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What approach to leadership works best for law firms?

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How do we know we are practicing the right approach to leadership?

I am looking here at how our leadership style or personality could determine how well we govern our law firm.

Could a lack of educational training in business management be more likely to create an approach to management that is based purely on personality/personal beliefs? And could this be fatal to the stability and growth of a law firm?

Which works best: The right personality, or an education in business management?

Although leadership and business management has been packaged into a science and has been taught in schools and universities worldwide for many decades, most of us who take on the responsibility of managing a law firm, including myself, do not have in depth training in business management.

What we know we have learnt on the job or (hopefully) through vocational training or self-learning through reading of essentials on finance and business management. I have pieced together much of my own knowledge from management and marketing jobs I have held outside of the legal profession.

Clearly, our knowledge of business management (or lack of it) will have a huge affect on our ability to run a law firm. With knowledge comes good decision making based on tried and tested methodology, and confidence that we are equipped to make decisions that are in the best interests of our business and its employees.

How much of running a business is common sense? Clearly a lot, but having good sense will not be enough to equip us with the ability to safely negotiate our law firm through the complex legislation it needs to comply with, or provide us with the business acumen we need to ensure our firm survives and hopefully grows.

Three leaders who operate outside of their education

Looking at the different leadership styles of Obama, Trump and Branson could help us understand how personality can make a difference to governance. They are similar to many law firm Managing Partners/Directors in that none of them have a qualification in their area of governance; Obama studied Law, Trump Economics, and  Branson left school aged 16.

Trump: Adversarial, litigious, threatening
leader trump
Would we want to do business with Trump?

Trump is a useful example as he runs his business empire in a manner which many members of the public would imagine are typical lawyer characteristics; argumentative, litigious, and not delivering on promises made.

Trump and his organisation have been involved in over 4,000 law suits, and has been declared bankrupt 4 times. According to USA Today, many of these law suits have been brought against Trump and his organisation over non payment of fees or wages.

This approach to business sounds like a lot of hard work, spending on lawyers, and stressful. But does the Trump leadership style of digging in and using litigation as a threat work?  Perhaps not – by one estimate, Trump would have been $10 billion better off if he had simply invested his inherited money in index funds rather than his business.

Obama: Conciliatory, not egotistical, positive
Same old USA behind the nice talk?

Obama has been widely acclaimed and praised for his confident yet humble and conciliatory style of leadership; engaging with persons of all backgrounds and classes, learning local languages and customs, preferring mediation and a conciliatory approach over conflict and threats. All excellent positive personality traits.

Have these traits resulted in an unprecedented period of peace and good relations between the USA and the rest of the world?  No – this year Obama approved the largest defence budget in history, at $583 billion.

This has been blamed on many factors including the increasing cost of military hardware and ongoing conflict in the Middle East, however it’s still massive and points towards a very different reality that lies behind the conciliatory approach – no change from the USA military-might that the world has seen for many decades.

Not so different from Trump after all?

Richard Branson: Happiness, motivation, passion
leader branson
Branson – being good yields great rewards?

So we need to move on to a third leader for a final attempt at looking at whether good management can be achieved through personality alone.

In his book, “The Virgin Way”, Branson breaks down his personal ethos to business management which reads like a child’s answer to the homework question; “Describe good personality traits”.

Follow your passions (but protect yourself against risk), do good, believe in yourself, be happy, have fun, don’t give up, listen more, and communicate among all levels of your company – these are the fundamentals of Richard Branson’s approach to life, and business.

The figures and facts behind the Branson ethos are proof that a fundamentally good and positive approach to both yourself and your business works; despite dropping out of high school he is a self made billionaire with a huge worldwide conglomerate of businesses to his name.

Which personality trait works best?
Positive personality traits work best?

Despite the childlike ethos that “hardened” business persons may scorn, based on reliable statistics which demonstrate his success,  Branson is perhaps the most worthy holder of the title “proven leader” out of the three.

Obama fails as his personal approach to communication has no proven impact on the historically established military based approach to foreign policy.

Trump’s threatening litigious approach has yielded him less than if he had done no work at all.

