The legal industry is facing a future of immense change, raising the bar for leadership. But most law firms lack adequate leadership training and development programs. For some, that could be a bad recipe.
‘It’s Not a Frill’
For firms that have been inattentive to leadership development, there is no time like the present to take action. As the country navigates ongoing health and economic crises and confronts issues of systemic racism, firm leaders are being pressed to think about much more than profits per partner. And with the industry facing a future of immense change, wrought by globalization, technology and increased competition from the Big Four, alternative legal service providers and others, leadership will play a significant role in the great sorting to come.
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For too long, industry watchers say, firms have conflated a big book of business with leadership, promoting rainmakers into prominent positions whether or not they have the so-called “soft skills” to succeed in the role. A related concern, they say, is the chair or managing partner who maintains an all-consuming practice, leaving little time or energy for the critical tasks of leadership.
In the current climate, there is also fear that firms may cut leadership training from their budgets. Betsy Miller of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who has a certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University and is an advocate for more fulsome training programs, says that would be a mistake on par with cutting deposition training.
“It’s not a frill,” she says. “It’s an essential skill.”
Adapting for the Future
There’s a refrain Westfahl is used to hearing: “How do you tell a roomful of millionaires that they’re not doing things correctly?” Even some of those most critical of the industry’s approach to leadership development acknowledge that firms may continue reaping profits regardless of their lack of attention to the issue.
But every economic crisis leads some firms to decline or even collapse—for myriad reasons. As the elite firms continue to separate from the rest of the industry, those with a culture of leadership could be spared the worst of the damage.
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For those that haven’t yet built out an infrastructure to develop leaders, this moment offers an opportunity.
“Change is an excellent catalyst for evolution,” Miller says, “if you’re willing to undertake something new and unfamiliar.”
Miller, Westfahl and others suggest a higher premium will be placed on adaptive leadership—the ability to retain the elements that make a firm successful while shedding those that might drag it down. In an increasingly volatile world, resilience, flexibility and adaptability will be more important than ever.
“The bar for leadership is being raised,” Westfahl says.
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