The 7 habits of highly effective law firm leaders


Posted by Nigel Wallis, partner at Legal Futures Associate O’Connors LLP

Chamberlain: Peace for our time

I met one of my favourite authors recently at a book signing. No, not the famous ‘7 Habits’ author Stephen Covey (who is sadly no longer with us) but Robert Harris, whose latest novel ‘Munich’ is set 75 years ago during the negotiation of the Munich Agreement.

The novel is a fly-on-the-wall take on Chamberlain’s leadership in the face of adversity. Whether you think Chamberlain’s paper-waving declaration in Downing Street – “I believe it is peace for our time so go home and get a nice quiet sleep” – was a naïve act of appeasement or a clever tactic that won the nation a vital year to prepare for inevitable war, it makes a fascinating read.

The novel got me thinking about the obvious parallels between political leaders and business leaders and how they behave in the face of adversity. I found myself asking what it is about certain business leaders, and in particular those leading law firms, that keeps their businesses at the top of life’s greasy pole, despite all the challenges.

Winston Churchill once defined a successful leader as someone who goes from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm – a measure I can certainly relate to.

Having been lucky enough to work as advisers to some very successful law firm leaders over the years, we think they share a number of common habits. So, in a fond tribute to Stephen Covey, here is our take on the 7 habits of highly effective law firm leaders.

Habit 1 – They ensure their firms have a clearly defined business strategy

Law firms that have a clear view of exactly what services they wish to offer, to whom and at what price tend to perform better than those that don’t. Those that can demonstrate unique selling points, tend to do better still.

Effective law firm leaders ensure their firms have a clearly defined business strategy that is articulated, internally and externally, with Tigger-like passion and energy.

Habit 2 – They adopt business models that support the business strategy

Law firms that choose the right business model for the type of law firm they want to be tend to perform better than those that don’t. This means selecting and implementing a governance structure that aligns ownership, leadership, decision-making, performance-management and reward in a way that drives behaviour which supports the strategy.

As we all know, what gets measured gets done and what gets rewarded gets repeated, both good and bad. Effective law firm leaders adopt the right governance structure, see that it operates with integrity at all levels throughout the organisation and ensure that the right behaviour is measured and rewarded.

Habit 3 – They invest in business systems that support the business model

Law firms that invest in dynamic practice management systems and technologies that make it easy for every team member to do their job to the best of their ability tend to perform better than those that don’t.

Over the medium to long term, investment in systems that improve efficiency and productivity beats cost-cutting hands down. Effective law firm leaders make sure that every investment decision is well-informed, evidence-based and supports the firm’s business model.

Habit 4 – They empower every team member to deliver their bit

Perhaps the greatest challenge in a law firm is getting everyone working together to deliver the firm’s business strategy.

Effective law firm leaders explain to each team member the role they can play in support of the strategy, empower them to do what they believe is right and give them the management information to enable them to measure and monitor their own performance.

The famous industrialist, Jack Welch, used to say that the best leaders he worked with possessed a ‘generosity gene’, in that they took more pleasure in celebrating the achievements of colleagues than their own achievements.

This gene is not widespread in the legal sector, but it is the foundation stone upon which good communication, consultation and collaboration is built.

Habit 5 – They hire based on stand-out service and sector skill

Law firms that have technical and market know-how that sets them head and shoulders above their competitors tend to perform better than those that don’t.

Effective law firm leaders ensure that their firm’s recruitment, training and personal development plans align to the firm’s key services and sectors and that lateral hires and bolt-ons enhance the teams that are focused on achieving this stand-out market position.

Habit 6 – They allow their firms to have a distinctive personality

Buyers of professional services identify with some law firms more than others (though this is probably the same for any service). If the marketing gurus are to be believed, this is down to the firm’s brand and tone of voice.

Effective law firm leaders play a significant role in the development of their firm’s brand and tone of voice to make sure it aligns perfectly with the type of clients the firm wishes to attract. So, the chances are we all get the clients we deserve.

Habit 7 – They let everyone get on with things when they’re away

If the first six habits are in evidence, the chances are this habit will be too. Law firm leaders who put culture and shared values at the heart of everything they do and empower everyone to do the right thing in any given situation, create a hugely powerful message of unity and purpose.

This is, perhaps, the hallmark of any successful business.





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