But my appointed winner (it helps that he’s British), Richard Branson, has made Billions in a true to life Dick Whittington story through his positive outlook and “can do” approach to business.

Need another example? How about self-made billionaire business magnate Alan Sugar (yes, another Brit).

 Could the Branson approach work for law firms?

Clearly it has worked for the wide range of businesses managed by Branson, so it should work for law firms. The fundamentals are empowering the workforce, delivering a business that thrives on positive management and decision making, and being unafraid to explore new ventures whilst ensuring there’s a solid contingency plan should things not go to plan.

leadership risks
Is taking a plunge on leadership without the right education and knowledge risky?

A best-foot-forwards approach to management could be the recipe for success and expansion, with the fundamentals underpinned by a sound knowledge of business and financial management.

But can we do without the education in business management? Despite the progression of the three leaders we’ve examined in this post, in my view an education in business management can only bolster our confidence and ability to manage our law firm successfully, in addition to reducing the risk of making the wrong business decisions due to lack of expertise.

How can we effect a positive approach to law firm management?

For further reading on positive approaches to managing law firms, see the following posts:

– Law firm CEO Rajiv Maheshwari’s 5 Lessons Learnt about Managing Change as CEO of a Law Firm 

– My post How Can we Remain Competitive? on management changes to effect at law firms

– Matt Still’s post The Secret to Great Staff? A and A  on the difference made by recruiting staff with a positive outlook

– Practice Manager Paul Wood’s post Does a Law Practice need a Mission Statement? on developing a mission statement as a method of ensuring business decisions are underpinned by a positive outlook

– See also the Wikipedia entry on Transformational Leadership on a leadership style that focuses on motivation, morale and inspiration to make changes that enhance performance.

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I set up Law Practice Manager because I enjoy sharing fresh and original opinions and posts on law management issues. Facebook and Twitter: @LawManager1 LinkedIn group:

4 thoughts on “What approach to leadership works best for law firms?

  • PaulW
    July 26, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    Hi Martyn, your question highlights the basic tension for all, are we a business or a profession? For me studying later in my career, 40+ enabled me to understand that the profession can benefit from business learning given its current position. Studying for my MA enabled me to see the knowledge of the business world and apply this to the unique environment and requirements of law practices as part of a profession. So for me just being a good business person will not guarantee your success running a law practice, you need to blend the uniqueness of the profession with the individual freedom of running a business.

  • MattStill
    July 27, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Great thoughts Martyn. I often ask myself what a law firm owned by Richard Branson would look like. Not like most typical law firms I’d be happy to wager. Structural management has a place, but traditional law firms are too hierarchical, and risk averse for me. Branson’s ‘Screw It, Let’s Do It’ is a great place to start.

    • July 27, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      Matt it would be fantastic for the name alone – “Virgin Law”!

  • September 6, 2016 at 2:44 pm


    Here’s the thing. Lawyers and law firm leaders are not exposed to enough Excellence in leadership or anything that does not chime with what they know or have done in the past. It sounds hackneyed, but most are driving the business looking in the rear view mirror.

    As a starter, if Richard Branson is an exemplar — I’ve mixed feelings on this given my experience of the trains — then surely managing partners, CEOs or practice managers would start by checking out the best in class, to see how they run things. This is known as the Genchi Genbutsu approach. Genchi Genbutsu means “go and see” and derives from the manufacturing process at Toyota. This principle teaches that in order to really know what is going on in a situation or problem, you must personally go to the source and see for yourself. Also, I think too many leaders stay in post way too long. Family businesses are one thing, but how can a Managing Partner stay fresh and inspired after 20+ years which seems the norm? Shouldn’t they have fixed terms of say 4 years and save in rare cases that couldn’t be extended?

    As to how someone gets to the lofty perch of leader, I would question, absent a formal process, great gobs of external coaching and a buddy or mentor to help along the way, how watching others in the same environs or making lots of mistakes is the best process. As for MBAs and the like, I don’t dismiss them but they don’t make a lot of difference in my experience.

    Finally, as holacracy gathers pace, I see leaders being less and less necessary — see Goffee and Jones’ book, Why Should Anyone be Led by You?

    I could go on but I suspect you get my take on things.



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