The workplace hierarchy is alive and well in most companies. But in law firm partnerships the vertical hierarchy also has a horizontal component. This makes leading a large, matrixed law firm quite challenging. Leaders have few resources to consult on leadership techniques and even less time to consult them. With this alone in mind, you can see how extraordinary it is to witness a well lead law firm.
The Challenge of Law Firm Leadership
Law firm leaders must at once provide vision, inspiration, motivation, cohesion, consensus, and direction. And, they must provide this to the uninterested, the doubters and the curmudgeons and equally to the ‘rainmakers, advocates and reformers’ in the firm. Add to that the fast-changing dynamics of the legal industry, the quickening pace of competition, an increasingly diverse workforce and the need to lead five distinct generations of lawyers and staff all with divergent sensibilities, values and motivations and one begins to get a sense for the unique challenge of leading a modern corporate law firm.
Looking to their business clients for best practices, law firm leaders have adopted the leadership styles and techniques most prevalent in business today. The result is a ‘command and control’ style of leadership applied to the vertical relationships in the firm (‘do this because I said so’) and a gentile, consensus-building style of leadership applied to the horizontal relationships in the firm (‘how shall we proceed together?’). These divergent styles of leadership result in a kind of caste system of have’s and have not’s that complicates performance management and slows progress in law firms. In particular, the command and control style of leadership increasingly cannot solve the intergenerational challenges of today’s modern law firms. In fact, a command and control style of leadership may do more harm than good.
That’s not to say a command and control style doesn’t have its place. In times of crisis, or where the clarity of a client’s directives or the fine-tuning of the firm’s strategic direction leaves little room for interpretation, a direct communication style is best. But those situations are relatively rare. More common is the need to animate a higher level of performance from each individual in the firm on a daily basis. If your leadership style is command and control, it is neither effective over the long run nor scalable.
The bottom line challenge for most law firms is to expand the population of high performers in order to lower its dependence on a minority of individuals that ‘have carried the firm’. How can practice group leaders, administrators or executive committee members get a higher level of performance from individuals throughout the organization? Their challenges are many and varied. How can they help people break through their personal roadblocks, drive more collaboration or help build personal accountability for client development in, for instance, long time service partners? These challenges and many others are best addressed using coaching skills and techniques that build high-performance behaviors and activities across generations and organizational roles.
As an example, look at the challenge of building business and client development capabilities in the firm. The predominant methodologies to transfer business and client development knowledge and skills in law firms includes mentoring, counseling and training. Each of these methods, however, have their own challenges and risks. For instance, mentoring assumes the tactics that got the mentor to his or her place in the firm will easily translate across practice areas, levels of experience and personality types. But too often I hear younger attorneys complain that their mentor did not have to deal with certain realities when they were coming up through the ranks. They complain that the resources, required skills and time were of such a different configuration as to make the comparison moot. As such, they are suspicious of the lessons taught by comparison to the mentor’s experiences of days gone by.
Counseling is similarly marked. Only those who struggle to pull their weight get counseled. So, a counseling session carries with it the assumption that the lawyer’s behaviors and tactics are broken and need to be fixed. But rarely is counseling precipitated by a thorough exploration of the root causes of the lawyer’s struggle to build their practice. Thorough practice development analysis is bypassed in the belief that no one knows their practice better than the lawyers themselves. They alone should know how to fix it. But without a deep and objective analysis of the structural and behavioral challenges, any counseling regimen is little more than a reprimand. As a result, too often the lawyer is left to fix their situation themselves or, worse, are told to find a new home.
As a means to transfer business and client relationship development knowledge, business development training programs can be very beneficial. But these too often have their limits. For one, the training is rarely customized to the specific needs, strategies and buying processes of the firm, the practice area or the client type. Too often, legal marketing training courses are grounded in the precepts of product sales and introduce concepts and skills that are incongruent with the lawyer’s perception of themselves and their understanding of the calling of their profession. Lastly, training often suffers from episodic, inconsistent implementation and/or lacks a formulation based in reality and actual experience. The best training programs result from direct observations of lawyers pitching and servicing clients and are applied consistently, liberally, frequently and as integral to the business of lawyering.
If used consistently by a majority of the leaders in a law firm though, training in a coaching style of leadership has the ability to significantly improve individual and firm performance. Its use can result in a more collaborative business development culture and can help to ensure practice development self-sufficiency among individuals and groups. A coaching style of leadership not only provides better performance results over the long run but will augment the mentoring, counseling and training programs already in existence.
