Strong leadership is critical to successful firms, especially as so many firms experience the transition from retiring senior partners to the next generation.   Gone are the days when a firm could rely on a handful of rainmakers to bring in enough work to keep everyone busy.  When those senior partners leave, the door to that type of practice will truly close.  This is not to say that we don’t need strong leaders – we do.  But those leaders won’t necessarily be the rainmakers that they’ve been in the past.  Instead, they’ll be strong administrators and motivators, paving the way for consistent, overall productivity and efficiency.  That’s because the only way for most firms to survive and thrive is to ensure that all members are the firm are reasonably engaged and productive.  Forgot planning your firm around a few rock stars.  Instead, focus on making everyone a reasonable producer.   But this doesn’t happen by chance.  It takes planning and accountability, and that requires strong leadership.

Very few great law firm leaders are born.  Most are made, over time, in a painful and time-consuming process of wisdom development, ego stripping, and big picture awareness.   That’s because the personality required for a great lawyer is almost the opposite of the personality required for a great leader.  Lawyers need to be critical, questioning, judgemental, risk averse, and a bit ego-driven. They have low resilience and like a high degree of autonomy.  Leaders, on the other hand, are more open and flexible.  They have high resilience, are prepared to listen more than speak, and encourage and guide rather than tell.  They also know how to check their ego at the door.

Potential leaders tend to be identified in smaller firms from the 8 – 15 year call area, and in larger firms from the 12 – 20 year call area.  Jack Welch said that before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself; but when you become a leader, success is all about growing others.  That’s a difficult transition for most lawyers to make, especially when this metamorphosis has to occur simultaneous to the time in their life when they are most successfully building their reputation and having some of their best earning years.   How can you focus on yourself, and others at the same time?

Then there’s the little issue of law firm culture.  It’s difficult to actively practice leadership skills in a firm that’s more concerned with personal productivity over firm structure and future strategy.   Who wants to spend non-billable time coaching and mentoring if it isn’t truly valued, or worse if you might get penalized in some way for doing it.

So how does a firm select and then support strong leaders?

  1. Determine the role

Before you bring anyone into a role, it makes sense to write a job description first.  Are you looking for a Managing Partner, a member the Executive, the head of your Compensation Committee, the head of a Practice Group?  Declare the job description and the skills required.  What is the purpose of each role?  How much time will it be expected to take?  How will the individual be compensated (or at least not penalized) for taking on the role?  Most importantly, how will you know that the person has been successful a year or so from now?  Too often, law firms declare a position and then jump too quickly into placement of a lawyer in that role, only to find out later (when it’s too late to do anything about it) that it was a terrible misfit.  Figure out what you need first, then look for the right person to fill the role.  This will also help candidates to self-select in and out of that role.

  1. Pick the right person

No lawyer will follow a leader who is not seen first as a good lawyer.  Within the firm and within the bar, that individual must be respected as someone who truly knows their area of law.  This means that you should avoid selecting someone who is having a few soft years in their practice.  Leadership is not a consolation prize for a weak practice. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Don’t necessarily pick the oldest or most well-known lawyer in a practice area to be the leader.  They might be a great rainmaker but a lousy administrator.  They might be capable of telling people what to do but incapable of teaching or mentoring.  They might be good at speaking in a meeting but unable to lead a meeting.

Don’t give the title away as a recognition of past contribution to the firm. This is not an emeritus position, it’s a critical, active role.

Select someone who can get others to talk, who can encourage people to step up, who can build consensus and inspire commitment to an idea.

Select someone who is not afraid of being accountable for their role and its responsibilities.

  1. Create the right environment

Prepare to convince the chosen individual that you have a supportive environment in place by creating that environment.  Have a job description.  Have a mandate or goals for that individual.  Have an accountability process in place.  Have a structure to the practice of their role (i.e. regular executive meetings or practice group meetings, reports back up to the executive, etc.)  Ensure their compensation system accommodates the time needed for this non-billable admin without financial penalty – show you value their contribution.   Let them know this won’t be waste of anyone’s time.

The Next Generation is Watching…

And finally, demonstrate commitment to the pathway for the next generation. Understand that the next generation is watching – carefully.  They are making judgments on how leaders are selected and leading, on how decisions are being made, on how the firm values such contributions.  This will inform their eventual choices about their longevity with and level of commitment to the firm.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at