Heroic vs. Quiet Leadership — Part 1

One of the core dilemmas of leading and managing a law firm is played out in a hysterically funny scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8bqQ-C1PSE]. In the scene, Arthur, King of the Britons, encounters a couple of peasants digging in a muddy field. (Some will undoubtedly consider this an unintentional allusion to practicing law.)

When Arthur identifies himself as their king, one peasant responds, “I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.” The other later explains that they are at an anarcho–syndicalist commune, and they take turns to act as sort of an executive officer for the week. He continues that all decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major decisions. (Any resemblance to how many management committees operate is purely coincidental, or is it?)

Growing impatient, Arthur then orders them to be quiet. They ignore his command and question his authority, noting that they didn’t vote for him to be king. In exasperation, he exclaims that he is their king by Divine Providence as evidenced by the Lady of the Lake handing him Excalibur (which is actually a misreading of the Arthurian legend). The first peasant responds, “Well, but you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

It’s a great relief that very few law firm managing partners today claim the right to lead by Divine Providence, although their actions may at times lead us to believe they secretly think otherwise. Lawyers—typically equity partners or shareholders—now elect their “kings.” Yet at the same time, many law firms operate as something like the peasants’ autonomous collective with power and authority so widely shared that making decisions and taking action is a painfully slow process.

Getting law firm leadership right is especially tough because managing partners must balance the interests of individual lawyers (who are often independent, skeptical, vocal, cynical, and in control of their own book of clients) with the interests of the firm as a whole. Some firms do have authoritarian (or is that Arthurian?) leaders, and most lawyers have at one time or another wished there was a law firm “king” who could declare consensus, make a final decision and get things moving; and leave them to what they do and enjoy best—practicing law. By contrast, in smaller firms collective leadership seems to work better, at least in dealing with simple and non-urgent matters.

[Find out what factors come into play when lawyers elect their “kings” by reading the next installment of this blog.]

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