I loved practicing law in a law firm. Why? I wanted to be part of a team striving to get better. Now that I am recruiting lawyers, I want to place highly motivated lawyers in law firms that are striving to be the best the firm can be.

Several years ago, I wrote a The Practical Lawyer column Leadership For the Recession and Beyond focusing on leadership and how the recession changed law firms and the practice of law forever.

Nine years later, the economy is booming, but what I wrote back then still applies.

Is your law firm striving to become the best it can be?

If so, my bet is your firm leader has integrity, articulates a purpose other than profits per partner, clearly has a vision for the firm’s future, makes sure the firm is acting consistently with its values and holds people accountable. These answers are fairly obvious.

But, if they are so obvious why isn’t every leader doing what it takes for the firm to be successful?

1. Integrity

A law firm leader must be honest, ethical and credible. In their book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, James Kouzes and Barry Posner reported the results of 1500 interviews with managers across the United States. When asked to identify the characteristics and attitudes they believed to be most important for effective leadership, the number one response was: integrity (leaders are truthful, are trustworthy, have character, have convictions).

2.  Purpose Beyond Profits Per Partner (the Why)

A law firm leader must be able to express the firm’s purpose. James Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies Built to Last define purpose as “the set of fundamental reasons for a company’s existence beyond just making money.”

3.  Vision for the Future (the What)

A law firm leader must be able to express his or her vision for the firm in a way that creates excitement in the firm. Almost nothing energizes people more than feeling they are part of building something special. When President Kennedy expressed the vision that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, people were energized and inspired.

4.  Culture and Core Values (the How)

A law firm leader must be able to both articulately express the firm’s culture and core values and to make sure the firm acts consistently with those core values. In Aligning the Stars, Jay Lorsch and Tom Tierney describe culture as “a system of beliefs that members of an organization share about the goals and values that are important to them and about the behavior that is appropriate to attain those goals and live those values.”

5. Accountability (the What is Expected)

A law firm leader must clearly articulate minimum standards. Actually, “minimum” is not the best word because the standards should actually be very high. Each person should know clearly what is expected of him or her and then must be held accountable with consequences for non-performance.

If you find self reflection uncomfortable, or too touchy-feely, this blog is likely not for you.

One of the lawyers I coach contacted me recently about a program she will be doing on leadership. She asked for my ideas. Here is what I shared with her.

Whether you realize it or not, you are a leader. You do not have to lead a firm or department or office to be a leader. You may even be a first year lawyer, or a law student. You are still a leader, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Over the years when I practiced law, and more recently working with lawyers, I have written and done presentations on leadership. I have always been a student studying leadership.

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Many leadership experts express that the starting point for you as a leader is “finding your voice.” You have to know yourself before you can lead others.

In their book The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition, (there is a new 5th edition) James Kouzes and Barry Posner say:

To act with integrity, you must first know who you are. You must know what you stand for, what you believe in. and what you care most about. Clarity of values will give you the confidence to make tough decisions, to act with determination, and to take charge of your life.

That may sound logical, but how can you clarify what you value?

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Before he passed away, Stephen Covey wrote about finding your voice in his book The 8TH Habit: From Effectiveness To Greatness. He posted a blog on how to do it.

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Based on many things I have read, here are my 10 questions for you to answer to find your voice:

  1. Your Law Firm is holding your retirement party. Picture yourself there. The speakers will include a client, a lawyer in town with another firm who has been opposite you in some matters, a young lawyer in your firm, your spouse and one of your children. What would each person say about you?
  2. Imagine you are older and your grandchild asks: “What are you most proud of in your life?” What would you say?
  3. What lawyer do you admire the most and why?
  4. What lawyer is living the life you would most want to live and why?
  5. What lawyer is doing the kind of work you would most like to do and what is that work?
  6. You want people in your firm, or clients to believe you are the “go to person” to_________________.
  7. What is the work you enjoy most as a lawyer? Why?
  8. What client(s) do you enjoy the most and why?
  9. Imagine it is five years from now. Describe your day.
  10. Over the next five years, what do you want to do? What do you want to become? What do you want to earn? What do you want to learn?

They never taught you leadership in law school and now, as a young partner, you are supervising associates. Where can you find ideas that will help you get the very best from the associates working on projects with you?

One of the very best books on leadership is The Leadership Challenge, now in its fourth edition. James Kouzes and Barry Posner are the authors. In chapter 11, Kouzes and Posner say:

Exemplary leaders understand this need to recognize contributions and are constantly engaged in these essentials:

  • Expect the best;
  • Personalize recognition.

Expect the Best

Kouzes and Posner remind us that growing up we wanted to live up to the expectations of our parents, coaches, and teachers. Do you remember that experience? I would bet you stretched to meet their expectations and felt blessed that they believed in you.

You are playing the same role when you are supervising young lawyers. Have you conveyed that you expect the best and that you believe in them? If you do, your young lawyers will strive to live up to your expectations. They will also become more confident in themselves.

Personalize Recognition

Kouzes and Posner share that one of the more common complaints about recognition is:

far too often it’s highly predictable, routine and impersonal.

They further say:

By personalizing recognition, leaders send the message that someone took the time to notice the achievement, seek out the responsible individual, and personally deliver praise in a timely manner.

One of my favorite quotes from this chapter is:

Leaders get the best from others not from building fires under people but by building a fire within them.

As a coach, when I sense I have been able to build a fire within a lawyer I am coaching, there is nothing more satisfying. I felt the same way when I supervised young lawyers who worked for me.

I bet you have at least one highly motivated, talented young lawyer working for you. Are you building a fire within him or her?

I gave a presentation recently and I was asked a great question:

What have you learned coaching lawyers?

I have learned many things, too many to put in one blog post. But, the one thing I have experienced more than any other is when I see potential in the lawyers I coach and I encourage them to reach for it, they inevitably take it to the next level. I love to see the look in the eyes and hear the enthusiasm in the voice of a lawyer who exudes confidence about his or her ability to attract clients.

In one of my favorite books, Encouraging the Heart, James Kouzes and Barry Posner discussed surveys of human nature. Kouzes and Posner asked:

Do I need encouragement to perform at my best?

Surprisingly, only 60 percent of the respondents said yes. Many said they believed they were individuals with lots of personal initiative and responsibility. Needing encouragement implied they couldn’t make it without a cheerleader.

The authors decided to rephrase the question.

When you get encouragement, does it help you perform at a higher level?

This time, 98 percent said yes.

Encouraging your lawyers is not rocket science, but are you doing it? Kouzes and Posner tell readers that when leaders to their best to encourage the heart, they:

  1. Set clear standards
  2. Expect the best
  3. Pay attention
  4. Personalize recognition
  5. Tell the story
  6. Celebrate together
  7. Set the example

Are you getting the encouragement that helps you achieve at your highest level? Are you giving the junior lawyers in your firm the encouragement that will enable them to take it to the next level? Does your firm give recognition for high performance other than the number of billable hours?