Lawyers very largely think they’re selling their expertise in law – and yes, they are. But more than that, they’re selling supportive relationships. In the future, this is going to be more and more of what they’re selling rather than just law – because, after all, a lot of law is going to be google-ised.
In an era when effective people management and entrepreneurship are more integral to success than ever, lawyers are still regarded as lacking. LSJ asks why.
There’s no doubt that being a good lawyer involves mastering the technical side of the law. But more than ever in today’s rapidly evolving and increasingly competitive legal world, it’s not just the black-letter side of law that’s important. Lawyers also need a range of soft skills, such as effective people management and business acumen, to succeed. In spite of this, experts say big gaps remain in the skill-sets of many legal practitioners.
But why? And what can lawyers do to fix it?
Soft-skills deficits and siloed teams
When it comes to a record of poor management inside law firms, People & Development Director of Norton Rose Fulbright Robyn Whittaker says the prevalence of small and “siloed” work teams has been a major factor.
Whittaker says project teams often consist of a couple of partners, a small number of lawyers, and a support person. This results in an absence of an organisation-wide approach to developing relational skills, such as leadership.
“People’s leadership capabilities were developed by whoever it was they worked for,” she says. “Some people are naturally good people leaders, but not very many. So, if you were lucky enough to come up under one of them, you learned how to lead people. But if you worked under someone who was ineffective at leadership, you learned bad habits.”
Whittaker adds that inside many law firms – the big ones, at least – recent times have seen a shift to a more “relational” culture model, where skills like leadership are increasingly valued.
“Leadership in the past was autocratic – as in, ‘I’m telling you and I’m in charge’. But that’s all changed to a much more engaging model of leadership over the past decade.”
Partners are part of the problem
According to global organisational development company Human Synergistics, in some ways firms haven’t changed all that much. Managing director Shaun McCarthy says there’s still a tendency to reward gifted legal minds with promotions at the expense of talented all-rounders.
“People are promoted on their technical ability,” he says. “The better the lawyer you are, the more likely you are to ultimately be a partner, and one assumes the better lawyer you are the more you generate revenue, so you’re even more likely to be a partner.”
He also points to an inability of people high up in firms to switch from behaviour geared towards winning cases to that suited for creating successful workplaces. Lawyers, and especially litigators, he says, often take their adversarial courtroom approach into the office, leading to outcomes like high staff turnover and a toxic, unproductive culture.
“They are trained in what we call ‘oppositional behaviour’ – to find fault, to prove a point, and to do things perfectly. It’s also extremely high attention to detail – often when it’s not necessary – and a tendency to create a culture where hard work is rewarded,” he says.
“But they fall into a trap when they manage people, because none of that stuff works. We have 40 years of research on that.”
Dr Bob Murray, an organisational psychologist from Fortinberry Murray, goes a step further. He argues that current discussion around the disruptive effect of technology on the legal profession is seeing firms placing less value on their people. This, he says, is a mistake.
He instead urges firms amid the current “rush to technology” to invest more in their staff so they are transformed from lawyers into what he terms – borrowing from Italian – consiglieri.
“When you look at law, what they are selling and what they think they’re selling are two completely different things,” he explains.
“Lawyers very largely think they’re selling their expertise in law – and yes, they are. But more than that, they’re selling supportive relationships. In the future, this is going to be more and more of what they’re selling rather than just law – because, after all, a lot of law is going to be google-ised.”
Broader professional experience needed
Another factor contributing to poor people management at firms, according to experts, is too few practitioners with experience outside law who know what good culture looks like. That’s why Collette McFawn, a partner at Lander and Rogers, is thankful she had a career in retail before becoming a lawyer. Indeed, she credits her experience in retail management with laying a solid foundation for interacting with colleagues and dealing with external clients as a family law specialist.
“I had a general management role and through that appointment I received incredible training in terms of people management, and management generally,” she says. “Those skills – although they’re in the retail sector – are transferable in whatever profession you move into. It’s the same principles. They invested a lot in their people and, in turn, had good retention. It was terrific.”
McFawn, who has grown the firm’s Sydney family law relationship practice from a team of three to 13 in just a few years, says what she learned in her previous life is still paying off.
One of the big lessons from retail, she says, is that “your internal clients are equally as important as your external clients, sometimes more so”.
“If we look after our people, they in turn deliver excellent service to our clients and understand what they need to do,” she says. “What that taught me is that if you make a commitment to meet with people internally, you don’t blow them off so you can go out and meet with external potential clients. Your people are just as important, and they need to feel that way.”
