Having read a number of pieces recently on diversity and the lack of women and ethnic minorities in senior leadership positions in the legal profession, I keep seeing similar comments about lack of these opportunities. The message seems to come across again and again that opportunities need to be offered from on high. But this misses a fundamentally commercial point.
A law firm’s profitability is built on leverage, where each partner needs to be supported by a number of good lawyers – so there cannot be leadership opportunities for everyone. However, some management opportunities may not be as unattainable as you perceive.
Law firms are now a completely different business to the way that they were run a few generations ago. They require a wide range of management disciplines: finance, IT, HR, facilities management, compliance and business development. I often see management roles handed from partner to partner like a hot potato, rather than being grasped as a stepping stone to greater things.
Shami Chakrabarti was profiled in the Gazette’s My Legal Life recently and commented that, in becoming the director of Liberty, she had to embrace a number of new roles and said: ‘Sometimes lawyers are a bit sniffy about things like management, and think that because they are professionals they don’t need to do it or receive it.’
One way of making yourself attractive at the leadership table is therefore to become the firm’s expert in one of these management disciplines in addition to your legal practice area. Fellow lawyers are likely to welcome you with open arms if you are able to solve the problems that benefit the whole firm. Of course if you have ambitions for the top slot you will need to acquire a working knowledge of all these areas, particularly financial management performance.
The role of marketing partner is not always appreciated but, after financial acumen, business development skills are critical if you aspire to leadership. A managing partner is often the face of the firm and will be expected to lead the way in the firm’s brand development and management. Understanding the whole client base and being involved with setting the marketing strategies of the various practice areas is a fantastic grounding for wider management responsibilities.
Sitting next to a managing partner at a dinner recently, he commented that he had never wanted to be managing partner, but had just been voted in. He was struggling to see who else had the range of skills to replace him and let him get back to working with his clients.
I suspect his firm is not the only one looking for someone with the right set of management skills to become a future leader. Volunteering to take an active role in marketing could be a step in the right direction.
Sue Bramall is managing director of Berners Marketing and advises law firms in the UK and overseas