The Chosen Few: why successful lawyers don’t always become successful leaders.

09 Sep 2016 | 5 min read

standing out from the crowdThere is limited over-lap between the qualities that make someone an effective lawyer and those required to successfully build and manage a law firm of practice area.  Edward Walker, director of Anima & Atman, examines the link between personality and leadership potential and the implications that this has for law firm succession planning.

Measuring potential

Most people who come into regular contact with lawyers will agree that they are ‘a bit different’, although the anecdotes offered to justify this point of view will vary – and some will be more flattering than others!  But what exactly are these differences and are they a help or a hindrance?

Research has shown that cognitive ability and personality are both important predictors of leadership potential.  Assessing cognitive ability is a key aspect of most law firm selection processes but personality testing is used far less frequently.  This means, while most firms can be confident that they are recruiting ‘smart’ lawyers, valuable information is often missing, when trying to identify lawyers with the potential to succeed in leadership roles.  Unsurprisingly, promoting the wrong people into strategically important roles, can have a highly negative impact on a firm’s financial performance.

My research used a psychometric test called the High Potential Traits Indicator (HPTI) to measure six personality traits that have been found to predict leadership potential.  The findings are based upon the responses of over 100 UK-based commercial lawyers, whose test results were compared with those of over 1500 professionals working in other industries.

Too cautious to lead?

Analysis of the data showed that on average there were significant differences between lawyers and other business professionals in their attitude to ambiguity and risk.  The results suggest that lawyers are more likely to try to avoid problems or situations that involve high levels of uncertainty or that are perceived to be difficult or threatening.  While this type of behavior may be highly adaptive when performing the role of lawyer, as it can help clients avoid making mistakes and getting involved in costly litigation, it is likely to undermine leadership capability.

Interestingly, these differences were not replicated when the analysis was restricted to lawyers operating at partner-level, especially those who held senior management positions.  Instead partners’ personality profiles were on average more similar to other business professionals than lawyers as a whole.

The leadership double-bind: constrained supply but excess interest

Law firms need a steady supply of potential leaders to replace partners exiting the firm.  Unlike most businesses that can, if they wish, recruit individuals with proven leadership experience from other business sectors, the partnership model restricts law firms to a talent pool that is exclusively lawyers.  If leadership talent is relatively scarce then alternatives to the partnership model that offer greater hiring flexibility will become increasingly attractive, although at the moment the appetite for change in many firms is limited.

While the number of lawyers with genuine leadership potential may be constrained, there remains an over-supply of lawyers seeking to become partners.  Many of these individuals will be successful fee-earners but that alone cannot be justification for promoting them to partnership.  Firms, therefore, need to find a credible way to retain these talented individuals, whose leadership potential is limited.

The future of legal careers: multiple domains of potential

There are a range of options available to law firms who want to improve their succession planning.  While some suggested changes are more radical than others, they typically relate to either the recruitment or development of lawyers.

Lawyer Development
  • Most law firms have a single model of potential (or no model at all), which reinforces the linear career path with partnership at its apex. By recognising that there are multiple domains of potential, of which leadership is only one, law firms could develop a range of different career paths for lawyers with different types of potential.  Linked to this, firms would also need to think very carefully about how different types of potential are rewarded and the message that this sends about what the firm values.
  • To complement the above approach law firms also need to have honest career conversations with their lawyers. Lawyers who do not have the potential to become a partner need to be told this, so alternative career paths can be discussed.  Failure to do this will negatively impact on retention and may result in valuable development opportunities being mis-allocated.
Lawyer Recruitment
  • Firms struggling to identify suitable leaders may find personality testing a useful addition to their selection processes for both lateral hires and trainee solicitors. Considering a wider range of factors may also allow firms to show increased flexibility in other domains e.g. reducing minimum academic requirements.  This may have a positive impact on diversity.
  • A more radical solution would be to move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ selection process for lawyers and instead introduce more specialist ‘technical’ and ‘leadership’ streams, that have specific career paths attached to them. This approach is successfully used in a range of other industry sectors, such as engineering and financial services.

A more detailed summary of the research can be read by clicking here.

Edward Walker is founder and director of Anima & Atman, specialists in the identification, development and retention of emerging talent and former graduate recruitment manager at Pinsent Masons LLP.

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