Legal insight: Playing to strengths

PM+M partner Helen Clayton looks at how law firms can consider the strengths of their wider team to achieve their objectives.

Whatever your views on the B word, I do wonder whether our country and its leadership team have really played to their strengths. Planning, communication, strategic thinking, the big picture – all areas that have a significant part to play in successful execution. Given my experience in advising law firms, I relay these thoughts to the legal profession – do law firms really let their people play to their strengths for the benefit of the whole firm, for the development of individuals and their teams around them and for the securing the future of that firm?

Business development

For a significant amount of time, law firms are unable to rely on new instructions flowing in through the proverbial front door.

At the corporate level, relationships are key meaning people skills, rapport building and emotional intelligence are a priority. Such relationships are built over time; they are not produced on the back of one meeting.

In delivering legal services to individuals, the firm’s selling point and differentiators need to be clear – is it price, quality, value and/or speed of turnaround, or something else entirely? Further, different generations demand varied ways of interacting and firms must be aware of this.

Given the different skills that could be required when taking all of this into consideration, do law firms have the right people to build relationships to secure new or indeed recurring work?

Do firms have the right people to deal with the infrastructure, IT and digital side to ensure this is kept relevant, efficient and provides an appropriate method of communication?

Leadership

History shows us that leaders of law firms came about through time served and probably strong technical knowledge. History also shows us that these people are not necessarily great leaders.

Great leadership involves taking people with you, fantastic communication skills and being able to engage with everyone within the firm and all external stakeholders.

Whether leadership can be taught could be debated for hours. We do know that leadership skills come more naturally to some than others. Therefore, who is best placed to lead a law firm? It just might not be the highest biller who has 5 years left until retirement.

Surely the highest biller has their own strengths? Perhaps they provide a first-class client service or have great technical knowledge which retains clients and commercial acumen when it comes to billing. If I were running a law firm, I would let them focus on doing just that.

Does a leader need to have clients? An age-old question for newly instated managing partners. My view is that it certainly helps the individual to remain at the coalface. Interactions with external stakeholders, including clients, enables a leader to remain focused on enhancing the quality of the firm’s people, its brand and ultimately, its vision and strategic goals.

Behind the scenes?

As an accountant, time and time again, I have witnessed finance and cashier functions being remote or disjointed from the rest of the firm. This is repeated across other ‘behind the scenes’ functions including HR, IT and administration.

Why though? These functions are as important and should be working in partnership with the law firm. The firm is a business and its success relies not just on the people winning the work and the people delivering the services.

If the business is truly working across all functions and communicating well, it will support the success of the firm and its long-term security. Further, it will help to engage people more, create stability across teams, minimise disruption and facilitate seamless change across the business as and when required.

I would urge the leadership and management teams of all law firms to consider strengths of the individuals involved. Are you really playing to strengths? Exploit these for the benefit of all.

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Helen Clayton
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