Law Practice Today | Leadership 101: Training Programs to Develop Your Firm’s Next Generation of Leaders

Leadership 101: Training Programs to Develop Your Firm’s Next Generation of Leaders

By Patrick C. Dunican Jr.


Most high profile law firm dissolutions since the beginning of the recent financial crisis could be attributed at least in part to a failure of firm leadership, often at multiple levels. Partners were not adequately leading client teams, department chairs were not adequately leading practice groups, and managing partners and executive committees were not adequately leading firms. These flame-outs illustrate, perhaps even more clearly than any law firm success story would, how essential strong leadership is to the long-term health and vitality of any practice, from the individual to the firm-wide levels, and every level in between.

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How Leadership Training Can Help
Successful attorneys have to excel in the practice of law generally, as well as in one or more practice specialties. These skills take years to acquire and perfect, requiring ongoing professional development and continuing legal education. It should not be surprising, then, that many lawyers have not had the time or resources to develop the skills that propel them even further in their careers, skills that help them effectively sell, manage, and lead. Since the ultimate responsibility at a law firm for everything from securing a single new client to mapping out a visionary growth strategy lies with lawyers (despite varying levels of administrative support), why shouldn’t firms offer leadership training to their attorneys? Firms should view leadership training in the same way they view CLE classes and provide a high level program to outfit their next generation of leaders with leading-edge techniques and practical instruction to guide their firms to the future. Such training should initially focus on the first level of leadership – partnership – to teach basic business development skills that can then form the foundation for preparation for the highest level management and executive functions.

Our Firm’s Example: the Gibbons Leadership Academy
At Gibbons, we created the Gibbons Leadership Academy training platform in 2011 to identify the next generation of firm leaders and equip those attorneys with the business development tools to advance their careers to partnership and beyond, imparting the most valuable tactical and strategic instruction for raising their professional profiles, developing new business, providing stellar client service, effectively overseeing complex matters, and, eventually, honing the management and executive skills they need to successfully run the firm.

As a result of the Gibbons Leadership Academy, current firm management has been able to distinguish several people for consideration for future leadership roles, based on marked improvements numerous attorneys have demonstrated in the management of their own practices and the client service and matter teams to which they currently contribute. Some of the components of our Leadership Academy programs are outlined below.

Partnership: the First Level of Leadership
Generally, the first step toward a leadership role at a law firm is achieving partnership. Partners are expected to attract new clients to the firm, which is often their initial foray into leadership, by serving as relationship partners for these clients they bring in or as partner-in-charge for any large or complex litigations or transactions they bring in. By attracting new revenue sources to the firm, partners also show leadership by directly investing in their firms, extending viability and strengthening bottom lines in previously untapped ways. The problem is, many attorneys have no idea how to develop this new business. A comprehensive leadership training platform should start with the basics.

  • Setting Goals and Action Plans:
    Primary programs should target associates moving toward partnership, as well as newly promoted partners, to help set goals within the context of current business reality and the internal and external forces that necessarily will impact their achievement, while taking into account such metrics as time, cost, quality, measurability, and alignment with firm goals. Training should provide concrete guidance in setting forth action steps that attorneys can realistically take to achieve their goals and should direct them to any knowledge management or other resources to support them. Attorneys should also learn, early in leadership training, how to communicate their unique practice and service characteristics, concisely but distinctively, and develop “elevator pitches” for their firm and individual practices.
  • Building Relationships:
    Virtually every action step an attorney will take to advance a career development and leadership plan relies on relationships. Attorneys need to understand the most effective ways to communicate and forge connections with other firm attorneys, both senior and junior to them; firm administration and other employees who support them in various key ways; current clients they serve; potential clients; and referral sources, to name a few. A good leadership training program should guide attorneys in the art of building relationships and working their networks, teaching skills that range from identifying potential clients all the way through effective networking, emphasizing accessibility, responsiveness, collaboration, and openness to new ideas. Role-playing is particularly effective for this kind of training, such as active listening exercises or “mocktail parties” that teach attorneys how to work a room.
  • Building Credibility:
    Just as building relationships is a natural progression from setting goals and action plans, as well as a necessary component to their fulfillment, so is building credibility a natural progression from building relationships. These new relationships being forged will depend a great deal on how much confidence the attorney inspires, as will an attorney’s effectiveness in a leadership position. While continually delivering the best possible work product is, of course, the most important way to build credibility, there are numerous additional avenues attorneys can take to raise their profiles, enhance their reputations, and generally come to be considered authorities in what they do. Not every method will work for every lawyer, however, and even if an attorney is comfortable with a certain activity, training will help optimize effectiveness. Delivering presentations, writing articles or working with the media, participating in bar associations or industry organizations, taking on community or civic roles are a few ways attorneys can build additional credibility. Leadership training can help them determine which credibility-building activities are right for them and undertake them in the most impactful ways.

