November 8, 2021
Most of us aspire to be known leaders and acquire the title and compensation of being a leader. Yet, many of us struggle with what it means to be a leader and the responsibility of being one.
In theory, being a leader seems easy. All you need to do is what you believe is right and rally people around your thoughts and vision. In practice, it is much more frightening.
In the movie Jerry Maguire, Jerry, after experiencing a life-altering epiphany about his role as a sports agent, writes a mission statement about perceived dishonesty in the sports management business and his desire to work with fewer clients to produce a better personal relationship with them.
Jerry's management fires him, and when he tries to recruit the team to join him at his own agency, only one person comes.
Many lawyers trained to be perfect, fear what will happen when asked to lead without a safety net. We fear that if we try leadership and fail - we will end up like Jerry Maguire.
So much is at stake that it can feel challenging to put your neck out and lead.
In addition to the fear factor, many law firms do not focus on leadership training. Indeed, "Joan," a non-equity partner at a "Big Law" law firm I was working with went as far as to ask me what her equity partner meant when she said that she wanted to see her lead.
Some law firms' cultures, in essence, make senior partners demi-gods. Nothing moves forward without their approval. In addition, the law firms' compensation structure rewards partners for retaining and expanding client relationships - not for developing junior colleagues.
To ensure that no junior partner or associate mucks up a client relationship (aka an income stream), the senior partner holds very tight reins on the decision-making process. In essence, it prevents the junior person from expanding their wings and skills.
As someone who has coached many lawyers both in firms and companies, the hesitation comes when more senior attorneys ask them to run a matter alone without a senior person approving every step they take. Taking that leadership role and making a strategic decision without the safety net of someone else backing you up seems frightening.
The inner voices in the person's head keep asking... What if I am wrong? I never had to be accountable for my choices before.
So how do you break out of this cycle and begin to develop leadership skills?
First, find a committee or project where you can lead and learn to make decisions. For example, is there a pro bono matter you could handle or an affinity group or committee that could use your talents? Remember, there may be failures along the way, but that is part of the process.
We learn from when things don't work out and we also understand that most times it is not the end of the world. So make a decision, and leading does not seem as frightening as it was.
Second, join a bar association committee and lead a project there. The benefits of this are expanding your network and developing a brand at the same time. Also, if you are concerned about failure in your law firm -- it is out of the prying eyes of your law firm.
Third, find or earn a mentor or sponsor who will allow you to lead a significant project or case. When presented with such a golden opportunity, you need to take it and own it, but having a mentor or sponsor with you may give you a “safe place” for advice and some political cover.
One woman I coached asked me how I started leading and making decisions. I said simply by doing it -- over and over -- and as time went on, it became a habit and I cannot remember not doing it.
Remember though, leading also means being accountable for and owning any missteps or failures. The best leaders are those that own their decisions and mistakes, learn from them, and then jump back on the horse.
So what happened to Joan? Joan outlined what being a leader would look like at her firm and the steps she should be taking to get there, and she did. Now, she is an equity partner.
Leading without a net becomes easier the more you do it over time. Leading also distinguishes you from your peers and positions you to transition to more senior roles and being able to say “show me the money.”
Want more tips on how you can advance in your career? Download Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance where she shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.