Chris Lipscomb questions whether law firm partners are equipped with the leadership skills they need for their role.

Chris Lipscomb is COO of Blue Pencil, a global legal recruitment company. Aside from advising clients on suitable candidates for their opportunities, Blue Pencil provides interview skills training and coaching/development for lawyers in the UK and globally.

Writing a blog for lawyers can seem like an intimidating brief. However, having spent the last 10 years working with lawyers, I do feel qualified enough to share some observations which I hope you will find helpful.

Prior to working within the legal sector, I have worked with a variety of different occupational groupings. These range from civil servants, through to doctors and head teachers. If I had to single out one group I found most interesting to work with, it would be lawyers. Some may find this counter intuitive as lawyers themselves know they can have a reputation for being challenging to work for.

To put this in context, my experience of head teachers was that a disproportionate number of them were highly directive individuals who were often unwilling to hear intellectual arguments that contradicted their views. This is generally not the case for lawyers who have a ravenous appetite for analysis and like to reflect before taking a stance. My own experience also highlighted that lawyers can be surprisingly open to persuasion if they feel someone has value to add.


Chris in his office

However, it is because lawyers are clever people that their development needs in key areas can easily be overlooked, especially at partner level. The partners of a law firm are responsible for driving the overall employment experience for others. This is no mean feat and requires a broad understanding of how you can effectively manage people.

Any lawyer’s experience of the firm they work for is related to the way in which they are managed – hence the old adage that “people leave managers not companies”. The consequences of poor management for morale, employee wellbeing, productivity and ultimately the firm’s reputation can be very serious and are usually reflected in high staff turnover.

As lawyers develop their careers, the real challenge they face is that senior law firm positions are less about technical prowess than they are about managing others to succeed. For lawyers, this inevitably means being placed in situations removed from being subject matter experts to ones that are more “shades of grey” because they relate to people.


Chris chatting with an aspiring young lawyer

Dealing with those you are responsible for and helping them to contribute effectively places a premium on your “emotional intelligence”. How we “read” people and understand the impact we have on others are all part of this. For most of us, managing people requires an additional skillset that is often overlooked.

I would argue that too few law firms have understood the people nuances that accompany partnership, focusing instead on skills around business planning/development and revenue growth. Whilst these are all key, they are themselves dependent on a team effort to get their practice where it needs to be and for this it is important to have an awareness of what people look for from managers to perform at their best.

At the point I was leaving my previous firm, I was very pleased to see that there were course modules for senior lawyers on soft skills such as story-telling, ‘meaning making’, as well as coaching and mentoring skills. We had also jettisoned standard performance appraisals, which partners hated anyway, and replaced them with a new “Open Talk” approach. This approach was based around the latest thinking on techniques to encourage ongoing dialogue – an approach we now advise on at Blue Pencil. A number of large international firms have now started to go down this route but I know from speaking to many lawyers who are partners that communication and soft skills can all too easily be overlooked.


How we relate to each other in any organisation, not just law firms, is a key determinant of success. You therefore need to understand what strategies you might need to employ to manage a diverse cohort of individuals. I have witnessed at first-hand how easy it is for a newly appointed partner to come off the rails when they have had no prior experience of managing others or development to support them with their roles.

Technical prowess is one thing but the ability to motivate and understand those around you is quite something else and should not be taken for granted. Lawyers are clever people but law firms can do so much better if they recognise that even clever people need support as the focus of their responsibilities shift.

At the heart of effective management is the need for managers to be connected to those they manage. Connecting with others requires an investment of time for regular dialogue well as an understanding of the strategies that can help you to maintain effective connections. In many ways, employment relationships are no different to marriage – they need to be continually worked on in order for you to get the best results. By looking at partnership development more holistically, law firms will also be helping themselves to maximise their true productivity.


Chris with the office Labrador, George

I recall when we introduced externally sourced executive coaching for partnership candidates, the initial scepticism was soon replaced by a recognition that this should have been embraced a long time ago. It is only by ensuring that those who manage others have the right skill set that law firms will be able to maximise their true productivity and revenue potential.

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