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Leadership skills you should build as your law firm starts hiring more people

You probably read legal journals, take CLE courses in ethics, and talk shop with other lawyers about the nuances of litigation. If you’re like most legal professionals, you probably don’t spend a ton of time developing your leadership skills.

That’s a mistake.

Sure, lawyers and paralegals should absolutely build up their legal acumen. You need more than legal skills to lead a law firm, though.

Top leadership skills for legal professionals

As more and more small to medium-sized law firms embark on periods of growth and expansion, the growing pains they experience make it very clear:

Legal skills are not the same thing as leadership skills.

It’s not just the partners who need these skills, either. From senior partners to newly appointed team leads, each leadership role comes with its own set of challenges and responsibilities.

On top of guiding a team through legal matters, law firm leaders are also responsible for fostering professional development, team dynamics, and personal growth within the firm. People in key roles help create culture, and their leadership — or lack thereof — has a direct impact on your law firm’s performance.

Leadership is a broad term, though. Let’s explore some of the specific skills you should build to support your growing firm.

Navigating the challenges of a diverse workforce

A diverse workforce brings a range of perspectives, experiences, and skills, enriching your firm’s capabilities and approach to problem-solving.

Managing a diverse team, however, requires leaders to be acutely aware of and sensitive to varying backgrounds and viewpoints. You must create a respectful environment where everyone can speak up and be heard.

Create psychological safety

In a diverse law firm, there are a lot of different viewpoints, and it can be hard for people to navigate their opposing opinions.

A psychologically safe environment is one where people feel secure bringing their whole selves to work. You should learn to manage discussions, set clear behavioral guidelines, and model respectful listening behavior.

Ask people to share their opinions, and teach everyone to disagree respectfully.

Remember that disagreements are often the best way to find brilliant solutions — if everyone agrees all the time, then the good ideas aren’t coming out.

Address unconscious biases

Start with yourself. Do you know your unconscious biases? Harvard’s Implicit Association Test can help you recognize some of your subconscious and unconscious prejudices.

Next, educate your team. Having a bias isn’t inherently wrong — we all have biases — but allowing those biases to negatively impact our coworkers and clients is not ideal. It’s up to each of us to recognize and actively manage those personal feelings.

Teach intercultural competence

It can be quite a challenge to communicate with people from other cultures and backgrounds. Gestures, expressions, and body language can all have very different meanings depending on the cultural context.

Even within a single state, we’re likely to encounter clients and professional connections who have dramatically different backgrounds than our own.

Connecting and communicating across cultural divides is important. When you’re going to work with someone from a different cultural background from your own, help your team learn and respect their norms.

Bridging generational divides through leadership

Your workforce spans multiple generations, each bringing its own set of values, work ethics, and expectations. Difference in communication styles and conflicting views on workplace standards can make it very hard to work with peers from other generations.

Strong leadership is crucial in bridging these generational divides.

Understanding the most common differences between age groups is a good start, but also remember that you’re working with individual people who are not defined by their birth years. Millennials might be a lot more likely to hate phone calls, but that doesn’t mean your millennial employees will always refuse to pick up the phone.

Smart leaders will foster an environment where experience meets innovation, where the wisdom of seasoned lawyers harmonizes with the fresh perspectives of younger attorneys.

How do you do that?

Much like cultural diversity, teaching respect is a good first step. Talk regularly about the advantages of youth, the value of more life experience, and the good that comes from teaming up with people who have a different perspective.

Create opportunities for cross-generational collaboration and mentorship, and make sure that it’s not a one-way street.

Obviously, younger legal professionals can learn from those with more experience, but older employees have a lot to learn from their younger peers, too.

Leaders of multi-generational teams must be adept at communication that resonates across generational lines. Set clear rules about how and when communication happens, especially if you’re working with a hybrid team.

Effective integration of new hires into existing teams

Growing means hiring a lot of new people. Bringing those people into the team is a challenge by itself, and handling an influx of new folks all at once is quite disruptive.

Integrating those new people into your team is more than just onboarding; it’s about weaving new talent into the existing fabric of the firm’s culture and dynamics. You’ve got to set people up for success at both their job responsibilities and their place within the team.

Make introductions and encourage open communication. Foster an environment where questions are welcomed, whether new people are asking you or turning to their peers for help.

It’s also essential to clarify roles and expectations early on, helping new hires understand exactly where they fit within the team and how they contribute to the firm’s objectives.

Assigning each new hire a mentor for support can further smooth this transition, and prevent newcomers from falling prey to the instinct toward an overly isolative, nose-to-the-grindstone mentality.

Adapting to legal industry trends

Effective leaders in law firms need to be adaptive, guiding their teams through changes with a forward-thinking mindset. You can be enthusiastic or cautious about change, but, no matter how you approach it, you still need to navigate industry shake-ups.

Is keeping up with the latest news just not your thing? Odds are good that other people in your firm like it. Empower those people — put them in charge of bringing the most relevant stories to the rest of the team.

Embracing innovation is critical, but so is maintaining the core values and ethical standards of legal practice.

Balancing these aspects is a key leadership skill, ensuring your firm remains competitive and relevant.

Building a culture of continuous learning and improvement

Another critical hallmark of effective leadership in a law firm is fostering a culture that values continuous learning and improvement.

This culture encourages your team to stay updated with the latest legal developments and develop soft skills crucial for team dynamics and client relations.

Champion professional development opportunities for your team like workshops, seminars, and mentoring programs. Encouraging team members to share knowledge and insights can also enhance collective expertise and foster a collaborative environment.

Moreover, as a leader, demonstrating a commitment to your own development sets a powerful example for the team, reinforcing the idea that growth is a perpetual journey, not a destination.

Core concepts for effective leadership

Related skills such as emotional intelligence, which involves understanding and managing one’s own emotions and those of others, are vital in a high-stress environment like a law firm.

Communication skills, particularly in conveying complex information clearly and empathetically, are also crucial.

Conflict resolution strategies are of the utmost importance, too, as leaders often need to navigate and mediate disputes within their teams or with clients.

Applying these theories in daily practice involves not just understanding them but also adapting them to the unique context of a law firm, where decisions often have significant consequences. As you build your career development plan, invest some time into each of these frameworks.

Resources for further learning

For those interested in deepening their understanding of leadership in the legal context, numerous resources are available.

Books like Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership or Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer provide insights specific to legal professionals.

Online courses on platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera offer sessions on leadership, team management, and emotional intelligence.

Professional associations and law societies often host leadership webinars and workshops tailored for legal practitioners. Additionally, joining legal forums and networking groups can facilitate knowledge exchange and provide support from peers navigating similar challenges.

Building people leadership skills is not just about managing more individuals; it’s about nurturing a team that is cohesive, adaptive, and aligned with the firm’s goals and values. The journey of developing these skills is ongoing, demanding continuous learning and adaptation. Embracing this journey can transform both your leadership style and the future trajectory of your firm.

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