New ABA book offers advice on leading lawyers

Jane Pribek, The Daily Record Newswire

Analytical. Skeptical. A high degree of urgency. A preference for autonomy. A lower need for social interaction. Resistant to change. Thin-skinned.

While not entirely flattering, these are traits typically found in lawyers, all of which can make us more difficult to lead, according to a new book published by the American Bar Association, “Learning from Law Firm Leaders.”

But a tough task equates to higher pay, right? Wrong.

A 2011 survey found that Goldman Sachs’ CEO made $14.1 million that year, while General Electric’s took home $15 million. In 2010, by contrast, 17 law firms had gross revenues of more than $1 billion, while another 40 had revenues exceeding $500 million. Yet, their leaders earned no more than their partners, and considerably less than their firms’ highest-paid rainmakers.

To top it off, the job law firm leaders do is becoming more challenging, as well. They are expected to maintain concurrent, busy practices.

Firm leaders are dealing with lawyers representing several generational mindsets, from Traditionalists (born before 1945), Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and in a few years, Gen Z or Generation I (Internet).
Firms also are more diverse than ever before, with women representing 45 percent and minorities 19 percent of law firm associates.

And, of course, the markets for legal services, and technology, are ever-changing.

So, why would anyone want to tackle this daunting task?

Based on interviews with 31 firm leaders (none from Wisconsin, unfortunately), the book’s authors, Susan Manch and Michelle Nash, conclude that neither money nor power motivates them. Rather, it’s the intrinsic
rewards: a desire to help, feelings of responsibility and gratification when goals are achieved.

The leaders interviewed almost universally reported having effective leadership models, as well as being given opportunities to lead even when they were relatively new lawyers.

But effective firm leaders also possess attributes that aren’t necessarily acquired through experience or taught at workshops, such as openness to learning, self-awareness, an honest communication style, vision, and the abilities to listen with empathy and inspire others.

To me, the most fascinating part of the book is the chapter dedicated to women and minorities in leadership — or, to be more precise, their absence.

Women, it states, have made up roughly half the law student population since the mid-’90s. Yet a National Association of Women Lawyers survey of data collected in 2010 and 2011 from “biglaw” in the U.S. reported 11 percent of firms with zero women in leadership and 35 percent with just one. Dismal statistics.

As for minorities, this particular chapter doesn’t quantify their underrepresentation as firm leaders. But, interestingly, it does cite a Minority Corporate Counsel Association study undermining the assertion that large firms don’t hire minority lawyers because their academic credentials aren’t strong enough.

The MCCA surveyed more than 1,800 “highly successful” law firm partners, and found more than half didn’t go to a top-ranked law school. The book observes, “It appears that many of the partners practicing today — white or otherwise — would fail to meet the recruitment standards of their own firms.”

This well-researched book would obviously be valuable to those who aspire to lead or are leading a large or medium-sized firm. There’s not much there for the solo or small-firm lawyer, however.

It would additionally be helpful to lawyers looking, short term, to choose their next firm, office or practice-group leaders, because of its lengthy checklist of questions that outline the core competencies of lawyer leaders. It also contains an entire chapter describing a model yearlong leadership development program for firms thinking of starting one.

If you’re in either group, this paperback is probably worth the (hefty!) $79.95 price tag.