Building on Partnership Training for Larger Leadership Roles
One recent Gibbons Leadership Academy success story illustrates basic leadership training serving as a launching pad for more institutional leadership. The Chair of our Government Affairs Department attended a program on cross-selling. As the only firm practice based in our Trenton office, with four attorneys and a non-traditional niche, his group could be somewhat isolated. Since the cross-selling course, the Department has experienced a distinct spike in firm-wide referrals, handling one matter, for example, that saved an existing firm client $1 million. In this instance, a training class designed for individual attorneys was adapted for group leadership, with the chair collaborating with his colleagues to define and execute a growth strategy: determining together the kind of new business they wanted, identifying existing firm clients they could serve, customizing service propositions for them, coordinating with those clients’ current Gibbons attorneys to outline best approaches, and tracking outreach and results.

This is a great example of how lessons taught at the individual attorney level can be applied to programs designed for current and potential future leaders of defined teams or internal organizations, including client service teams, practice groups, and executive and administrative committees. In these programs, broader goals are more overtly emphasized, and the tactics and strategies taught are more specifically aligned with the overall vision for the project, team, or internal organization being led. Specific program topics might include broad or specific policy development, financial management, growth strategies, or operations procedures. Because they are designed to impart institutional leadership training, these programs also more closely focus on motivational and inspirational tactics, as participants are now in roles where they are expected to oversee workflow and ensure that attorneys on a given team receive high quality work, meet expectations, manage work loads, and develop professionally.

Structuring a Leadership Training Program
Though every law firm should customize its leadership training platform to its own unique culture, niche, strategy, and vision, there are numerous considerations that should factor into its structure. First, firms must decide if their programs will be internally developed or if they will partner with one of the many top-notch training consultants in the marketplace. The curriculum should demonstrate a logical progression, taking the long view so courses follow sequentially through the different stages of leadership in an attorney’s career, from partnership essentials through executive and management functions. That way, attorneys continually build their leadership skills commensurate with their career phases. Firms might also consider adding a personal coaching component to your leadership training platform, consisting of custom one-on-one sessions with identified future leaders to coax out personal leadership styles.

While extensive planning should go into the program design, firms should ensure it is ultimately adaptable to their different needs at different times in response to internal (retirement, launch or acquisition of a new practice, new client) and external (economy, competitors) forces. And, finally, they must build accountability into the program, so that at least some components are mandatory, measurable, and easily tracked to determine success and justify the investment.

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About the Author

Patrick C. Dunican Jr. is Chairman and Managing Director of Gibbons P.C., an Am Law 200 firm headquartered in Newark, New Jersey, with offices in New York; Philadelphia; Trenton, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware. He was highlighted by Law360 in 2010 as one of the nation’s most innovative law firm managing partners and was named to NJBIZ magazine’s “Power 100” list of the 100 most powerful people in New Jersey business. During his tenure as Chairman and Managing Director, Mr. Dunican has overseen a significant increase in the firm’s revenues and profits, as well as in national recognition of its high-level practice, diversity and women’s initiatives, and pro bono and community outreach platform.

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