Your Partners are Probably Great Lawyers. But are they Great Leaders?


Are you partners leaders or drowning in administration?

When we talk to recently-appointed partners about their new role, we frequently hear something along the lines of “we are expected to be leaders now”.

The word leadership gets used a lot these days. We use it all the time. But do we all agree what it means? The other frequently-asked questions are:

  • Are good leaders born or can they be made?
  • Do you have to be popular to be a leader (or will being a good leader make you popular?)
  • Is leadership different to management? If it is, what is the difference?

John Adair, one of the first academics to clarify the distinctions said:

Leadership is about sense of direction. The word lead comes from the Anglo Saxon word that means a road… It’s knowing what the next step is. Managing is from the Latin “Manus”, a hand. It tends to be closely linked with machines and the idea of controlling, particularly financial control and administration.”

Warren Bennis, a leading American writer who occasionally took a rather poor view of managers, makes the following distinctions between leaders and managers:

Manager Leader
Driven by context Masters their context
Administers Innovates
Maintains Develops
Focuses on systems and structures Focuses on people
Relies on control Inspires trust
Short range view Long term perspective
Asks how and when? Asks what and why?
Has eye on the bottom line Has eye on the horizon
Imitates Originates
Accepts status quo Challenges status quo
Does things right Does right thing

Most commentators agree that effective leaders tend to focus on the following four areas:

  • Vision – Bennis believes that the vision should be of a “realistic, credible and attractive future for the organisation…a target that beckons”
  • Communication – Staff are receiving too many messages. They are also becoming more cynical. They hear people say one thing and they see another thing happening. It is important for a leader to be a good role model, so that they are trusted. Only then will people follow them.
  • Motivation – The best performing businesses usually have the most motivated staff.  Effective leaders know how to motivate their people and align them to achieving the goals of the firm. They tend to give more praise and spend more time coaching other partners and staff.
  • Self-awareness and learning – Many commentators stress that good leaders typically have higher levels of emotional intelligence and have an attitude of perpetually wanting to ‘sharpen the saw’.


David Maister (see comments that leaders in law firms typically do not spend their time most effectively, particularly in terms of creating added value. He sees administration work, such as checking progress against the budget or ensuring that WIP levels are not getting excessively high, as important, but recognises that great administration will not build the future success of the business.

Most leaders in law firms spend the majority of their ‘non-chargeable’ time on administration and insufficient time on leadership activities (ie creating a vision, communicating and ensuring consistency of messages, motivating/coaching others and reviewing experiences so that they learn from them and do them more effectively next time).

Could your partners be delegating administrative jobs to others (who will probably be on lower salaries and may even be better at carrying out the job!), so that they can add more value to the business by being more effective leaders?

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