skills are most important for lawyers and staff to have so that they can both lead and respond with cooperation and resilience when changes, even unexpected changes, are required? More importantly do they even have these required skills?

Without answers to these leadership questions, a law firm is at considerable risk.

Sending lawyers to external seminars and workshops on leadership produces almost no return on that investment for the firm. While the leadership challenges law firms deal with may have some universal themes, the solutions are not universal.

Sometimes there are “sleeper” leadership problems evolving, which the partners minimize or don’t even notice. Sometimes a problem that gets talked about or tagged in a survey is only a symptom of deeper but more sensitive issues that people are less comfortable targeting.

There may be a disconnect between senior partners and younger generations of lawyers that is causing increased tension. Perhaps there are upcoming succession issues that are unresolved. The absence of coaching and mentoring may be causing a disproportionate negative effect on lawyers’ career satisfaction. An internal audit may have identified weaknesses in how the firm communicates internally. An individual partner or an entire practice group may be underperforming according to new profitability standards your firm has enacted. Female lawyers may feel increasingly isolated in making career choices, regardless of the policies of the firm.

All of these are leadership issues – not administrative ones. Decisions and actions may need to be prioritized. Sometimes dealing with one situation provides significant positive returns in another. Most likely, they need multi-faceted responses, although not necessarily complicated or time-consuming ones. And, all of them can have successful outcomes when partners’ decisions – and subsequent actions - are timely, focused, and relevant to the capabilities and needs of their firms – as opposed to being based on generic “best practices” or a “quick fix” promising unrealistic results. Even with the best of intentions, formulaic or uninformed responses to leadership issues create disappointing results and worse.

Building a motivating and professional culture that is both profitable and professionally rewarding is complex business but leadership solutions do not have to be complicated. Most law firms have a foundation upon which to build. They have existing respectful professional relationships, client service expectations, commitment to professional excellence – and many more internal strengths they can use to resolve their leadership challenges – if they know what to do and how to do it.

Very often what they lack are a knowledge of their choices and a credible way to give and receive feedback about their leadership effectiveness in their firms. When partners acknowledge the need for change and show a willingness to learn, use, and coach others in improved leadership behaviors, the firm becomes visibly and concretely stronger, internally and externally.

This internal strength is what gives law firms the agility they need to: make timely decisions; the trust they need in each other to delegate needed authority and decision-making autonomy; and the capacity to set and achieve goals with individuals and teams. These goals don't straight-jacket people, but give them the tools they need to respond confidently in imperfect conditions.

When change is the status quo, partners cannot expect to control and be involved in everything that happens in their firms. The leadership and business practice skills of each lawyer contribute to a collective capacity for performance and change. Agreed professional standards of behavior also give lawyers an ethical and cultural context in which to make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

It’s worth asking, “What are the leadership challenges in our firm, and what could we do differently to lead more effectively in times of change?”


Lisa M. Walker Johnson