Building Leadership Capability

A Column for Managing Partners

Here’s advice for managing partners on how to balance the tension of current realities with the long-term interests of the firm.

AT LUNCH RECENTLY with a new managing partner who is just taking over that role, I asked how she envisioned making her mark on the firm. Without batting an eye she said she would start on Day 1 to develop a pipeline of talented next generation leaders to take her place when her term was done. Brava!

In leveraging that goal, we reflected on the skills and competencies that law firms will need in the future and how they might be different from today. We also considered how firms might go about developing that capability.

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

Future leaders will need to understand a lot more about business because new business models, new funding models and new legal-based solutions will keep coming down the pike. Firms, and groups within them, will need to be able to sift through the fire hose of ideas and information, analyze client needs and adjust the firm’s service offerings to fit those needs.

Firms can give future leaders, who may or may not be practicing lawyers, secondments to other areas of the firm for a period of time. When this is done early enough in a potential future leader’s career, that person can learn a new level of respect for the various professions at work in the firm. A young lawyer who is assigned a complex competitive intelligence assignment for two or three industry groups will be provided grounding in other businesses and the analytical skills to sift through data, make sense of it, relate it to the firm and its clients—and, oh yes, learn how to communicate recommendations in a compelling way.

Future leaders will need to understand the financial aspects of the business of the firm and also those of new pricing models. Further, they will need to understand how to develop and test the business case for opportunities either generated from within or presented to the firm from outside. Pricing strategy will require innovation, and firms that don’t significantly change the service model to fit the client and the price the market will pay will compete their way to the bottom, which is never a good plan.

The planning we see in law firms ranges from excellent (often divined and driven by a strong leader) to pathetic (often when deference is given to the biggest egos and everyone assumes that because the partners on the committee are lawyers and respected in their practice they have a monopoly on wisdom). Future leaders will be more business-focused and more collaborative, leveraging the talents of all professional disciplines in service to both the clients they serve and the shareholders of the firm.

Firms can develop these skills by involving future leaders in project planning, project management, budgeting and monitoring client engagements.

Firms can develop these skills by involving future leaders in project planning, project management, budgeting and monitoring client engagements. The senior partners may maintain the client relationship, but the younger lawyers should be able to develop their project management, planning and financial skills at the matter level, and move up from there.

In a November 7, 2013, article on titled “‘Entrepreneurial?’ Really?”, Bruce MacEwen bluntly explores how firms take risks. MacEwen asks the reader to envision behavior, culture and partner personality when “entrepreneurial” is used to describe a firm. He observes that “entrepreneurial” seems to be “a code word for utter undisciplined chaos.”

Future leaders will need the scope and authority to develop a strategic intent for their organization, the ability to apply financial rigor, business focus, “big picture” perspective and detailed execution plans. Future leaders will need managerial courage combined with the ability to communicate with clarity and commitment. Future leaders will require of themselves and their colleagues a healthy dose of discipline in order to take risks, to make change happen and to commit to the milestones of progress.

Webster’s defines “resilience” as follows, with the second definition simplified a bit for children:

re•sil•ience (n.)

  1. the ability of a body to regain its original size and shape after being compressed, bent or stretched;
  2. the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change.

Building resilience throughout the organization is critical because, as firms cope with transformation in the economy, the profession and within their own firms, there will be successes and failures. Unrelenting change requires exploring ideas and making decisions. Even the most disciplined and well-intentioned leaders can and will make mistakes. Not approaching these challenges—ignoring the signals and sanctioning inaction—is also a choice. Left too long, inaction can be devastating. When challenges are explored from the perspective of curiosity rather than blame, resilience and capability are developed.

Building resilience throughout the organization is as much about mindset as it is about action: walking the talk and being credible. By respecting and encouraging a rich, full life within the practice, within the firm and within the community, resilience can be developed. Where health and lifestyle are respected and encouraged, resilience can be fostered.

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Focusing from Day 1 on building successors is to be commended. I believe this managing partner will approach the role from a perspective of stewardship—leaving the firm and its future leaders stronger and able to succeed in a changing world.



This article originally appeared in the May/June 2014 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal