Lawyer leadership skills. We all know they are important. But can they be taught?
Table of contents
Let’s start with what leadership actually is. While there are many definitions, the core purpose of leadership is to mobilize people (in a department, practice group, firm, company, community) around common goals to achieve concrete outcomes at scale.
An effective and successful leader is not someone who is well-versed in technical knowledge and skills, but rather someone who can understand people’s motivations and enlist their participation in a way that merges their individual needs and interests with the group’s purpose.
The Five Pillars of Lawyer Leadership Skills
With leadership being a fuzzy concept, it helps to think of leadership skills in these five key categories. We call them Leadership Pillars. This is especially helpful when designing a leadership development program for your law firm or in-house legal department:
Pillar 1: Leader Identity
To effectively lead, lawyers must first gain a deeper understanding of themselves as leaders: what defines, motivates and frustrates them; what they stand for, i.e., their values; how they think about the world and themselves and others in it; and their strengths and leadership gaps that need to be developed.
Case in point: Marcie was a successful partner and rainmaker at an AmLaw 100 firm who struggled to build and retain a team of dedicated associates. Simply put, associates did not want to work with her. They felt that she did not clearly communicate their assignments or her expectations, would get easily frustrated and lose her temper when things were done “wrong,” and offered little to no mentoring. Through executive coaching, we helped Marcie understand her role as a leader and get clarity about the source of her strong emotions, allowing her to become more in charge of her emotional reactions. Over time, she was able to completely transform her practice, creating a team that worked harder and better for clients — and reduced her own stress. Here is what she had to say:
“Things are moving extremely well, and the team is working like a well-oiled machine. What’s made the biggest difference is me being a lot more clear about what I want and what’s expected of my team. I also stopped fixing things myself; instead, I take the time to explain what needs to be done to correct it and let my team work on it. I feel that I became very effective in leading my people and my projects!”
A great starting point to help lawyers explore their identity as a leader is a personality assessment, such as the DiSC Personality Profile. The assessment helps lawyers gain self-awareness by understanding their natural preferences, strengths and limitations. It also helps them learn how to interact with, manage and lead others more effectively. (My website has links to DiSC-related resources, including an introduction video and several sample reports.)
Other critical leadership concepts and skills covered under the Leader Identity Pillar are:
- Leadership philosophy
- Growth mindset
- Emotional intelligence and agility
- Personal accountability
Pillar 2: Leadership Impact
For any leader to be effective in “mobilizing people around common goals to achieve concrete outcomes, at scale” their actions must have a real impact on those they are leading. The key is realizing there is no one way to do this. In fact, our ability to have an impact on others is not just one skill but a set of skills such as:
- Leadership (executive) presence
- Influence and persuasion
- Ability to have difficult conversations and manage conflict effectively
- Gaining buy-in
- Consensus building
- Effective self-promotion
- Building personal networks or relationship building
Pillar 3: Strategic Thinking
Strategic thinking is a type of critical thinking that helps people achieve long-term objectives, solve complex problems and overcome obstacles. Thinking strategically involves seeing the big picture and connecting the dots, planning activities and resources, and putting ideas into action.
Strategic thinking skills are among the most highly sought-after leadership competencies. These skills can be divided into these four categories:
- Analytical skills. The ability to analyze relevant data to develop an idea that will help achieve key goals and objectives.
- Decision-making and problem-solving skills. The ability to define an issue that needs a decision or solution, explore the issue and its cause, identify and prioritize alternatives for a decision/solution, and select the best option.
- Goal-setting and planning skills. The ability to set clear goals, identify success metrics, and map out the steps needed to reach the goal while anticipating potential issues and determining the best use of resources.
- Communication skills. The ability to articulate the vision, collaborate with others and create alignment so everyone is working toward common goals.
For example, leadership development programming might include:
- Reading financial statements
- Spotting litigation trends
- Effective goal-setting and planning
Pillar 4: People Management
We’ve all heard some version of this expression: “People quit bosses, not companies.” Sadly, the legal profession is not known for its great people management stats. And it’s not surprising. Although lawyers receive vast amounts of training to develop their lawyering skills, few receive training on how to manage or lead others effectively.
