Susan Smith Blakely

Are Law Firms Training Leaders or Followers?

I have been wondering about this for years.  Are law firms training effective leaders --- or are they simply creating followers? 

We are seeing a lot of ineffective leadership in public office these days on both sides of the aisle --- “leaders” who would rather tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.  And some of that ineffective leadership also is right here in our own profession. 

Effective leaders have plans to make things better.  They do not shy away from leadership because they know that will create models for followers.  And followers do not have the vision to capitalize on the talent of people and create thriving organizations.  

There is plenty of evidence that we are creating followers in our profession --- that the so-called "leaders" are not effective leaders themselves and, therefore, don't have the ability to train effective leaders.  Or worse --- that the leaders have the ability to be effective but don't really want more competition for the leadership and management positions.  After all, why train the competition?

Too many law firms are failing at leadership.  They are failing at leadership for women lawyers, and they are failing at leadership for young lawyers.  They are failing at understanding that leadership begins at the top and trickles down.  For most people, it is skill that is taught and one that is learned.

Instead of effective leadership, we too often are modeling ignorance, avoidance and lack of caring and creating legions of followers for those negative traits and behaviors.  And this negative training trickles down to middle level managers --- the ones the structural hierarchies of Biglaw firms have created and the ones who can be particularly toxic as they function without positive role models.  If they do not have effective leaders as role models, they will not become effective leaders and managers.  They cannot be who they cannot see.  It is that simple. 

These middle level managers are the senior associates and non-equity partners, who have no training in management and leadership, yet are tasked with management and leadership responsibilities.  They too often are afraid of taking risks and making decisions that may result in harsh responses from upper level managers, and, to avoid that result, those in the middle sacrifice those at the bottom.  Too often these middle level "managers" flex their management muscles and prey on newbie associates, who have barely figured out where the restrooms are.  These "managers" get off on their little bit of power and leave bodies in their wakes.  

This style of mismanagement results in too many entry level lawyers deciding that they do not want to be used and bullied for sport, and they leave.  It is not that they cannot do the job.  It is that doing the job is just not worth the sacrifice of personal and professional dignity.

That result cuts against everything I know about retention of talent, and it should not happen.  If one is to become an effective manager/leader, then one must have management and leadership training.  Nothing less.  And middle level managers can only learn effective management and leadership skills from those at the top.

Leaders must be willing to spend time training future leaders.  They must lead by example and be good mentors and excellent role models.  They must take time away from billable hours and client development to assume those leadership responsibilities, and they must embrace the importance of the work.  They must become invested in the futures of young lawyers, and they must understand how vulnerable those young lawyers are to becoming discouraged when they are ignored, islolated, and treated like fungible goods.

Think about the most painful associate reviews that go something like this:

You are not meeting expectations, and we are not sure you have the right stuff.  According to some of your managers --- no, we cannot give you their names --- you are lacking in skills.  No, we do not have any specifics or any recommendations on how you can improve those skills.  Let's talk again in six months.

This is wrong in so many ways.  This is not good leadership.  This is ignorance, avoidance and lack of caring. 

What can you do to turn things around?

If you are a senior lawyer, get in the game.  Become part of the solution.  Make a leadership plan and embrace your responsibilities for its success.

If you are a junior lawyer, who needs leadership, ask for it.  Make a case for why it is good for you and also good for the firm.  Focus on the present and the future and a positive succession plan that includes YOU.  And forget the past.  It’s over.  Don’t waste your time and energy on woulda, coulda, shoulda.  

Then you will be thinking like an effective leader.  Watch your stock rise!





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