This is a great question! As a senior leader, you are probably high-achieving, have strong vision, are motivated to make an impact and want to get s$^5 done (yesterday)!
This can make it challenging to work within a change-adverse environment, where collaborative decision-making slow down action and execution. Add to that, lawyers are trained to find flaws in arguments, and you (necessarily) bring a completely different lens to management. Add this up and yes - leading in law firm management sometimes feels TOUGH.
But you are here. And its probably because its a rewarding professional experience in some way and you believe that you can make a difference to the firm and its people.
Taking into account that two seemingly conflicting things can be true (there are challenges AND rewards), you are wise to be intentional with you how you lead yourself as a law firm manager.
After 15+ years as a law firm leader with a national scope, and extensive experience coaching a number of leaders in law firm management in regional, national and international firms, here are my ideas for maximizing your success AND your fulfillment.
Seek alignment on your strategic goals and why they matter to the firm. As a senior leader, your role exists for a reason and its not to maintain the “status quo”. Get agreement with your key stakeholders on the high-level (strategic) goals for your role and why they matter to the firm. And then translate everything related to the work you do and the expertise that you have in terms of helping the firm achieve that mission. This becomes the guiding principle when talking about you, your performance and your priorities.
Show people that you are serious about your career and role. I have seen the same dynamic play out time and time again: when we take our careers seriously, other people take us seriously. Be proactive and ensure that you have regular meetings with key stakeholder where your strategic goals are reviewed. If you are facing roadblocks to doing your best work, name that in a professional way. Take every opportunity to share your strategy (you have created a strategy for your department, right?), and the impact you and your team are having in front of key stakeholder groups.
Build your “relationship currency” and a strong internal personal brand. Your ability to get things done is directly impacted by the trust you have built across stakeholder groups. You must proactively building trust and relationships across all segments of the firm (employee category, practice groups, locations etc). Find opportunities to get face time and engage in conversations about your work and how it makes life better/easier for people (empathy is a powerful connector). When you know and understand your stakeholders and what matters to them, you will be able to create more momentum for your initiatives.
Resist the urge to only focus on relationship-building with current partners; there are influencers at all levels of the firm and a whole “next generation” of partners with different views and values around business.
Quantify (quantify, quantify) and speak about investments vs expenses. In law firms, financial decisions are made by the owners of the firm, who are (likely) not financial experts. Short-term profitability tends to be prioritized over longer-term investment. There is often a hesitancy to spend on infrastructure that would be table-stakes in a corporate environment (and which ultimately saves money and increases profitability in the long term). As a law firm manager, you should be educating partners on hidden costs - namely, the cost of the status quo and missed opportunities. Speaking in terms of investments will support you in getting the resources you need to achieve your mission, and to do your best work. [If you need ideas for calculating these costs, DM me.]
Have a sponsor at the firm that is not your boss. This might be the CEO or an influential partner. The point is - an influential stakeholder who is not the person you report directly into - should know you, your work and your goals, and they should be prepared to advocate for you in rooms that you don’t have access to. Take matters into your own hands and conduct your own “stay interview” and be transparent about what does and will keep you at the firm.
Identify the “glimmers” in your role. What are the small things that bring you excitement, joy and engagement? Maybe you are mentoring a team that you absolutely love? Maybe you get opportunities for really meaningful work like charity drives or DEI initiatives? Perhaps you are really excited that you’ve been able to push a change initiative that no one else was able to accomplish?
These glimmers may not make up 100% of your day, but if you can find enough alignment between your work and your values, that can be a powerful antidote to some of the more challenging stuff.
Celebrate your wins. I am going to guess you are a high-achiever. As such, you are probably counting all the things you haven’t been able to do vs what you have done. This tendency can make work our work feel like a slog. Acknowledge that you are working within a complex and change-averse environment, and the wins you have - although they may feel small - are likely significant. Do yourself a favor and counteract the human negativity bias by keeping a “brag book” - this will serve as objective evidence of everything you have accomplished and bring to the table.
Do what is right for you. It can be challenging to be a progressive, impact-driven leader in a change-adverse industry. There are ways we can manage this tension but if you get to a point that you are feel - more often than not - that you re not engaged, not able to do your best work or your wellbeing and/or confidence is suffering, it may be time for some different reflection questions.
We need innovative and progressive leaders in the world of law firm management to change things up and build more human-centric cultures. I hope this list will help you find the success and fulfillment you are looking for.
And If you’d like some support in navigating your leadership in a law firm, email me at email@example.com.