Four years ago, in a conference room full of aspiring leaders, an argument ensued. A vocal member of the group had taken umbrage with the committee’s designation: The Young Leaders Group. While not especially offended at the intimation he was younger than his peers, he argued the association implied these lawyers, ranging in age from early-30’s to late 40’s, lacked a level of maturity. He went on to point out many in the room currently held and had held leadership roles for many years. The moniker, he said, undermined their authority and positions in the firm. Though seemingly trite to some – who doesn’t love quibbling with lawyers over word choice – the sentiment hit the mark. Others responded and a new title took hold: The Next Generation Leaders.

In firms around the world, a similar discussion is underway. A new crop of leaders is gearing up to take the helm. Like their brethren before them, they have little in the way of formal experience or training for the roles they are about to inherit. More pressing, the demands on today’s lawyer leaders are more complex and nuanced than ever before. A 2018 Legal Executive Institute report, The State of Law Firm Leadership, by Patrick McKenna and David Parnell reports a stark 80% of firms believe challenges are either “more complex” or “almost overwhelming at times” compared to 5 years prior. Initial feedback and findings from The Survey of Law Firm Professional Development, co-produced by LawVision Group and The Tilt Institute, reveals few firms have formal, systematic programs in place to equip lawyers with the broad range of leadership and business skills required to manage and lead multi-hundred-million – or multi-billion – dollar organizations.

Taken in combination, the outcome of feeling overwhelmed is not surprising. How can an individual unprepared, untrained and poorly informed in sophisticated business operations be expected to feel mastery in a new, unfamiliar role – especially in the face of game-changing shifts such as the potential redefinition of ownership models by the California or Utah bar association (a move which would open up the market to a broader and, let’s face it, more business-savvy competitor set)? What it will take to set these new leaders minds at ease is twofold. First, law firms must arm themselves with sophisticated, well-trained business professionals to support and guide them through the evolution of the industry. Second, these same firms must create environments in which these professionals will succeed.

It is this latter opportunity, in many respects, that is the more challenging. Evidence abounds indicating law firms have yet to make this critical transformation – to embrace business professionals and all they have to offer. This is where the next generation of lawyer leaders comes in. With the proper preparation, these leaders can have the greatest and most profound impact on their firms. Who better to herald a new way of thinking and a new approach to doing business than these up-and-coming leaders – so many of whom, already, buck traditional ways of delivering legal services in favor of efficiency, the use of technology and a greater sense of balance.

For the next generation of leaders to truly flourish will demand a substantive investment on the part of firms, as well as a willingness of current leaders not only to make this investment but also to embrace (or at least not stymie) the resulting ideas and approaches which will inevitably result. Three core areas where incoming leaders are likely to have the greatest impact based on industry trends and changing dynamics are:

1.       Cultivating Cultures that Thrive
Business experts across the globe, from Dan Ariely to Simon Sinek to Dan Pink, expound on the importance of work environment for the cultivation of talent and competitive edge. In a wealth of theories, from debunking myths about compensation being the core driver of employee performance to isolating the value of articulating a company’s core mission to internal and external constituents, business leaders and academics demonstrate a company’s culture has a power far beyond the feel-good notions of the past. Extensive studies indicate traditional concepts of what makes a good company culture (e.g., “easy, happy” places to work) are at odds with actual outcomes.


Law firms are no exception. To ensure long-term viability, top law firms will delve into core facets of their culture – and compensation systems – to establish opportunities for their unique, talented workforce to thrive. Though experts vary in their exact recommendations, the underlying messages are consistent and clear. For professionals whose roles require critical thinking and creative problem-solving, a sense of purpose and safe, supportive environment are essential – and, incidentally, monetary rewards above a certain threshold matter little.


Myriad indicators of law firm culture, unfortunately, illustrate many firms have considerable growth to do in this realm. Cultural assessments of law firm clients reveal a tendency for law firms to prize Perfectionism, an attribute antithetical to personal growth. Dr. Larry Richards’ work with attorneys shows a natural propensity toward skepticism which can manifest in constant criticism of others’ ideas and create insecure workspaces. And let’s not get started on the discrepancy between rewarding hours v. outcomes. Culture, by far, will be the greatest opportunity for the next generation of leaders to make their mark.


2.       Tackling Talent Development and Scarcity
Connie Brenton, Chief of Staff and Senior Director of Legal Operations for NetApp, recently penned an article detailing the talent shortage being created through the growth of ALSPs. In it, she enumerates the types of qualities ALSPs seek in their hires, a list that reads like a catalog of “Top Traits for Tomorrow’s Lawyers.” She includes such characteristics as “self-starters who can problem-solve on their own,” “have very good people skills,” and “are not focused on status.” She goes on to argue the threat ALSPs are creating to the overall talent pool of lawyers could handicap law firms in the future.


Connie’s point is spot on. The way in which law firms have traditionally hired, staffed and developed Associates is antiquated. Further, the actual skillsets which will define future generations of successful lawyers are markedly different than when today’s leaders took their first steps into the hallowed halls of their graduate institutions. Law schools are slowly responding to these shifts (thanks in no small part to the work of leaders such as Bill Henderson). A number of law firms, too, are beginning to do their part, investing in Chief Talent Officers, new psychometric hiring tools and professional development. Overall, however, the industry still has a way to go to ensure their talent model will transform and evolve to keep up with demands of the future.


3.       Leading Data-Driven Change

Leading change, as anyone who has attempted it (and John Kotter) knows, is as much an art form as a skillset. Tacking on the added element of incorporating data and analysis into related change initiatives creates a high-impact, and high-demand ask of blossoming leaders. The legal industry is far from unique in its efforts to become more data-driven. It is, however, hamstrung by its own history moreso than other sectors. Law firms have had little motivation until recent years to accurately capture, maintain and integrate various internal systems to produce reliable measures of internal operations, financial performance, talent development or even client service and satisfaction. Many, thus, are just now engaging in exercises to be able to use the wealth of information at their fingertips for competitive advantage.


Then, of course, there is the added dilemma of what to do with the data once firms have it. From data integrity through to the elusive ability to motivate attorneys to change behavior (any behavior), law firm leaders are decidedly at a disadvantage. Whether for the purposes of understanding the firm’s actual profit margins, deepening insights into client relationships or exploring “blue water” for strategic advancement, next generation leaders taught the intricacies of how to leverage insight into action will have a decisive marketplace advantage.

While these three facets of preparing the next generation of leaders are vital, they are by no means a comprehensive list. There are other essentials and areas to explore, such as the threat (and opportunity) of AI and, perhaps most importantly, the requisite exploration of self-awareness as a precursor to becoming a great leader in any realm. Alas, these are topics for another day.