Trends in Law Firm Leadership: Leading Practice Groups in a Time of Great Change

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Case Management, Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Managed Services, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Process Management

practice groups

As the legal industry continues to see increasing change and uncertainty, law firm and practice group leaders need to develop the skills, communication tools, and understanding to lead their groups to higher levels of efficiency, performance, and success.

We spoke to Susan Raridon Lambreth, Principal at LawVision, and Dr. Larry Richard, Founder of LawyerBrain, about the latest emerging issues around leadership in law firms and how times of great change can test even the best leaders. Lambreth and Dr. Richard will be presenting a workshop on this subject, through LawVision, on Oct. 2 & 3, hosted by Winston & Strawn in New York.

Legal Executive Institute: Why are law firms so focused on leadership now?

Dr. Larry Richard: While leadership at its most basic is a response to change and the uncertainty it produces, it’s taken longer for law firms to be affected by the global forces of change than other industries and occupations. But over the past 20 years, and especially in the past 10, the legal profession has begun to experience increased change, uncertainty, and volatility. That has increased the pressure on firms to identify and develop leaders.

In the workshop that Susan and I will be leading, we seek to help law firm practice leaders be more effective and use their time more wisely – leading lawyers through change, helping lawyers learn how to innovate, creating high performance teams and engaged lawyers, and creating effective group business plans.

Has all this change affected the way firms structure their practice group leadership?

Susan Raridon Lambreth: Most medium and large firms today are dealing with increasing client demands and expectations for efficiency and value (the “more for less” trend), new forms of competition for work as more work goes to in-house counsel and a growing number of alternative legal service providers, and the need for new business models to maintain profitability.

Susan Raridon Lambreth of LawVision

To deal with these trends successfully requires a matrix management structure of empowered practice groups, client teams, and industry groups. In order to lead and manage effectively in this type of structure, it’s important to have clear roles and responsibilities among these various practice management roles. On top of that, leaders of these groups and teams are expected to maintain a busy legal practice and lead or manage part-time — often without ever having had any leadership or management training.

Richard: And that can be a problem because leadership is an intensely interpersonal job. It requires building interpersonal trust — not just once, but in an ongoing way. It’s hard to do that when it’s not your main job.

Despite that, there are some things that we’ll discuss in the workshop that part-time leaders can do to compensate, and to intensify their effectiveness as leaders during those brief periods when they’re wearing their leadership hats.

What are the challenges in leading lawyers?

Richard: My research on lawyer personality shows that there are a number of distinct personality traits possessed by lawyers. These traits equip them to practice high-quality law. But, at the same time, these very same traits make it more challenging to be effective at leading others, as well as making it more challenging to collaborate, to innovate, and to achieve wellness.

However, there are approaches lawyers can learn to enhance their leadership even when they have these traits.

With so many things coming at them, how do leaders figure out where to spend their time and focus?

Lambreth: One of the most important roles of a practice leader is to get to know the members of his or her group: what is their practice like, what are their aspirations, what talents can contribute to the group’s success, etc. When the group leader gets to know the members well and the members feel like they are valued contributors to the group, there is a greater sense of engagement — a “glue” other than money that connects members.

Other important responsibilities or roles of practice leaders are:

  • Communication — of the firm and practice strategy and values, of wins and successes, and to create an optimistic, motivated group;
  • Talent Management — to ensure that the group members are engaged, to coach or mentor group members, to hold members accountable for contributing to the group’s success and not just focusing on their individual practice;
  • Strategic Thinking and Implementation — keeping focus on the external marketplace, client needs and competitors, developing a group business plan to focus on core goals and executing on the plan. (Because without a plan, it is hard for a leader to keep her eye on the right priorities for herself, her group or its members);
  • Financial Performance — understanding what financial levers drive the group’s success, the profitability of the group’s matters and areas to improve.

What makes a good leader?

Richard: The old theory was that leaders were born — you either were or were not a good leader. This was often called the “charisma” theory of leadership, or the “Great Man” theory. But research over the past 30 years demonstrates that successful leadership is largely the result of competently executing five key behaviors.

Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain

When leaders consistently carry out these behaviors, others tend to follow them. In our workshop, we’ll go into a lot more detail about these behaviors.

Innovation is hot topic in law firms right now. Why is so hard to get lawyers to innovate?

Richard: First, innovation is attractive because when we innovate, we feel like we’re taking control over uncertainty and change. It’s a psychological palliative that helps to reduce the stress around an unknown future.

Second, research shows that people do their best innovating when they are experiencing positive emotions, and when they are on the margin between goal-directed thinking and mind-wandering. Most law firm cultures reinforce the exact opposite and instead try to foster innovation through the use of incentives. Unfortunately, this is the one thing that kills innovation, but there are approaches which can counter this.

Law firms often develop good ideas and plans but fail to implement most of them. What are some of the keys to successful execution?

Lambreth: About six years ago, a terrific book was published called The 4 Disciplines of Execution (Free Press, 2012). Based on extensive research, the book documents some of the key reasons why some organizations achieve their goals and others do not. One of the most important reasons is to not have too many goals. If you have more than three goals, you significantly reduce your chance of achieving any of them. But, we know it is challenging for lawyers to limit themselves to only two or three goals.


You can get more information and register for the upcoming leadership workshop, “Leading Practice Groups in a Time of Great Change” here.