How can you help your lawyers become effective managers and leaders?
One of the maxims of effective people management is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every person is different and, thus, requires a different management approach. And that includes the managers themselves!
So, the starting point for learning people management skills must be first helping lawyers understand their own natural management style, including their innate strengths and limitations as managers.
The next step is to arm lawyers with key people management skills such as:
- Effective delegation
- Providing constructive feedback
- Holding others accountable
- Managing diverse employees
- Motivating and engaging others
- Team management
A fantastic tool for helping lawyers become better managers is the DiSC Management Profile Assessment, which allows participants to gain deeper levels of self-awareness by understanding their innate management styles, including their natural priorities, strengths, motivators and limitations. This way, leadership and management strategies can be based on their unique management style.
Pillar 5: Personal Productivity and Peak Performance
Productivity. That magical skillset that’s often portrayed as the secret to all professional and personal success — especially in the legal profession, where time is literally money.
One mistake many lawyers make is thinking about productivity only in terms of time management. Time management is just one aspect of personal productivity. As the organizational psychologist and productivity expert Adam Grant said in a New York Times article, “Often our productivity struggles are caused not by a lack of efficiency, but a lack of motivation. Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end. It’s only virtuous if the end is worthy. If productivity is your goal, you have to rely on willpower to push yourself to get a task done. If you pay attention to why you’re excited about the project and who will benefit from it, you’ll be naturally pulled into it by intrinsic motivation.”
Time management is often raised by the lawyers we coach. Yet when we dig deeper, we discover the issue is not at all about time management. Rather, it’s about the lawyer needing to prioritize more effectively, set better boundaries, or better manage sleep and physical energy.
That’s why the fifth Pillar of Leadership Development is not about time management; it’s about identifying a mix of strategies that can help individuals achieve their own version of optimal productivity and peak performance.
Here are some productivity skills that can be included in the Personal Productivity and Peak Performance module:
- Prioritizing and planning
- Managing distractions
- Saying yes and no strategically
- Setting boundaries
- Managing physical energy
- Stress management
- The science of sleep
- Time blocking
- Task batching
- Legal project management
- Email and calendar management
- Leading effective meetings
Pointers for Planning a Lawyer Leadership Skills Program
- Start with the Leader Identity. The starting point of your program should ideally be a topic from the first pillar. As their careers progress, lawyers often find that the traits that served them well in the beginning do not work well as they become more senior or ascend to partnership or leadership roles. What were strengths can become weaknesses. A DiSC Personality Profile assessment helps lawyers understand their natural personality style and how they can communicate with and relate to others more effectively.
- Determine Success Metrics. Get clear on how you are going to measure success. Your program evaluation should not be limited to only anecdotal feedback of the participants.
- Assess Participants’ Skills. Kick off the program with an assessment of where each participant currently stands when it comes to key lawyer leadership skills you are looking to help them develop. Then have them complete the self-assessment again midway through the program and again at the end. It’s a fantastic way to track progress.
- Use a Mix of Learning Options. To provide flexibility and convenience and maximize impact, consider a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities for your program.
- Make It Experiential. Leadership development is best done through practical application, so consider incorporating as many interactive, hands-on experiences as possible. This can be in the form of facilitated discussions, case studies or hands-on projects.
- Incorporate All Five Pillars. The topics covered in each pillar’s module can vary, but all five must be covered to provide participants with sufficient skills to become well-rounded and effective leaders.
- Get Clarity through a Needs Assessment. When planning your leadership development program, consider which of the specific skills should be part of each module. Ideally, you have some clarity about which ones are most needed in your group based on the results of your internal needs assessment.
Invest in People
Helping your lawyers become better leaders just makes sense — from a talent engagement perspective and a business perspective. The sooner you begin investing in people, the sooner you will see them (and your firm) thrive.
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