Law Practice Today | Three Big Ideas in Leadership Development

Three Big Ideas in Leadership Development

By Nancy Manzo and John Montgomery

What's next in leadership development for law firms? We scanned the latest research and spoke with successful law firm leaders to discern important trends and show how they apply to the practice of law. You'll see how neuroscience can be applied to leadership, tips for retaining and advancing talent, and ideas to help you master your inbox, as well as your thoughts and emotions.

For the first time in history, we have sufficient knowledge about biology, neuroscience, psychology and organizational development to design our law firms for how humans work best.  There has never been a more exciting time for lawyers to develop their leadership capacity.  Partners can learn to lead to optimize associate retention, reduce stress and create happier, more productive work environments.  Here are examples of resources now available to help you design and lead a law firm that is optimized for how our brains work best.

David Rock, one of the pioneers in the field of neuroleadership, has developed an eloquent and simple framework called SCARF to help leaders identify and modulate behaviors that contribute to effective leadership.  These five factors influence whether or not a person will remain conscious and proactive in the frontal cortex of the brain where the higher cognitive functions required in the practice of law generally occur. 

  1. Status – where do I fall in the pecking order? 
  2. Certainty – can I predict the future?
  3. Autonomy – do I have a sense of control over events?
  4. Relatedness – do I have a sense of safety with others?  Are you friend or foe? 
  5. Fairness - is there a fair exchange between people going on? 

SCARF is an effective brain-based leadership model for collaborating and influencing others.  Rock found that each of these five factors activate either the primary threat or primary reward circuitry of the brain.  For example, an associate’s perception that she is not being treated fairly with respect to assignments activates the same brain networks that process threats to one’s life.  Conversely, a perceived elevation of status (e.g., when a senior partner comments on your good work on a matter) activates the brain’s reward circuitry.  The basic idea is to develop an awareness of the five basic factors and adjust one’s leadership style to avoid inadvertently triggering a threat response and optimize opportunities to trigger the reward system. 

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for NeuroEconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has demonstrated that humans perform best in environments where they are loved and trusted.  In a law firm context, love is simply the intention to help your peers and colleagues succeed.  A trustworthy workplace is more productive and stable than one that alternates between hope and fear.  Because the human brain is hardwired for survival, however, many lawyers spend their days in fight or flight response rather than engaging enthusiastically in the work at hand. 

Law firms don’t have to be highly stressful environments.  Zak’s research shows that when we work in supportive environments, our brains produce oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy and helps us enjoy our work and bond with our co-workers.  On the other hand, when we work in unsupportive or hostile work environments, our brains produce cortisol and adrenaline, stress producing chemicals that make us feel miserable.  The choice to design the firm of the future is in our hands.  

Employee restlessness is rising, according to new data from the Hay Group. In 2011, nearly two in every five employees (38%) planned to leave their employers within the next five years, compared to 30% in 2009. Employees are also increasingly concerned about their organizations’ ability to retain top talent.  With the often cited National Association for Law Placement statistic that 75% of associates will leave their firms within the first 5 years, associate retention is a critical challenge facing most firms today.   Where will the future leaders come from if we don’t support and develop our talent today?  Here are some insights for how leading firms with low attrition keep associates happy, engaged and prepared for partnership and/or leadership. 

  1. Provide Training, Coaching and Professional Development.  A recent study on the impact of Coaching within professional development in large law firms shows that 61% of firms are engaging in leadership development training and coaching.  Firms with low associate attrition tend to provide training, business development support, career coaching, and related professional development activities and support. 
  2. Create Flexible Paths.  Associates often juggle responsibilities of both work and home life, regardless of gender.  Firms that provide flexibility in work schedules as well as career paths seem to enjoy lower attrition.  The same coaching study found that a number of firms who provide alternate career paths (outside of associate, income partner, equity party and of counsel) also happen to score high in associate satisfaction (as reported in the American Lawyer Associate Satisfaction Survey August 2012).  Consider starting small by allowing some to telecommute.  Consider offering part-time schedules for a period of time.  Explore the idea of “on and off ramping” to allow for medical or maternity leaves. 
  3. Conduct “Stay Interviews.”  Firms often engage in client satisfaction interviews. Why not do the same with your employees?  Exit interviews are commonly done to find out why employees leave.  Why wait until it’s too late?  Consider asking tenured employees why they stay, what is special about your firm, what might make them leave, and what you can do to improve things.  You might be surprised what you learn.

Each of us walks around with an enormous amount of computational power but without a good instruction manual to tell us how to fully utilize our brain, much less find its control panel.  Our frontal cortex, where lawyers apply logic to practice law, can handle three to seven things at one time while our subconscious and autonomous nervous system process approximately 20 million bits of data every second.

The good news is that we have access to myriad methods of gaining mastery over our brains.  Taming the mind for the law requires mastery over three areas of life: the inbox, thoughts, and emotions.  To succeed as a lawyer and a leader of one’s firm, a person needs a system to keep organized and develop the ability to exert control over thoughts and emotions.  Mastering these three areas allows you to operate from a calm center, and respond to reality appropriately as it arises rather than react defensively to it.

The inbox is the easiest to master.  Anyone in law with the intense pressure to bill hours must learn to manage the constant stream of inputs – email, voicemail, documents to review, client and partner demands, time entry – while juggling the demands of a home life.  Without a system to manage all of these inputs, career advancement and advancement into firm leadership is impossible.   David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, provides a flexible systematic approach to managing the collective inbox of one’s life.  This book should be a required part of every new associate’s orientation package.

Mastering one’s thoughts and emotions is more challenging.  Most lawyers run a constant stream of inner dialog and react from crisis to crisis.  Law school trains attorneys in logic, but not in how to apply emotional intelligence.  Lawyers tend to over-identify with their thoughts as reflected in legal opinions and judgments and the emotions that arise from the stress of meeting deadlines and client demands.  The key to mastery is to realize that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are but merely clouds passing through the sky.  The trick is to access a calm space in our mind through disciplines like martial arts (like aikido and karate), meditation, and mindfulness practices.  Finally, technology is available to help lawyers cultivate a stable center.  HeartMath of Boulder Creek, California, for example, makes a portable device called the emWave which monitors breath and heart rate and provides feedback to train the user to achieve a centered state similar to that of meditation.  Brain Resources Inc. has a software program, My Calm Beat, for desktops and mobile devices that helps a person return to a calm center.

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About the AuthorS

Nancy Manzo is a management consultant, coach, and entrepreneur who for 20 years has helped law firms develop effective leaders and better business developers.  Connect with her at 

John Montgomery is a corporate attorney, entrepreneur, executive coach and writer. He is the founder of Montgomery & Hansen, LLP, a Silicon Valley based corporate law firm and author of Great from the Start: How Conscious Corporations Attract Success.