New Zealand Law Society - Leadership in law firms

Leadership in law firms

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LawTalk speaks with law firm development specialist Simon Tupman about leadership in law firms.

Within the context of a law firm, what is leadership and how is it relevant?

The last decade has seen dramatic changes in the way law firms operate. Technological advances, generational demands and competitive market forces have all added to the complexity of running a legal practice, hence the increasing need for people with leadership skills.

Unfortunately, many partners, by virtue of their status, see themselves as “leaders” when in fact they are not.

Leadership is not about being aggressive, assertive or in a position of authority. In fact it is the opposite. Leaders have humility, listen and are to be found at all levels within a firm. Leaders have the ability to influence people to change and adapt.

What are the most common challenges you come across faced by law firm leaders?

There are several:

  • attracting leaders of the future – the new generation of lawyers is less inclined to commit to partnership;
  • fee pressure – clients are more discerning and savvy when it comes to paying for legal services;
  • in-house counsel – the rise of in-house counsel is a threat to some private practice firms from both a recruitment and a client perspective;
  • running the practice as a business – some firms still struggle to run their practices as a business, partly because many of their lawyers prefer to see themselves as “professionals” rather than business people or have never had any formal business training; and
  • reluctance among partners to change habits of a lifetime – many partners enjoy the autonomy of partnership and so are left to their own devices, often unaware that their working styles could be adversely affecting the development of the firm.

What are the attributes and skill sets that are frequently found in good leaders?

I believe there are many but essentially a good leader embodies these qualities:

  • ambition – puts the firm’s interests ahead of his/her own;
  • vision – has a clear idea of where the firm should head and what might lie ahead;
  • purpose – appreciates the broader raison d’être and inspires others to believe in it;
  • business acumen – understands what’s at stake;
  • drive – does whatever is necessary; and
  • responsibility – gives credit where credit is due and takes responsibility when things go wrong.

Are law firms doing enough to develop leadership skills?

Generally not. While leadership development is standard in most corporations, law firms have lagged behind their corporate counterparts for years.

This is evident by the amount of time and money invested in leadership development where, in some firms, leadership development is discretionary rather than mandatory.

Given the unique culture of law firms, how can leadership skills help their people meet these challenges?

Leadership skills can enable people at all levels in law firms to bring about change and make progress. While it is essential that there is buy-in and participation at the highest level, the real benefit will accrue when leadership development is spread across the firm, to include legal and support staff.

What will be the real benefits?

There will be many. Those that come to mind include:

  • a vibrant workplace culture;
  • greater propensity to innovate and take measured commercial risk;
  • better communication, both internally and externally;
  • improved quality of work and quality of service;
  • ability to attract lawyer-leaders of the future; and
  • enhanced profitability.

Simon Tupman will be presenting a half-day workshop “The Leadership Challenge”, eligible for three CPD hours, on 23 March in Auckland. Details are at


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