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Should Law Firm Leaders Build A Personal Brand?

From the Fourth Leader’s Pulse Survey

Exactly 10 years ago, in March 2007, at a time when most firms were doing very well economically, a survey was conducted of the profession to determine how certain firm leaders were perceived. A lot has happened since 2007. So, for the fourth in a series of Leader’s Pulse Surveys conducted by Patrick McKenna and David Parnell, they repeated that same survey in October, asking lawyers, specifically those in some form of leadership position (firm leaders, office heads, practice group leaders, elected board members), to reflect upon the various firm leaders that they have met, observed and/or read about across the country and respond to three specific questions.

David J. Parnell

No One Owns The Spotlight

According to those who responded with a specific firm leader’s name to the 2007 survey, far and away the most admired law firm leader, receiving 13% of the total votes cast at that time, was Bob Dell from Latham.

This year, surprisingly, not a single name managed to capture more than 3% of the respondents with a couple of mentions going to Ken Doran at Gibson Dunn; Brad Karp from Paul Weiss and Elliott Portnoy at Dentons.

A Lack Of Response

For their first question, McKenna and Parnell asked: “Aside from your own law firm, please tell us the name of that law firm Managing Partner / Chair / CEO you most admire for their management / leadership competence.” And while they received substantive input from 92 respondents, those 92 were among some 885 who actually examined the survey, read through the three simple questions they posed, and for whatever reason decided not to participate.

They suspect that one of the main reasons that caused the participants to abandon the survey was articulated by a few who offered comments such as, “I have no way of knowing” and “I’m not aware of any.”

Patrick J. McKenna

Should Law Firm Leaders Have A Brand?

This result provokes an interesting question for today’s law firm leaders to consider: Is there value in developing a leadership brand?

McKenna and Parnell said, “Many firm leaders may be content to be perceived as just ‘your regular managing partner.” They went on to say, “That viewpoint, however, may result in keeping both the leader and his or her firm out of the public eye, missing important growth opportunities. Our observations and experience would suggest that those firm leaders with strong reputations and the know-how to promote their accomplishments — that is, those with strong brands — can gain a noticeable advantage over competitors.”

What Makes A Good – Even A Renowned – Leader?

The second question, the obvious follow up to “who,” solicited “why:” They asked, Please now identify what specific leadership and management qualities come to mind that most influenced your leadership selection. Responses fell into a number of categories, including:

Committed To Making Change.

  • Change leadership, thoughtful, follow through.

  • He demonstrated decisiveness in organizing his firm, resizing it for its business and within a year or two driving it to record profits.

  • Driving modernization of the overall business model and effectively achieving adoption and compliance with process improvement initiatives.

Has An Ambitious Agenda.

An admired firm leader must dare to fail. Any leader who plays it safe all the time isn’t setting goals that are high enough. Responses included:

  • Nimble in management to seize opportunities while looking for ways to deliver value to clients at a reasonable cost.

  • Focus on distinctive practice areas, areas of real market advantage.

  • Strategic thinker with a solid grasp of what his partners want to accomplish.

Handles Tough Issues.

An important mark of an admired leader is knowing that their actions impact not only their role but the effective functioning of the firm as a whole. Responses included:

  • Instills accountability in a collegial manner.

  • Strong communicator and connector, very disciplined.

  • Laser focus; benevolent dictator; acknowledges efforts and contributions even from

  • She is decisive, genuine, willing to take risks and make hard choices while considering all sides.

What Makes A Bad – Or Worse, A Notorious – Leader?

The final question posed by Parnell and McKenna sought cautionary advice: “Please identify what one attribute you would see as most indicative of an ineffective firm leader, someone who was floundering.” Responses fell into a number of categories, but two, in particular, were the favorites of all firms regardless of size.

  1. The number one issue that firms cited as indicative of ineffective leadership was where there existed a “strategic vacuum” of some kind. To elaborate, Parnell and McKenna said, “Your partners feel as though there is no real sense of direction as to where the firm is going; no real strategic plan and no priorities.”This was the response from 36% of all firms and overwhelmingly the most important issue identified by those respondents from firms of over 800 attorneys (43%).

  2. The number two issue identified by 33% of all participating firms could best be categorized as a “lack of cohesion,” which is described by McKenna and Parnell as “an inability to bring the firm together as a team.”

McKenna and Parnell continue: “This particular shortcoming, while pervading firms of all sizes, was most pronounced amongst the smaller, less than 200 attorney firms”. As one leader described it: ‘When there exists a lack of inspiration and rule by fear.’”


David J. Parnell is a legal search & placement consultant, ABA author, speaker, and Forbes and American Lawyer Media columnist. Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms.

For more information or to arrange an interview, Contact:

David J. Parnell – | 212.390.8087;

Patrick J. McKenna – | 780.428.1052

#DavidJParnell #PatrickJMcKenna #KnowledgeUpdates #AllUpdates #NeedtoRead

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