Nice guys are the right guys

Who would have thought that a global law practice’s top-performing partners might turn out to be a personable bunch of adaptable, cooperative visionaries? It is fair to say that there exists a stereotype at the very top of the legal profession, one of firms being run by cold, hard billing machines, prepared to go to any lengths to win a case. However, research among the partners of one global law firm somewhat shatters this image.

Hay Group analysed the leadership styles of partners considered to be outstanding performers by the firm, comparing them with senior lawyers displaying average performance. The results paint a much more human picture of the leading lights of the profession than the stereotype affords us.

Research has shown that there are six leadership styles: affiliative, pacesetting, participative, visionary, coaching and directive. Of the six styles, star players were twice as likely to be affiliative (expressing genuine concern for others) than more average performers and far less inclined to be pacesetters (perfectionists setting unattainable goals and demanding results at all costs).

They also proved more visionary than their less outstanding peers, sharing the bigger picture with their teams, and they were twice as likely to manage in a participative manner by engaging colleagues in critical discussions and decisions. The top performers were also found to be superior coaches and mentors, aiming to drive long-term performance rather than focusing solely on the case in hand.

Finally, outstanding performers proved more flexible, adept at adapting their approach between the six different leadership styles to best suit the demands of a given situation.

The overall picture emerging is one of the best legal performers relying on a complex range of leadership methods – ’rounded’ managers who include, encourage, coach and show concern for junior lawyers.

While we should perhaps not draw hasty conclusions about the future of the industry from a study of a single firm, on-the-ground experience and anecdotal evidence tells us that the legal profession is moving perceptibly towards new ways of recruiting, employing, rewarding and motivating front-line employees.

Employee aspirations are changing – and with them the ways in which firms are expected to meet them. For a law firm, this might mean, for example, that becoming a partner by a certain time or age (once seen as the be-all and end-all of career progression in the profession) may only be a part of the ambitions and aspirations of talented young law graduates.

Younger star players are looking for a wider, more complex range of motivations in their work and careers. They are seeking more flexible working cultures, which offer the scope to contribute their skills and expertise from the off and in more diverse and effective ways.

Talented people want to be seen as more than a number judged purely on hours billed. The cream of law graduates are seeking life experience, not just the chance to shine in court. Work-life balance is no longer a dirty word.

As the research shows, law firms are beginning to realise this and are beginning to offer a more nurturing and motivational culture to attract the leading lawyers of tomorrow. A new emphasis is emerging at some firms on cultivating staff, coaching them, developing their capabilities and generally ‘looking out for them’ as their careers progress.

The mentoring skills of our star players are a key indicator of this ‘new employment’. Prospective employees demand to be encouraged and coached. They require an environment where senior partners are willing to impart knowledge, skills and expertise, where the learning curve is based not on ‘do as I do’, but on ‘here’s how you do it’.

Neil Paterson is a director at management consultancy Hay Group