Law Firms Are Weak When It Comes to Developing Leaders. Here’s How They Can Fix It

Law Firms Are Weak When It Comes to Developing Leaders. Here’s How They Can Fix It

Lack of cogent succession planning, risk aversion and the halo effect are just some of the obstacles.

By Patrick Smith

Law firm partnerships are populated by some of the brightest and most educated people in the world, so there should be plenty of promising leaders in their ranks ready to take the reins when it’s needed. But that isn’t the case. Far from it.

The leaders of major law firms are in fact some of the most successful, intelligent and ambitious professionals in the world. But being a good lawyer doesn’t make one a good leader. The risk aversion taught in law school and in practice can be a hindrance when making business decisions, and the process for developing future leaders internally is murky at best in most firms. 

In other words, there are factors that work against law firms consistently developing strong business leadership skills in their lawyers. But those factors can be mitigated and a true pipeline of leadership developed. 

The Halo Effect

There is a tendency in the human thought process to associate positive impressions of one element or action with one’s feelings in other areas.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Someone can be a good baseball player and a good coach. But, those two things don’t necessarily have to co-exist—one can be a great coach without being a great player, or can be a wonderful player and a not-so-great coach.

“In many law firms, law firm leadership is consistent with how productive and profitable the attorneys are,” Peter Johnson, founder of legal consulting firm Law Practice Consultants, says. “The biggest rainmakers are then in positions of leadership. But they aren’t necessarily the best leaders.”

Again, this doesn’t mean they can’t be. There are many strong leaders in Big Law who were also successful in their respective  practices prior to transitioning into a leadership role, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. 

Those who achieved success in their practice area went to law school to learn the ropes. They did the work day in and day out at their firm, learning as they went both via personal experience as well as studying others. Their success is built on a foundation of the thousands of individual actions they took to get there, and they were well-compensated for the time spent. 

The same can’t be said for leadership development. 

“Can you name a law firm that has a learning centre like KPMG’s Lakehouse or a program like Deloitte University?” Mark Beese, president of legal consulting firm Leadership for Lawyers, asks. “You probably can’t, but there are a few.”

Beese says that if law firms were “good” at developing leaders, we would “see leaders at all levels with some sort of management or leadership training and credentials”. That often isn’t the case. 

So, while successful attorneys are promoted into leadership based on their success as lawyers, it can be unreasonable to expect success in their new role if the incoming leader hasn’t been properly prepared. 

Non-Business Professionals

Angie Sebastian, CEO of Chicago-based Levenfeld Pearlstein, has been in the legal profession for 30 years and at Levenfeld for 22 years. She is in the relatively unique position of running a law firm. She is also an accountant by trade. 

“We started this firm with the premise that lawyers will practice law—their highest and best use—and business executives will run the firm,” Sebastian said in an interview. “We now have 20 years of runway behind us, and the experiment works.”

While more firms have integrated C-suite professionals into the fold and leaned on their expertise in various areas, it’s unlikely that most major law firms will turn over their day-to-day operations to business professionals, at least in the short run.

But the business professionals can still act as guides, and even mentors, to attorneys who need to learn how to be effective business leaders.

“Most law school training doesn’t include how to run a multi-million dollar organisation,” Sebastian says. “They need specialised experience in finance and marketing and other areas.”

That will require a certain level of trust and a willingness by the partnership to give business professionals the proverbial seat at the table, in order to execute on what they know and train attorneys in that craft. That has proven difficult in many firms. 

“I can’t tell you how many of my peers call and ask how you got a seat at the table,” Sebastian says. “These are people at large, prestigious firms, and they want to know what I have done. But you need that buy-in. That is why they often convert a partner to firm leadership: They already have the buy in.”

Pipeline Building

If a firm is lucky enough—or deliberate enough—to develop a strong leader, there is then the question of succession. 

“No one wants to talk about being put out to pasture,” Johnson says. “About being marginalized. And the most common form of coping with this is denial. Therefore firms don’t implement a plan.”

That mindset trickles down into how firms prepare their future leaders. While it is, of course, a benefit to have a strong, capable leader at a firm and use that person as a guidepost for future leaders, there are steps along the way that law firms, unlike other businesses, tend to skip. 

“If you are a senior vice president at Goldman or any financial institution, you will have gone through a lot of leadership training,” Beese says. “Retreats, 360 assessments and training. Younger partners I have worked at law firms with are hungry for help in that area.”

Even if the firm is willing to identify younger partners as potential leadership candidates, there is also the question of allocating time to train them. The legal industry is still fed by the billable hour, and time is money.  

“Firms need to be able to say, from a policy point of view, that people have a given number of hours each year to go through coaching and leadership training,” Beese says. “There isn’t more of this because of the pressure of the hour. And we don’t have a lot of champions for the cause right now. We don’t have a lot of examples.”

None of the above issues are unfixable. They just require an openness to change, which isn’t always a defining characteristic of large law firms. The experts quoted above note three things that could go a long way in easing the path to consistent leadership development: early identification of the types of traits a firm would want in a leader; the allocation of time and resources for training and development of those people; and the willingness of the partnership to both allow business professionals to do their jobs as well as educate attorneys on the nuance of their respective business specialties. (

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