• Jaap Bosman

Our obsession with ‘leadership development’



So far this year I have put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that being a successful lawyer is more about human attributes than about anything else. For clients, legal expertise is simply a given, something clients just expect lawyers to possess. Just like any of us will expect that a dentist knows about your teeth and how to maintain and repair them. Surprisingly in real world conversations I have with law firm leaders, I find a number of them very hard to convince.


The first hurdle that needs to be taken is the acceptance that it is not the legal skills that make a lawyer successful in the market. This is often difficult to accept, as anyone who made it partner has invested years of practice to master the tricks of the trade. Accepting that it is not primarily about this knowledge, might feel like many years wasted. Obviously this feeling holds no ground since lawyers need to learn to master the legal skills anyway. Even if it turns out not to be the decisive factor, a lawyer still cannot do without. A lawyer, just like the dentist, needs to acquire technical skills on the job.


Second obstacle to overcome is the acceptance of Lifespan Learning. Basically what we are saying is that a lawyer is never finished training. There is no such thing as a ‘finished lawyer’, just like there is no ‘finished football player’. Even Messi and Ronaldo still have to participate in training. For lawyers, in reality, personal development stops pretty much once you have about five years of experience. The concept of Lifespan Learning, where you need to structurally develop, learn and improve from the first day you arrive fresh from law school, until your day of retirement three decades later, is somewhat alien to most partners.


Having said that, it is worth mentioning that there seems to be one almost universal exception: Leadership Development. Even those firms that push back against the concepts of focusing on the non-legal skills and of Lifespan Learning, often have some sort of ‘Leadership Program’. We have noticed that Managing Partners and their HR lieutenants seem to find ‘Leadership Development’ a super important and attractive thing to offer to their rank and file lawyers. The question is why?


Clients need lawyers, not leaders


Leadership Development seems to provoke noble connotations. Who does not want to be the next great leader? Who did not secretly want to be like Nelson Mandela or Jack Welch, or Steve Jobs for that matter? Yes, Leadership Development sounds appealing, but the question is do we need this in a law firm?


I would be inclined to say that law firms do not need this and that such programs are in general a waste of time. A law firm is in the business of helping businesses excel by taking care of their legal needs and obstacles. It does not take leaders to do that, it takes smart people with the right knowledge, experience and a lot of human skills. At no point will the client be better served by having a lawyer who successfully completed a Leadership Development program. To put it even more provocative: attributes that make great lawyers, in general make bad leaders. So why do Leadership Development Programs have such a wide appeal?


It seems that poor practice management might be one of the root causes for that. Unfortunately there are still many partners that do not excel in project management and have a difficult relationship with the younger lawyers in their team as a consequence of that. If a partner is bad at project management, the workload for the associates will be irregular and unpredictable. Often work needs to be done ad hoc at the very last minute. This is not an issue if it happens every now and then, but it soon becomes a major issue if it gets structural.


Poor project management also leads to poor training of young lawyers on the legal skills. Partners who manage their practice poorly, often don’t find the time to instruct less experienced lawyers, they falsely believe that it is faster if they do it themselves. Often this goes hand in hand with poor communication skills and lack of emotional intelligence.

To reduce the corrosive and demoralizing effects of this type of shortcomings, law firms are offering training to both the partners and the associates. To masque the fact that a ‘defect’ needs to be repaired, the training is offered as ‘Leadership Training’. No partner wants to be told that he/she is particularly bad at managing their practice or communicating with their team, but every partner wants to be a leader, right?


What I’m saying here is that law firms should stop being obsessed by the concept of leadership and focus on what really matters: being the best possible legal advisor/facilitator to your clients. This would mean embracing and adopting the concept of Lifespan Learning on the 7 core TGO Lawyer Development Dimensions©. Just to refresh your memory, these are: Business Knowledge, Practice Development, Practice Management, People Skills/Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, Presence/Confidence and Integrity. A career-lifetime of training and developing on these 7 domains will help nurture and maintain the best possible lawyers, capable of delivering unparalleled value to clients.


As a parting shot, I need to point out that as I have written before, a law firm also would be well advised to have some sort of partner management development program. This will make partners better in understanding the business model of the firm and will make management transitions much more efficient. This is however an entirely different topic.