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Essential Leadership Skills for Successful Law Firm Partners

As the practice of law evolves, so too must your leadership and management skills. This is especially true for law firm partners and others in roles of significant responsibility in their legal organizations. Beyond substantive expertise, successful partners are distinguished by their leadership capabilities. And as the needs of our associates, colleagues, and clients change, you have to be deliberate about growing in ways that will continue to support them.

You're navigating complex legal and business environments, often under significant pressure. You're accountable for the firm’s success and play a critical role in shaping its culture and future. This means you need a diverse set of skills that go beyond traditional legal knowledge. If you want to guide your team or your firm to future success, you need to master a few critical leadership skills. Here are some of the key competencies that every law firm partner needs to thrive.


Know Yourself

Self-awareness really is the cornerstone of effective leadership. To lead others, you must first understand your own strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations. Having deep self-knowledge allows you to lead authentically, make decisions that are aligned with your principles, and cultivate relationships built on transparency. Taking time for self-reflection is crucial because it provides the insight needed to grow, improve, and figure out how to communicate what is most important to you. A key addition to self-reflection can be regularly seek feedback from trusted colleagues and mentors. This sort of external perspective on your leadership can offer new insights on ways to improve.


In addition to self-reflection and external feedback, consider engaging in professional development activities such as leadership workshops or coaching sessions. These opportunities can provide valuable tools and frameworks for understanding your leadership style and its impact on others. They can also bring awareness to your emotional triggers and stress responses, which can help you more successfully manage high-pressure situations. This kind of awareness can prevent knee-jerk reactions and promote more thoughtful decision-making.


Care About Others

Empathy and compassion are crucial for building strong relationships with your team and clients and developing an authentic care and concern for them will create stronger relationships. Caring about others means understanding their perspectives, valuing their contributions, supporting their growth, and demonstrating genuine concern for their well-being. This fosters a positive work environment and encourages loyalty and collaboration. It can significantly increase morale, engagement, and productivity, while decreasing turnover.


Caring about others is largely a perspective shift. When you're able to think about your team and your colleagues as individuals and not just assets, you'll begin to engagement with them differently. A few concrete actions can both facilitate your perspective shift and start to demonstrate your interest in others.


Develop your active listening skills. As good as lawyers are at synthesizing information, we often struggle to listen actively because we default to listening for action, or listening to solve problems. This is certainly part of our professional skillset, but understanding when and how to shift from listening for action to active listening can make meaningful differences is the effectiveness of your communication.


Another way to demonstrate care is through mentorship and constructive / instructive feedback. Neither of these things needs to take up all your time. When done with intention, your investment of .1 or .2 hours can yield a tremendous return in both output and quality of work or in engagement and loyalty. This is the sort of investment you kick yourself later for failing to do.


Build Trust

Trust is the foundation of every successful relationship. As a law firm partner, building trust with your team, clients, and colleagues is essential. Trust is earned through consistent actions, honesty, and integrity. When people trust you, they are more likely to collaborate openly and support your initiatives. Trust also facilitates smoother conflict resolution and enhances team cohesion.


Building trust involves being open and honest about your intentions and actions. Share your vision and goals with your team, and keep them informed about important decisions and changes. This transparency helps to build a sense of collective purpose and alignment.


I think two other actions are amazingly effective at building trust. The first relates back to caring about others. Act curiously. Be interested in what those around you working on and how you can help them. This is easier than it might seem (and, again, doesn't require as much time as you might fear). The other is to admit your mistakes and accept responsibility when that responsibility falls to you. For instance, when working on a client matter, an associate's mistakes are your mistakes. Berating an associate in front of the client might feel good, but it undermines your relationship. When you underwrite others' mistakes, you empower them to act more boldly and with more autonomy. This doesn't mean you don't point out mistakes or teach associates how to fix or avoid errors, but the method is key. Getting it right can significantly strengthen your credibility.


Communicate Clearly

It goes without saying that lawyers should be able to communicate clearly. But we often fall prey to the same habits as leaders in other professions. We make assumptions about how our communications will (or should be) received, frequently interpreting our message through the intent with which is was written rather than the words and context with which it is delivered. Clear communication ensures that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.


In the context of supervision, clear communication when delegating work or providing feedback can streamline work product delivery and accelerate associate professional development. This is another area where time does not need to be a barrier. You just need to reframe how you're thinking about delegation and feedback. One of the things I teach my clients is how to give feedback 20 seconds at a time. It is possible. And when done regularly, you are able to impart knowledge and develop skills without spending hours at a time.


Think Strategically

Strategic thinking is a business imperative and it involves more than understanding how to 'win' the matter in front of you. It involves long-term planning, risk management, and innovation. Partners who think strategically are better equipped to anticipate challenges and seize opportunities, ensuring the firm’s growth and sustainability and the continued health of your practice.


Like other leadership requirements, strategic thinking is a skill you can develop. You need to stay informed about industry trends and emerging issues that could impact your firm or your area of practice. This involves continuous learning and a willingness to incorporate new information into your thinking. At the outset, though, strategic thinking requires you to become adept at finding the right problem to solve. Without the right problem in mind, every solution is the wrong one.


Act Ethically

None of us like to admit that this is harder than it looks sometimes. As a partner, your decisions and actions set the tone for the entire firm and ethical leadership means making decisions that are not just legally compliant but also morally sound. The integrity and reputation of the profession rest on our collective commitment to acting ethically.


Develop a decision-making framework that incorporates ethical considerations; teach and encourage your team to do the same. This framework should include evaluating the potential impact of decisions on all stakeholders and seeking input from others when faced with complex ethical dilemmas. It doesn't have to be rocket science, but it does have to be baked into how you and your firm operate. And it should be framed around your personal and organizational values.



You may list or define your critical leadership competencies differently. And the details of how I describe them sometimes changes. But at their heart, trust, transparency, empathy, and passion are key to creating the conditions for others to grow and thrive. And taking care of others -- our colleagues, associates, and clients -- is what leadership as a law firm partner is all about. The fact that great legal leadership translates to professional success is a great bonus.

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