A top-class legal practitioner isn’t necessarily an ideal law firm leader, and lawyers can sometimes find themselves out of their depth when it comes to running a firm. Luckily, help is at hand in the form of management programmes designed to hone their skills, finds Ranajit Dam

The debate over whether great leaders are born or made has been raging for decades (perhaps centuries). But within the context of a law firm, one thing is certain: being a lawyer and being a law firm leader require quite different sets of skills. Providing high-quality legal advice to clients based on deep knowledge of the law and a solid understanding of the case at hand is one thing; managing a firm with dozens of employees, keeping clients and partners happy, and plotting a winning strategy for the firm is something else.

It is not surprising that some lawyers find the transition from rank-and-file partner to a law firm leader less than smooth. Challenges such as cost pressures, growing competition and talent retention test their business acumen as well as their ability to come up with a clear strategy. However, help is at hand in the form of management programmes designed to hone their leadership skills, including two that are scheduled to be held in Asia this year.

The first of these was the SAL-INSEAD Law Firm Leadership Programme (SILLP), conducted jointly by the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) and business school INSEAD in Singapore in April. The programme was conceived and designed by Sriram Chakravarthi, senior director and chief legal counsel at SAL. It aimed to help law firm leaders on a number of fronts, including building agile and sustainable law practices, assessing and improving leadership capabilities, and building, leading and motivating teams. “Feedback from participants who attended the inaugural run has been very encouraging and has given us many ideas on how to expand the programme offering going forward,” says Chakravarthi.

Coming up in August is Law Firm Leadership and Management – China, a programme being run in Shanghai by Harvard Business School (HBS) in conjunction with East China University of Political Science and Law. With a faculty chaired by HBS professor Ashish Nanda, the programme has a two-fold objective: to help leaders improve their organisation’s performance as well as bring their leadership skills to the next level.

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Chakravarthi says that law firm partners who are elevated to management, while possessing technical legal competence don’t necessarily possess business management skills such as strategic planning, improving organisational alignment, branding and business development abilities, managing growth and change, and motivating people and teams.

According to Nanda, in law firms, people who get leadership positions are typically are very good producers. “They get there by being very effective at practice of the profession,” he says. “So these tend to be very good, sophisticated, skillful and successful practitioners. But a lot of leadership is about managing the responsibilities of others and managing in the responsibility. This means that you have to have the ability to delegate, to ask for help, to motivate and to trust that others will deliver.”

There is also a transition from production to leadership, where “you move from doing to delegating, you move from being the solution to being the person who asks, from being the person who provides to being the person who requests,” says Nanda. This transition is very challenging, he notes, and very effective professionals are sometimes ineffective as leaders because they tend to micromanage or they lack trust, or they are unable to think strategically.

As lawyers move into leadership positions, they need to unlearn some of the skills and understand that they do not always have all the solutions. “You have to work much more as a team, and you have to be much more effective together,” says Nanda. “I think those are some elements that law firm partners need. What they need to understand is that it is not just the content of whatever they are experts in that will help them to be more productive. [They also need] leadership skills [such as] teambuilding, motivating and delegating. These skills become more important, and some of these you learn through trial and error. Some of these you learn through your mentors and some of these you learn through classroom experience while looking at others working effectively.”

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The HBS programme is a mix of case studies, some exercise, simulations and some lectures, according to Nanda. “All the case studies are from professional service firms, including law firms, investments banks and management consulting firms. We feel that leadership of professional service firms and the challenges that professional service firms create are quite distinct from the situations from commercial or industrial organisations,” he says. “In one case study, we have a fairly large mix of Asian law firms on the one hand and international law firms on the other hand. There is an interplay between how Asian is similar or different from an overall global professional service setting.”

He notes that some of the learning is content which is where participants can look at what others have done, and reflect on whether it works for them. “Very often law firm leaders feel quite lonely in their responsibilities,” he says. “They aren’t able to talk with others within their firm about the challenges they are facing. Many of them are trying to learn leadership through trial and error and through experience. This is an opportunity to look at other professional service firms in a similar context and test out some of their ideas.”

As participants are all leaders in various law firms, the programme gives them an idea of how others view challenges such as the balance between production and leadership, strategic thinking, of motivating and developing people. “We are able to test them out with these people and the context is actually very comfortable and safe so people are able to have a conversation at this level,” says Nanda.

Peter Ni, a partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm, took the programme last year. “The most important skill that I partially lacked was how I thought about the business model of a law firm,” he says. “A law firm might be a people business, but it’s still a business, and a business needs to be well managed. The programme really changed my thinking about how to manage law firms: [I learned] how to formulate strategies, to position the firm in the best way, and to deal with strategic factors in law firm success such as leverage, probability, and growth.”

Meanwhile, Chakravarthi says that SILLP is specifically designed and contextualised to address the needs of law firm partners by providing a management framework that can be applied to address challenges of increasing cost pressures, growing competition, and talent retention issues as well as to enable law firm partners to think about new strategies (including blue ocean strategies) to grow their practices. “The SILLP strives to impart leadership concepts, talent and performance – management precepts, operations management skills and some grounding in the marketing and branding area,” he says. “It also looks at the threat of technology disruption and how to prepare the law firm for disruption in order to stay competitive.”

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