A partner’s perspective on leadership often reflects their mental model of the firm they work in. For a few, it is a guesthouse where only the infrastructure is shared, and individualism abounds. For some, it is a flat-share involving communal facilities and possibilities for cooperation, but with an opt-out for contrarians. For many, it is a home – subject to the constraints and compromises that attend cohabitation, but premised firmly on the principle of collective benefit.
The coordinates of each partner’s residence along this continuum are a bellwether of their relationship with ‘management’. At one extreme, law is a sublimation of a visceral dislike of rules and of being told what to do; at the other, it satisfies a desire for perfection expressed through compliance and order. Even then, there is likely to be ambivalence in partners’ willingness to be led. The responsibilities that partners shoulder for outcomes for clients can make them wonder whether they need to be led or managed at all.
Most partners do concede authority to an elected managing partner. The test of their relationship with authority arises in the domain of the practice group leader. This role is where the devil of management theory meets the deep blue sea of partner behaviour. An incumbent can only steer a safe course between the two if the authority attached to the role receives sanction from three sources: from above, below and within. “
Authority invested from above is partly dictated by the criteria used to choose the practice group leader. Selecting a practice group leader based on, say, seniority, a practice tapering towards retirement or as consolation for missing out on higher office inevitably conveys a soft signal about the status of the role.
This is not to say that politics can be ignored, merely that a tension might exist between a candidate who suits the needs of the practice group partners and the one who best serves the interests of the firm.
The key challenge of the role, to which only a few are equal, is to manage partner behaviours. It is in this area that practice group leaders need to be fully authorised by central management. After all, a practice group leader should have a much better feel for what partners are doing day-today, and much more capacity to influence their behaviours, than a managing partner viewing proceedings from on high. The daily ‘touch on the tiller’ from a practice group leader helps keep partners focused on the activities that will deliver the firmwide strategy and the group plans.
Because law is a status-driven profession, partners are often more likely to accept leadership from someone who commands a thriving practice. In taking on the role, high-performers sometimes struggle to guillotine their client work and to relinquish the satisfaction and mastery it gives them. Where this happens, their practice group responsibilities become marginalised to weekends and late evenings, and they do not do justice to the role.
Even if the best candidate for the role is a heavy-hitter, it still makes business sense to appoint them. A day a week given over to practice management might create an annual deficit of around 400 chargeable hours, equating to a £200,000 reduction in billings (at City rates). As an investment cost in helping the whole team to greater success, this is not risky or expensive. Put another way, there is a much better chance of a practice group leader increasing the contribution of each team member by one or two per cent than of producing an equivalent return by dint of their own efforts.
It does not follow that the qualities that make a great lawyer also make someone a good leader. For example, they need to be able to shift focus rapidly from one issue to the next, as their time will be salami-sliced by a reshuffling in-tray of demands. They must possess the tact and empathy to work with dissenting voices, as a practice group leader can only accomplish what partners are willing to have done to them. And they must be conspicuous in their desire to promote the firm’s interests, since their credibility will be instantly shot were it ever to appear that they were in the role to further their own interests or status.
Most crucially, a practice group leader must be psychologically resilient.. This is not a role for someone who requires to be loved or looked after. There will be unpopularity. There will be disputes needing a referee. There will be bad news to deliver. There may be friendships to put aside. No one takes care of the leader, so the leader must take care of themselves.
This does not imply that the partner who takes on this role must be a superhero, with abnormal courage, charisma or confidence. What they need is to adapt their style to each situation. Of the many leadership styles, the one most needed by a practice group leader is the coaching style: more servant than master, it involves listening rather than advising, coaching rather than controlling, and helping others to get out of their own way rather than prescribing change. This does not come naturally to those who have made a career out of telling others (clients) what to do.
Many partners do not appreciate the power of coaching to release potential in others until they undertake it for their own needs. As on the sports field, so in the law firm, there is a world of difference between a manager of individuals and a coach who can shape a team.
“ This does not imply that the partner who takes on this role must be a superhero with abnormal courage, charisma or confidence. It does not follow that the qualities that make a great lawyer also make someone a good leader. “