Law schools letting graduates down
Law schools stuck in the past are also to blame for turning out graduates lacking cultural competency, according to Queensland-based Business Depot. Jacob Aldridge, a consultant with the business advisory firm, says many lawyers are hesitant or fearful of developing their management skills because they don’t learn the basics at uni, describing the academic training undergraduates receive as “a world of right and wrong”.
His comments come amid wider debate in legal circles, both in Australia and overseas, about pinpointing the skills young people need to successfully navigate work in the 21st century.
Increasingly, legal fraternities are acknowledging that while obtaining and retaining knowledge remains at the core of the profession, it is only one of many capabilities young lawyers need to survive and thrive.
Even so, debate continues about whether non-core skills, most recently in relation to coding, are helpful additions to the already-crowded curricula of the nation’s law schools.
“Managing people is a permanent grey area,” Aldridge says. “This means management training is quite different to the comprehensive training legal professionals are used to.”
The flow-on from the traditional approach at law schools, he says, is that people management “doesn’t seem relevant” as youngsters move into the real world.
“Growing a practice requires a director or partner to take risks, which, by definition, is attempting something without a certain outcome. That uncertainty is quite different to the confidence with which successful lawyers otherwise approach much of their client work.”
Growing a practice requires a director or partner to take risks, which, by definition, is attempting something without a certain outcome. That uncertainty is quite different to the confidence with which successful lawyers otherwise approach much of their client work.
Too many lawyers ‘fire-walling’ failure
New York-based Jonathan Fields, securities lawyer-turned-best-selling author of the book How to Live a Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom, believes lawyers tend to perform badly on the management side of practice, or as entrepreneurs, because they have the wrong outlook.
While Fields believes most lawyers are smart, hard-working and “insanely capable”, their technical skills are “often at war with critical elements of the entrepreneurial mindset”.
“As a lawyer, a substantial part of your job is to forecast every conceivable thing that can go wrong for your client, then protect against it,” says Fields. “This ‘fire-walling failure’ mindset is a key to your job as a lawyer, but it is total disaster for the role of entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to understand risk, but they also need to be pathologically optimistic.”
In his view, this makes it entirely predictable that lawyers, when they bring their “protect-and-defend approach” to business and entrepreneurship, often end up in a mess.
“Everything they’ve been taught and everything they’ve practised has instilled an approach to risk, action, uncertainty and possibility that wars with the mindset needed to succeed in the world of necessary blank canvases and undefinable outcomes,” he says.
Katie Richards, the founder of Australian-based online law firm Virtual Legal, echoes Fields’ comments. She attributes the success of her disruptive legal company, which she founded in 2013, to shifting her mindset from that of lawyer to businessperson.
“It’s a world totally outside what we do in law,” she says from Brisbane. “We are trained from young in our careers to not give advice or act outside of what we’re good at, and that’s obviously a risk thing. Lawyers are very risk averse. Business is risky.”
On top of conquering the mental side of things, she nominates marketing as another reason lawyers often do poorly in the world of business. According to Richards, this aspect of running a firm is especially important in today’s fast-moving digital economy where competition for clients is fiercer than ever.
“Lawyers don’t like to sell themselves,” she says. “A lot of people feel like it cheapens what we do, but the fact of the matter is that every time you open your mouth you’re pitching something, so it’s either positive or you’re just wasting oxygen.”
For lawyers in small firms who want to improve their business management skills, or are keen to launch a legal business, Richards says she benefited greatly from getting a business coach, setting up a support group, and undertaking formal training in business and commerce.
As a lawyer, a substantial part of your job is to forecast every conceivable thing that can go wrong for your client, then protect against it. This ‘fire-walling failure’ mindset is a key to your job as a lawyer, but it is total disaster for the role of entrepreneur.
Awareness of skills gap is key
For any of these practical steps forward to be possible, whether at the big or small end of town, lawyers must first be made aware of their failings, according to Deakin University adjunct professor Zivit Inbar.
Inbar says it’s this “breaking through” to lawyers, whether related to conflict resolution, networking, building rapport, presentation skills, leading teams, delegation and control, or how to drive performance, that is key to starting the process of self-improvement. After this has taken place, she estimates 18 months for meaningful change to occur. As Inbar puts it, “Law firms take very good care of the hard skills. It’s the soft skills that stop lawyers from growing as lawyers and people, and those take time.”
No matter how long it takes, Norton Rose’s Whittaker says, for law firms, it’s worth it.
“The reality is that 10 years ago we were in a war for talent and now we’re back in it,” she says. “So people have finally cottoned on to the fact that staff engagement, people satisfaction, and retention is critical to success.”