What is ‘coaching’?
Coaching is a deliberative process to unlock a person’s potential so that the individual can maximize their performance. The purpose of coaching is to raise awareness and, with heightened awareness, increase personal responsibility for results. It is a process to help individuals learn and solve their challenges through a Socratic method of inquiry and guidance. Coaching provides the context and support to improve performance and gives the coachee the tools to find their own solutions- a skill that will pay dividends many times through the years.
Coaching assumes people can and should find the solutions to their challenges on their own, as opposed to being told the solution. The technique helps individuals identify the tools and techniques that work best for them considering their unique personality, practice, challenges, and values. Coaching encourages trial and error and personal reflection. While this may carry with it a degree of risk or be more cumbersome to implement, over the long run the ability of people to operate independently within the context of a clear firm strategy ensures better overall performance.
Implementing a coaching style among the law firm’s leaders isn’t necessarily a quick way to boost revenues. It requires a long-term view of the professional development of everyone in the organization. But there is evidence that this emotional intelligence type leadership style can help a firm to achieve significant results. According to a Harvard Business Review study from 2000, the leadership style of managers accounted for up to 30% of bottom-line profitability.
Moving Toward A Coaching Style of Leadership
Leadership is best observed when someone asks for help. It is in this moment of seeking advice that a leader can inspire and motivate, deflate and discourage or, worse, leave a person more confused. Great business leaders help people become great performers by asking the questions that help a person evaluate their situation, set objectives, identify challenges, chart a course of action and break down the immediate steps that must be taken. It is an iterative process that sometimes looks like fits, starts and a two-stepping dance around the real issues that inhibit progress. It is a process and as such requires dedication to both the process and the individual. This process gives the person the space to clarify their situation, attenuate bad habits and map a path to accomplishing their goals. It takes more time, requires consistent follow up and requires a questioning conversational discipline. But the coaching style of leadership discipline builds the skills that lawyers need to assess and adjust to their constantly changing circumstances. Stated anecdotally, coaching is the ‘teaching a man to fish’ technique that performs much better over time than does the direct advice ‘feed a man a fish’ technique.
In my coaching of lawyers, I’ve devised a simplified, three-point practice assessment and six questions that can be used as a conversational structure to work through any challenge a lawyer may face. The combination of a simplified assessment tool along with the PROPS questioning methodology enables anyone trained in coaching to effectively guide any other professional in developing their practice and focusing their efforts to get the most improvement in the shortest amount of time. The process is memorable making it easier to use in spontaneous discussions. It is flexible, meaning it can be adapted to a wide range of practice areas and business challenges and can be done verbally or in written form. It’s scalable for use with individuals or groups in small firms or large. And it is a highly effective technique similar to how executive coaching has proven essential across a wide range of industries. There are numerous coaching techniques out there available to you. Mine was simply devised specifically for lawyers.
Building Personal Accountability is at the Heart of a Coaching Leadership Style
Coaching allows the subject to find their best solution, even if it means failing a few times in the process. Direct advice, as efficient it may be in terms of time, carries with it the burden of failure, or more specifically, the transfer of responsibility for that failure to the advisor. More simply, if you tell someone what to do, you become responsible for that action’s success or failure. But if the subject arrives at their own solution, they assume full responsibility for its success.
Lawyers, who are untrained in coaching techniques and practice assessments, can also suffer the blinding influence of confidence bias in their discussions with their charges. Confidence bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence or information as confirmation of one's existing theories and carries with it a tendency to disregard factors that might lead the discussion to new ground unfamiliar to that coach.
A Note of Caution: Coaching Requires Trusted Relationships.
Bearing responsibility for your actions or, more intimately, sharing your fears and frustrations with a colleague requires a high degree of trust between individuals. Developing a coaching leadership style in the firm sometimes requires ground rules and even training in how to build trusted internal relationships. Compensation decisions should be walled off from coaching discussions and a strict adherence to confidentiality must be maintained in order for colleague coaching to take hold. But a coaching style of leadership builds self-sufficiency in individuals and groups, producing higher performance levels. For those with responsibilities for executing the strategy of the firm, leaders who listen carefully to the coaching dialogues can also see how the firm’s strategy is being understood and implemented at the most granular levels of the firm.
A coaching leadership style works across generations, practice areas, roles and even between attorney-client relationships. Coaching is a conversational discipline that has the power to change the culture of the firm and ignite performance even among the most incalcitrant. Good coaching inspires and encourages with the fortunate by-product of building stronger bonds between people in the firm.