For those of you like me who have spent many years working within the legal sector, we will all be familiar with what seems to have become an accepted truism that lawyers do not make good managers. Whilst high on IQ, research has repeatedly suggested that lawyers are somewhat lower on EQ or emotional intelligence as it’s known in the trade. This is a concern as the ability to be emotionally insightful about yourself and others is a quality linked to the most effective managers.

However, even if we accept there is some substance to what has already been published, my own experience of having worked with lawyers has shown that many can be exceptionally good at managing others just as some can be exceptionally bad. More to the point, my own experience has shown me that the very qualities lawyers must have to be successful in their profession can help fast track their development in areas of weakness. The legal discipline understandably places an emphasis on particular professional skill sets that are need to practice law. It unfortunately often neglects broader concepts around areas of soft skills that others in different sectors are invariably exposed to earlier on in their careers. This creates a gap in the learning and development toolkit of lawyers which becomes more exposed as lawyers climb their career ladders towards Partnership and what is essentially a senior management/leadership role. At Blue Pencil, we are acutely aware of these issues as we interface with lawyers and law firms globally on a daily basis and therefore recognise only too well what is now expected from senior lawyers.

Happily, the very fact that lawyers are highly analytical and can be influenced by logic rather than rhetoric means that you have a demographic that can take on board the gaps in their learning providing they perceive the wisdom in doing so. Law firms are becoming much bolder in defining Partnership positions as senior management roles where the technical legal skills are now taken for granted and the emphasis is on broader capabilities. A number of law firms have not only recognised this transition, they have accepted that there is a developmental progression to be gone through. Those that have done this have typically benefitted from a more effective leadership team that also recognises the criticality of the people inputs and relationships that underpin any organisation.

I would argue that for too long the development needs of lawyers have not been adequately catered for which has led in some instances to very obvious examples of poor management practice in law firms. These were perhaps most marked prior to the last global recession when it was easier for firms to survive and be managed in a less sensitive and effective way. 

Having lived through those dark years myself, there is now a more profound recognition that law firms have to be managed by individuals who have broader insights and skill sets than those that just relate to legal practice. Effective Partners are not simply subject matter specialists but knowledgeable individuals who have commercial acumen as well as honed people management skills.

There is no intractable impediment to lawyers being good or even great managers. What they simply have lacked in the past is clear signposting of what progression within a law firm means and what is expected of them when they reach Partnership. Even in cases where certain behaviours may not come naturally, I have yet to come across any senior lawyer who has not willingly engaged in acquiring new concepts or techniques when they know it will benefit them personally and professionally. For those candidates Blue Pencil exclusively represents and who have successfully been placed with clients, we are now looking to implement our own follow up development programme which will take the form of Executive Coaching sessions based around areas that the lawyer feels will be most beneficial to them in their new role.

Many lawyers have in effect been let down by a lack of investment in development time for them as individuals. This is now gradually being addressed and as the emphasis on soft skills becomes more apparent, the incidence of lawyers being good managers will incrementally increase too. “Give them the tools and they will do the job”.

Chris Lipscomb is a Director at Blue Pencil Legal and the former HR Director of Al Tamimi, the largest regional law firm in the Middle East. Chris is also a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and was recognised this year as one of the 100 most influential Global HR Professionals at the World HRD Congress in Mumbai.

By Chris Lipscomb, COO of Blue Pencil