• By Andrew Otterburn

Developing future leaders?


“If we were running real businesses we would be identifying future leaders in their 20’s and 30’s and fast tracking them – whereas in most law firms people first have to prove themselves as a lawyer, and earn high fees, and only then, when they are probably in their 40’s or 50’s might we think about whether they have what it takes to lead the business.”

This was a casual, almost throw away comment from my colleague co-facilitating a managing partner retreat with me back in February, but it set the scene for the next 24 hours – how should law firms identify and then develop their future leaders?

It is an issue facing most firms that was picked up by one of the managing partners present who highlighted the difficulty developing the next generation of leaders, building strength in depth and trying to encourage vision in more junior people. In no particular order he thought that:

  • lawyers were often very good at waffle and how everybody else could improve but tended to then go back to their day job and carry on exactly as before!

  • lawyers tend to manage not lead because they are task oriented;

  • being managing partner needs full engagement which takes a lawyer out of practice and is therefore a considerable risk to the individual, especially if they are relatively young as they will need a role after their period as managing partner.

The issue he was grappling with was how to encourage colleagues to start thinking about vision and leadership earlier in their careers? How do we avoid bringing forward unprepared people? We talk about talent management but that means retention of key fee earners to fee earn. What about talent management in having the right people to lead?

Each firm is different and will have its own issues however I think the solution involves:

  • having a reasonably clear plan for the firm and understanding how the partners would ideally want it to develop over, say, the next ten years;

  • understanding what is needed in terms of management and leadership and recognising that “management” is different from “leadership”. Identifying the skills and characteristics that are needed;

  • identifying people with these skills;

  • creating alternative career routes for people with these skills that might fast track them into leadership roles in their early 30’s;

  • helping them to develop their management and leadership ability through training;

  • providing opportunities for them to practice and develop these skills;

  • ensuring the firm’s reporting systems do not undermine what you are trying to achieve.

Taking each of these:

  • try considering what ideally your firm might look like in 2025 or 2030? What management and leadership structures would you need to run that firm?

  • Management and leadership are different and call for different skill sets:

  • Management and administration is concerned with day to day business activities and the production and delivery of services. Partners will be involved in this but there will be aspects of management that are better done by professional managers;

  • Leadership is about taking a longer-term perspective, setting long term goals and describing an overall vision. Motivating the people who work with you to buy into and achieve that vision. The people who tend to be great at this invariably have good people skills, in particular they are good at listening. They are also able to actually take decisions and avoid getting bogged down. They are able to take a longer-term view;

  • Psychometric tests can be really useful in helping people understand themselves and what they are good, and not so good at. Myers Briggs is one of the better known tests, and Belbin is also a valuable tool in understanding how people behave in groups. Tools like these are often helpful in reinforcing your “gut feel” that someone has what it takes – and the sooner you start doing this the better.

  • Use tools to assess people’s skills at the recruitment stage and as they qualify and start fast tracking people with the skills needed to be a future leader when they are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Try to offer alternative career routes. Another good way of identifying people with leadership skills is to see how they interact with their peers. Much of my time now is spent running in house management skills programmes in firms and these provide a great opportunity to observe junior people working in groups with their colleagues. Potential leaders will often stand out;

  • Most firms provide soft skills training in a range of areas however the skills future leaders are likely to require revolve around dealing with people, understanding the figures and developing and implementing strategy. Firms that are large enough to provide such training in house can see a group of associates or junior partners develop as a group – they learn from each other and begin to understand each other better, and a much more sophisticated team can develop as a result;

  • It is obvious! Put these people in charge of a team or an office – give them an opportunity to make mistakes and develop as a leader;

  • We need fees but many firms place too much emphasis on individual fees and in such practices it becomes much more difficult to convey the message that non fee earning is also important. Make sure your financial reporting does not have unintended consequences!

And finally give people time because they will be unable to manage and provide leadership if they do not have the time!

This article was originally published on 10 April 2018 on the Legal Futures website

About the Author Andrew Otterburn is a leading law firm management consultant who has advised around 250 firms of solicitors and barristers chambers in the UK and Ireland. He has undertaken extensive consultancy work for the Law Society of England & Wales, the Legal Services Commission and the Ministry of Justice. The 3rd edition of his book "Profitability and Law Firm Management” was published by the Law Society in 2016. He is a former vice chair of the Executive Committee of the Law Management Section and a founding member of the Law Consultancy Network.

Andrew has an in-depth understanding of the issues facing law firms: "Andrew has a depth of knowledge about the pressures facing the owners of solicitors practices today and a wide experience of how different firms are tackling these issues. His real strength however is the clarity he brings to the planning and decision making process which allied with his energy and enthusiasm helped generate a real sense of purpose and unity amongst our partners.”

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