Leadership for Law Firms

Leadership for Law Firms


Patricia Wheatley Burt (2011, Law Society Publishing)

ISBN 978-1-85328-697-1




Leadership is all around us.  We experience its effects every day.  And yet we are hard-pressed to define it in ways that stand up to universal scrutiny.  A great deal of research and ink has been devoted to uncovering its mysteries.  We’re offered views about innate traits and qualities, learned or adopted styles, and situational and servant variants.  The only thing that research seems to confirm is that there is no one guaranteed way of leading.

Leadership, then, is seen by many as being vital to an organisation; it is also dismissed by others as ‘warm and fuzzy stuff’.  In law firms, it is further complicated by the leader’s position as first among equals rather than ‘the boss’.

This book by Patricia Wheatey Burt is a welcome addition to the library of works on leadership.  In ten chapters and a little under 100 pages, it provides a healthy mix of frameworks for thinking about leadership alongside the author’s own views, and topped up with anecdotes and quotes from her interviews of a good number and range of law firm leaders and others from around the world.

Patricia tackles the distinction between leadership and management, and addresses the thorny problem of non-lawyer leaders and CEOs.  She also looks at whether lawyers can be led (with conclusions across the range from ‘yes’ and ‘yes but’ to ‘not necessary’).  There is also timely and practical advice about how to gather the followers on board: after all, a leader needs followers.  (I’m reminded of a sign I once saw in a senior partner’s office: ‘Who are they?  Where are they?  I must find them: I am their leader’!)

The book also includes a very useful review of the legal structures within which leadership takes place, as well as offering interesting suggestions for structures beyond 2011.

Each chapter concludes with a helpful summary, and there are some useful appendices, including Appendix 2 setting out a summarised job description of the leader’s role and Appendix 3 offering the interviewees’ top tips for the first 101 days in office.

I was intrigued by a reference to ‘Generation X+1’: I thought this was better known as Generation Y – but what does a Baby Boomer like me know about these things?  There are also a number of typographical errors that editing or proof-reading should have picked up, though these are minor irritants (and probably only to pedants like me!).

I hope the book is not regarded as a product of its time – post-recession and pre-2011.  It shouldn’t be, since it contains some enduring messages.  This might be nowhere better illustrated than in the author’s masterly summary of the ‘success formula’ (my term, not hers) on page 58: “Success is awaiting any leader who can be decisive, readily empower others and is open to change.  These leaders need general intelligence, technical or professional knowledge, as well as having an energetic and committed personality, the ability to inspire, to listen, share and delegate, and to understand his/her own strengths and weaknesses.”

This presents a daunting – but realistic – assessment of the role of law firm leadership.  It’s a tall order and not for the faint-hearted.  Leadership for Law Firms offers many insights and ideas, and can be read in one sitting, or dipped into as necessary.  Any law firm leader (new or experienced) should regard this book as required reading.

Not surprisingly, the background of most readers (and interviewees) is the professional partnership.  It is often described with fondness in terms of collegiality, mutual support and longevity.  I’m a great fan of partnership as a business vehicle, because I’ve seen its strengths at first hand in a number of law firms.  But I am increasingly – albeit reluctantly – drawn to the view that partnership is an inappropriate structure for 21st-century legal practice.

One thing that this book did prompt me to wonder (with ‘wonder’ in both its inquisitive and amazed meanings) is whether this pervasive fondness in fact reflects a romanticised but misplaced notion of collegiality.  The reality is that many leaders and partners promote and defend their ‘collegiate’ cultures while at the same time operating in silos, in an environment that encourages internal competition for clients and profits, where the quest for effective cross-selling is longstanding but frustrated, where the dominant philosophy prefers short-term income extraction to long-term investment, and where collective aspirations and management decisions are too often ignored in the daily press of individualistic and self-interested (if not downright selfish) behaviour.

I doubt that this culture can survive for long in the emerging world of legal services that will be characterised by even more competition for work, clients and talent, by new ways of delivering services, and by different ways of structuring, owning and financing firms.  We must hope that the new generation of leaders is up to the challenge of changing self-destructive cultures.

Leadership in Law Firms will provide insight and guidance; it cannot provide a prescription.  Before saying to the followers ‘my door is always open’, new leaders would do well to keep the door closed for a day and read this book.  And when they decide to open the door, perhaps the one thing they should most remember from the book is George’s top tip (on page 83): ‘You can never thank people enough’.

One thought on “Leadership for Law Firms

  1. I am intrigued by the chess metaphor on the cover. It opens many ways of looking at the challenge of being an effective leader with so few of the conventional levers of power and influence being available.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s