Professional Service Firm Leadership — Do We Know it When We See It?

What is leadership? No single, commonly accepted definition for leadership exists. It seems as though everyone has a different idea of what it is and when it is or is not being properly exercised. Perhaps our default understanding of leadership is similar to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)] when he wrote “… I know it when I see it.” But do we know leadership when we see it?

If you ask a professional who is leading their firm, the chances are they will respond by identifying a managing partner, executive committee member, or partner whose name appears in the firm’s letterhead. This is an understandable response and while it’s likely that some of those professionals may in fact be leaders, it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion.

Leadership is more than a title, a position, or seniority. Professional service firm leaders come in all shapes, genders and sizes, and leadership can and should be found at all levels of a firm. Firm leadership is also not the exclusive province of professionals: as heretical as the thought may be (at least to the authors of Opinion 642 of the Texas Committee on Professional Ethics), law firm leadership can even be exercised by non-lawyer professionals who have management responsibilities.

Leadership is a topic that has been written about from classical times to the present. According to a quick 2014 search of the website, over 10,000 hardcover, paperback, and e-books on leadership were published in 2013 alone, and that number only includes books written in English! Curiously, only a handful of those books deal with the leadership of professional service firms.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of the fact that global, one-size-fits-all approaches to leadership often fail in professional and law firm settings. Leading and managing a professional service firm is not the same as leading a business that sells goods or non-professional services. Lawyers in particular are an independent and skeptical lot, and not the most docile and trusting followers. Law firm leaders must often play a delicate game of balancing the interests of individual lawyers with those of the firm as a whole.

As numerous as descriptions of leadership may be, several key factors that are mentioned frequently are especially relevant to the challenges of professional service firm leadership. To be effective, firm leaders should:

  1. Set a direction. Articulate a strategic vision for the firm, get buy-in and commitment for it, and make sure that the firm’s structure, culture, and processes are aligned with it.
  2. Develop talent. Help the firm’s individual lawyers become stars, and turn individual stars into a dynamic, high-performing team.
  3. Motivate and inspire loyalty. Create a firm environment where lawyers are engaged, motivated by more than money, and want to do what’s right for the firm.
  4. Be authoritative not authoritarian. Rely on strong and trusting relationships rather than coercion to resolve disputes and foster accountability.
  5. Be the firm’s face. Represent the firm to outside constituents and stakeholders both within and outside of the legal community.
  6. Lead by example. Build trust and avoid hypocrisy by making sure personal actions are consistent with what is desired and expected from all members of the firm.

So do we know professional service firm leadership when we see it? Perhaps you’ve realized that you –like most people – have been thinking of leadership and management as one in the same. Ask yourself, to what degree is each of these six factors being demonstrated in your firm or organization? Further, challenge yourself to think of ways any weak or missing factors could be addressed.

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