United States: Rejuvenating Corporate Leadership Principles For Law Practices

Last Updated: December 23 2015
Article by Sahara Pynes

Leadership probably wasn't one of the classes you took in law school or one of the topics you studied for the bar examination. Yet now you have a law firm management role, either as a department head, practice group leader or managing partner.  The downfall of too many law firms over the past five years led to much criticism of the model of law firm leadership.  In recent years, law firms have said they were managing themselves  more like businesses.  For some firms, that meant a shift from simultaneous practice of law and firm management by key leaders.  For others, it meant relying on a non-lawyer leadership model.  Many if not most law firm leaders, however, are still balancing an active legal practice with other management responsibilities. Regardless of where your firm falls on the spectrum, let's look at how you can transform your firm by applying corporate leadership principles to law firm management.

Inspire Trust

The most basic factor in successful personal and business relationships is trust. Trust is the bedrock of leadership and the essence of a high-performing organization. If employees don't trust you, they will not respect you and you will not motivate them to realize their full potential.

A national Gallup poll highlighted that less than one-third of employees are engaged. The poll also revealed a better than one in two chance of engagement when the organization's leadership is trusted.  Leadership expert and best-selling author Stephen M.R. Covey characterizes it as Smart Trust, which encourages trust with clear expectations and accountability.  In his research, Covey identifies behaviors that inspire trust in the workplace, including creating transparency, righting wrongs, practicing accountability and keeping commitments. His list of trust-building behaviors includes:

  1. Talk Straight
  2. Demonstrate Respect
  3. Create Transparency
  4. Right Wrongs
  5. Show Loyalty
  6. Deliver Results
  7. Get Better
  8. Confront Reality
  9. Clarify Expectation
  10. Practice Accountability
  11. Listen First
  12. Keep Commitments
  13. Extend Trust

Before trust can permeate an organization, great leaders build trust on a personal level. This means setting the standard by which individual partners and associates will measure themselves.  Set an example by getting time records in, mentoring younger colleagues, returning client phone calls and modeling other desirable behaviors.  On a broader level, be sure the firm's mission and values are reflected in its daily culture by incorporating them into your actions and interactions with firm members. As a firm leader, every touchpoint is an opportunity to reinforce these ideals, build trust among the ranks, and offer inspiration.


Great communicators walk the fine line of frank communications without over-communicating. The best communicators know how to listen and observe. They have the uncanny ability to assess nuances, dynamics, attitudes, values and concerns of a group setting. Not only do they read their environment well, but they adapt their messaging to said environment to achieve maximum impact.

Building on the importance of establishing trust in both personal interactions and broader firm communications, here are a few tactics to enhance your leadership skills through communication:

  • Build personal connections to establish rapport. Great leaders aren't locked behind closed doors in meetings all day. They need to understand who they are inspiring and leading. Be present at firm happy hours and events where you can mingle among staff and get to know them.
  • Be proactive and specific with firm communication. With the accessibility of legal blogs and mobile news, you don't want members of the firm to hear anything through the grapevine. Clear and specific direction from your organization will help maintain trust and support.
  • Establish a culture where feedback is constant and productive. An effective open door policy encourages communication between employee and management, allowing concerns or differences in opinion to be aired before becoming insurmountable obstacles. Giving employees access to management on a regular and informal basis engenders loyalty and trust.


Many law firms are still not using the ubiquity of social networks to enhance employee interactions and collaborative projects as well as other sectors do.  Research shows that leadership participation is crucial for collaboration. Leaders fear that engaging will close the power distance between them and their employees, lessening their ability to command and control. However, collaboration enables employees to have a voice and be active participants in the organization's shared goals, so that all employees are invested in each other's success. Being technologically "social" gives leaders another outlet to build collective trust and communicate shared values and goals.

Whether you have an internal social networking platform or prefer existing user-based networks like Twitter or Instagram, these avenues offer employees another opportunity to be heard and connect with management.  CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have shared that employee responses to their tweets far surpass any internal survey responses both in volume and in quality of ideas. To get started with sharing, identify the platform your employees are already using. Then think of what information you can share that will inspire someone to take action toward achieving a key objective. You could share the highlights of a new law or a news article that reinforces a strategic decision.  As a leader, the key is to use the collaborative information you receive in order to shape specific outcomes.


Great leaders leave a lasting legacy by taking the time to develop the next generation of leaders. Yet the future of talent development is rapidly changing and many law firm leaders are left without the resources to address these developments. The single-biggest shift in training is the evolution of the continuing education model.  Consider some of these non-traditional talent development tools to enhance employee satisfaction and loyalty.

Gamification, mobile learning, and adaptive learning are at the forefront of effective talent development. All three of these tools shun a "one size fits all" learning model and provides a more engaged user experience. We now know the best way to reach millennials is in bite-sized nuggets and through video content.  Gamification is an emerging learning model that has not yet permeated the legal industry. The Tennessee Bar Association has been a leader in this area, and has developed a handful of CLE games, like "Constitution Mountain Ski Adventure," focusing on Due Process, Equal Protection and the First Amendment. Law firms with existing content can partner with a technology provider who can assist in converting the material to a gaming platform.

Mobile efforts have fared better. Both West LegalEdCenter and Practising Law Institute allow users to download CLE courses with their mobile apps, enabling an associate waiting for a court hearing to effectively use her down time.

The message in talent cultivation is providing the right development for the right individual. With a move toward an adaptive learning program, employees learn at their own pace and can be monitored individually in real time to determine what learning approach will best suit their needs. It helps enhance employee engagement and retention by providing a flexible learning option while building confidence and overall expertise.

While law firms certainly differ from traditional business models in many ways, you can borrow much from the best business leaders to lead your law firm to a future of sustainability and success.

Previously published by Law Practice Today

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Sahara Pynes
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