The outdated notion that there is a perfect template for leaders, and some people are simply not properly equipped for leadership is at the heart of much of the struggle around leadership that many lawyers have. For lawyers in in-house teams, this is also linked inextricably to the struggle around how what they do is valued by the wider business.
This tension often comes from a sense that a lawyer’s value in the organisation comes only from their legal advice. It also stems from traditional conceptions of the legal department as a team that may be very divorced from the workings of the wider business and that exists only to either rubber stamp deals or to say no to opportunities – the classic designation of ‘the department of no.’ This can make lots of lawyers feel they ‘have to stay in their swim lane,’ as one general counsel told me, and keep their focus on issues pertaining to legal advice in executive meetings. But is this a result of how lawyers are perceived or how they perceive themselves – or a complex mixture of the two? The answer will depend on a range of factors, including the organization they work in, the historical role of lawyers there, the attitude of the CEO and the individual lawyer’s own mindset and comfort with themselves.
Another factor which contributes to a certain amount of tension vis-a-vis leading for lawyers is the sheer amount of time and effort which goes into amassing the knowledge of how to be a lawyer. This may, of necessity, cause the leadership aspect of their professional life to take a backseat and many can struggle with this push and pull between technical specialism and broader business skills such as leadership. Management consultants and coaches who work in law and other industries which have a similarly high bar for technical training (such as medicine and technology) report a similar phenomenon in those fields.
Professionals , such as lawyers, who have a high level of expertise are the ones who can struggle most in the current business environment, partly because it’s not just their expertise that makes them a great leader.
This also is due to the fast-paced changes happening in the world of work. These manifest as businesses where change and innovation are at a premium; globalisation has produced new ways of working and selling. Leadership is now increasingly having to work across much flatter organisational structures – a fact that is certainly true of many legal teams. But it’s not just about lack of promotion prospects or limited number of Vice President titles. The very architecture in which people do their work has changed. Now remote working is much more likely to either be the norm or a proportion of professional workers’ daily experience. There’s also increased travel for all levels in organisations not just the top executives. These may not seem immediately relevant to the idea of leadership but, globalisation and, now, different ways of working are changing peoples’ relationship with their workplaces. What this can lead to is a disconnect between their sense of self, their sense of self at work and their relationships with others such as colleagues and team members, all of which can make leadership a challenge.
Dr Catherine McGregor MCMI ChMC
Consulting, Thought Leadership, Training
+44 (0) 7753 196264