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  • Writer's pictureLisa Dawson

Building a Successful Law Firm

Originally published by LexisNexis Canada, February 12, 2019

There are certain traits that successful law firms share. They all begin with leadership. There have been many studies (McBassi & Company, Greenfield Belser, Thomson Reuters, Altman Weil to name a few) detailing the skills and attributes of successful law firm leaders. Leadership is a mindset. These studies and our collective experience form the basis for our series.

Where skills are learned, attributes are more the personal qualities or natural temperaments of who we are. Understanding and working with both is essential for strong leadership. For example, the managing partner is usually in the leadership role by default. Often the founding partner assumes this title. Typically, this individual has not had direct training or coaching to develop their skills as a leader, or business director. Yet typically they have direct control or influence over the way the firm is run.

Most lawyers will have their “lawyering” skill set fairly well honed: Analytical ability, attention to detail, logical reasoning, persuasiveness, sound judgment, writing ability and others. At the same time, successful leaders require skills to formulate and articulate a shared vision for the firm: lead the fight for constructive organizational change; empower and develop lawyers and support personnel; work collaboratively with the management team; develop problem solving and multiple options thinking skills; make tough decisions; establish both firm goals and performance goals for all lawyers and support personnel; seek input from others while coaching and developing others; confront and deal directly with internal and external (client) conflict and communications problems.

Whew! No small order. If you are a managing partner/owner of the law firm, you know what a tug-o-war this is. The good news is, skills can be learned. Ongoing leadership training and coaching will address this. It is not taught at law school, but it certainly determines the degree of a law firm's success.

Attributes are more innate and part of our personality temperaments. They are subtle, soft-skill qualities that reinforce what you say and support your desired actions. So, the second part of being a successful leader is to know what kind of leader and person you are. This insight to one’s own personality dimension and that of others, equips one with leverage to influence others, negotiate with influence and successfully lead others.

Lawyers in leadership positions cannot inspire confidence in others if they cannot manage their own emotions and formulate a vision for change or action. Lawyers in leadership situations must have the ability and inclination to listen to their lawyers and support personnel. They must foster a sustainable relationship just as they do with their clients. However, many law firms do not encourage or insist upon their leaders to develop the skills and abilities necessary to more effectively lead change or action in their firm. Although many firms are adopting competency-based associate development approaches, there is a lack of the same consideration for those at the top.

Now, success can be defined any way you want it to be: achieving a high degree of profitability; attaining a reputation as the best in practice (in the city, province or country); fostering highly leveraged teams enjoying a lean process work flow; and/or experiencing low turnover and a highly productive and collegiate team.

Does your firm meet or exceed the definition of your success?

Our series will expose the key elements of successful law firm leaders in achieving this state in their firms.

1. Practice management — think quality control (effective and efficient delivery of legal services leading to higher productivity and profitability).

2. Administrative management — think leadership (organizational structure and development of human capital/firm culture).

3. Financial management — think accountability (responsibility for the firms’ financial health).

4. Business development — think growth (attracting and keeping more high-level clients).

If you are a managing partner, leader in your firm, or aspire to become one, stay tuned as we go into details about these four key areas that will impact your success as a leader and ultimately, the success of your firm.

Gary Mitchell is a business coach and published author, working with lawyers and law firms since 2005. Follow his blog  or on LinkedIn . He can be reached at 604-669-5235 or Lisa Dawson is an operations specialist, primarily serving law firms and other professional services, in their quest for successful business operations. She can be reached at 604-341-1447 or The authors wish to thank Mayur Gadhia for his contribution to this article.

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