Developing future leaders

Posted by Andrew Otterburn, founding member of the Law Consultancy Network

Otterburn: Management and leadership are different

“If we were running real businesses, we would be identifying future leaders in their 20s and 30s and fast-tracking them – whereas in most law firms people first have to prove themselves as a lawyer, and earn high fees, and only then, when they are probably in their 40s or 50s might we think about whether they have what it takes to lead the business.”

This was a casual, almost throw-away comment from a colleague co-facilitating a managing partner retreat with me back in February, but it set the scene for the next 24 hours – how should law firms identify and then develop their future leaders?

It is an issue picked up by one of the managing partners present, who highlighted the difficulty with developing the next generation of leaders, building strength in depth and trying to encourage vision in more junior people. In no particular order he thought that:

  • Lawyers were often very good at waffle and how everybody else could improve but tended to then go back to their day job and carry on exactly as before;
  • Lawyers tend to manage not lead because they are task oriented; ad
  • Being managing partner needs full engagement, which takes a lawyer out of practice and is therefore a considerable risk to the individual, especially if they are relatively young, as they will need a role after their period as managing partner.

The issue with which he was grappling was how to encourage colleagues to start thinking about vision and leadership earlier in their careers. How do we avoid bringing forward unprepared people?

We talk about talent management, but that means retention of key fee-earners to fee-earn. What about talent management in having the right people to lead?

Each firm is different and will have its own issues. However, I think the solution involves:

  • Having a reasonably clear plan for the firm and understanding how the partners would ideally want it to develop over, say, the next 10 years;
  • Understanding what is needed in terms of management and leadership, and recognising that management is different from leadership;
  • Identifying the skills and characteristics that are needed;
  • Identifying people with these skills;
  • Creating alternative career routes for people with these skills that might fast-track them into leadership roles in their early 30s;
  • Helping them to develop their management and leadership ability through training;
  • Providing opportunities for them to practice and develop these skills; and
  • Ensuring the firm’s reporting systems do not undermine what you are trying to achieve.

Taking each of these in turn, I recommending considering what ideally your firm might look like in 2025 or 2030. What management and leadership structures would you need to run that firm?

Management and leadership are different and call for different skill sets. Management and administration is concerned with day-to-day business activities and the production and delivery of services.

Partners will be involved in this but there will be aspects of management that are better done by professional managers;

Leadership is about taking a longer-term perspective, setting long-term goals and describing an overall vision. You have to motivate the people who work with you to buy into and achieve that vision.

The people who tend to be great at this invariably have good people skills; in particular they are good at listening. They are also able to actually take decisions and avoid getting bogged down. They are able to take a longer-term view.

Psychometric tests can be really useful in helping people understand themselves and what they are good, and not so good at.

Myers Briggs is one of the better-known tests, and Belbin is also a valuable tool in understanding how people behave in groups. Tools like these are often helpful in reinforcing your gut feel that someone has what it takes – and the sooner you start doing this, the better.

Use tools to assess people’s skills at the recruitment stage and as they qualify and start fast-tracking people with the skills needed to be a future leader when they are in their late 20s and early 30s. Try to offer alternative career routes.

Another good way of identifying people with leadership skills is to see how they interact with their peers. Much of my time now is spent running in-house management skills programmes in firms and these provide a great opportunity to observe junior people working in groups with their colleagues.  Potential leaders will often stand out.

Most firms provide soft skills training in a range of areas, but the skills future leaders are likely to require revolve around dealing with people, understanding the figures and developing and implementing strategy.

Firms that are large enough to provide such training in-house can see associates or junior partners develop as a group – they learn from each other and begin to understand each other better, and a much more sophisticated team can develop as a result.

Also, you should put these people in charge of a team or an office – give them an opportunity to make mistakes and develop as a leader.

We need fees but many firms place too much emphasis on individual fees and in such practices it becomes much more difficult to convey the message that non-fee-earning is also important. Make sure your financial reporting does not have unintended consequences/

And finally give people time because they will be unable to manage and provide leadership if they do not have that most precious of commodities.


    Readers Comments

  • Jez Nelson says:


    I agree with most of this article. Working for one of the UK’s prime leadership development organisations, we utilise experiential learning to develop an individuals own leadership capabilities. I have found in the past however that there seems to be some push back from legal firms at a more senior level to attend external leadership courses, as ‘being away from the office’ restricts the ability to earn fees. I think we should all practice what we preach and developing future leaders is incredibly important. However, developing ourselves is just as important. I agree with your point about allowing individuals to learn from their mistakes, but we allow them to learn from those mistakes in a safe learning environment that does not impact a business. Great read. Thank you.

  • Barry Wilding-Webb says:

    Andrew, thank you for your interesting and insightful article. I am currently running a 10 strong internal leadership and Management Development programme for new and soon to be partners, where we do distinguish between Leadership and Management. Among my challenges is convincing them that time away from fee earning to learn from each other is an investment in the firm for the future. That future is somewhat VUCA as the rate of change is exponential and decision-making becomes complex with no clear outcome or ‘right’ solution. Modern law firm leaders are having to unlearn the old ways and re-learn radical new skills which often go against their traditional personality types. No-one said this was going to be easy, so I have embraced a blended approach that enables different learning styles to engage with the content at times that suit them and doesn’t detract from their essential fee earning. Karpe diem!

  • Simon Tupman says:

    “Running real businesses…”. Therein lies the problem doesn’t it? Until law firms see themselves as businesses and run themselves as such, they will struggle with leadership.

  • Brendan Dillon says:

    Andrew,Very insightful piece.We earn a lot of money advising,among other things,businesses on good business habits.It is hard to get away from the “f” word as without fees we cannot develop our Practices but I agree that long term vision and identifying key people is crucial to maintain growth and to ensure the Firm’ s culture and ethos is maintained.

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