Power in Law Firms and How to Get it

powerIt was Lord Acton who said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But I start with the premise that some power can be a good thing when working in a law firm.

Leadership and power are closely related. People follow those who are powerful. And because other follow, the person with power leads. With enhanced power you might:

  • Get a specialist to prioritise your work over their own to provide some important advice
  • Persuade a junior to work over the weekend
  • Delegate some work upwards when you might be overloaded
  • Persuade a partner to put you on an important client team when they might have selected someone else
  • And so on!

Let’s explore power in two different aspects: hierarchical and personal.

Sources of Hierarchical Power

If you’re a partner or senior associate you can legitimately tell junior people what to do. Indeed others are probably expecting you to do so. There are thought to be three related aspects to this hierarchical power, as follows:

  • Reward Power

People in power are often able to give out rewards, such as bonuses, promotions, desirable cases or an opportunity to leave early for a dinner date! If others expect that you’ll reward them for doing what you want, there’s a high probability that they’ll do it. Even giving compliments such as ‘well done’ can be associated with this reward power.

The problem with this source of power is that it may not be as strong as it first seems. Your boss rarely has complete control over bonuses or promotions by themselves, and even partners might need permission from their head of practice for some actions.

  • Coercive Power

Sometimes you just need to get something done and don’t need others to want to do it. There may be a crisis, for example. So this is a legitimate source of power. However it can be abused. What’s more, it can cause resentment among the people it is applied to.  They might become demotivated. Some might leave if this power is over-used.

Threats and punishment are common coercive tools. You use coercive power when you imply or threaten that someone will be fired, demoted or denied privileges.

  • Informational Power

Having control over information that others would appreciate puts you in a powerful position. Having access to confidential reports, being aware of who’s due to be promoted or asked to leave, and knowing there’s a potential merger in the frame are all examples of informational power.

This power derives not from the information itself but from having access to it, and from being in a position to share, withhold, manipulate, distort, or conceal it. With this type of power, you can use information to help others, or hinder them!

But what if you are seeking power but you’re not the boss? The good news is that this is still possible. Here’s how.

Sources of Personal Power

Relying on these hierarchical sources of power alone results in a cold bossy style of leadership.  To be a more rounded leader, you need a different source of power than an ability to reward or punish or access to information. Here are two ways:

  • Expert Power 

Expert power is derived from possessing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. Such people are highly valued by organizations for their judgement and problem solving skills. People who have expert power perform critical tasks and are therefore deemed indispensable. The opinions, ideas and decisions of people with expert power are held in high regard by other staff and hence greatly influence their actions.

Possession of expert power is normally a stepping stone to other sources of power such as hierarchical power. There is widespread empirical evidence that law firms tend to promote those who are considered experts in their field – even if some other skills are missing!

  • Referent Power

In a workplace, people with referent power often make everyone feel good, so they tend to have a lot of influence. It comes from an ability to build rapport and be trusted. This might be achieved, for example, by a Human Resource manager who is known for ensuring employees are treated fairly and coming to the rescue of those who are not.

Relying on referent power alone is not a good strategy for a leader who wants long term respect. When it is combined with expert power, however, it can help you to be very successful.

You can learn lots more about power by watching others using it…and abusing it! For more on the art of influencing, see https://tonyreiss.com/2016/08/17/aristotle-on-the-art-of-influencing/


For more information see the original writings by John French and Bertram Raven who carried out a major study on power in 1959. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_and_Raven%27s_bases_of_power

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1 Response to Power in Law Firms and How to Get it

  1. Pingback: Aristotle on the Art of Influencing | Tony Reiss

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