Biglaw, Midsize Firms / Regional Firms, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

Mindset Matters: Lawyers Who Lead Well Are Receptive to Change

I’m sitting in a Vancouver, BC coffee shop with Gerry Riskin, author of the Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices blog. We’re talking about leadership and the differing mindsets of lawyers and business people. Our conversation was prompted by Gerry’s mindset slide:

The Professional's Mindset and the Slight Edge Theory

I can relate. Early in my legal career, I worked with lawyers in leadership roles who wore this mindset like body armor. They did not inspire. They did not act in ways that moved people closer to a common goal. They often left a bad wake. They lacked awareness. They were not good leaders….

Roger Hayse and Andy Jillson author the Managing Law Firms In Transition blog. I asked them to comment on Gerry’s mindset slide in the context of law firm leadership. Roger shared that:

Most business people started their careers at the lower levels of an organization where they learn, often through mistakes, how to make decisions, manage projects and lead people. I don’t believe a person is born with those skills and most managing partners haven’t had nor do they seek the training to develop those skills.

There are numerous types of successful leaders, but the one thing most have in common is management and leadership experience — something seriously lacking in most new law firm managing partners.

In Andy’s view:

Law firms have not accepted the idea that lawyers should stick to lawyering and that the management function should be left to trained business managers. Many law firm managing partners are not trained in business. Those that are likely will be better at managing their law firms.

In The Professional’s Mindset and the Slight Edge Theory, Gerry writes that as lawyers “we tend to be doing a simultaneous translation of everything we see and everything we hear in a highly critical and analytical way. These are essential skills for good professional practice but they do get in the way of some other aspects of our lives.” Gerry believes that our tenseness as lawyers makes for “low receptivity to some of the information that can help us most.”

That’s sobering.

What if the mindset that makes a lawyer great is not so good for leading a law firm? Really, the business of law — as in leading and managing a business — is not the same as practicing law. Effective leaders must be aware of the benefits and limitations of their mindset, experience and training.


Consider the Texas State Bar ethics ruling stating that a Texas law firm may not use “officer” or principal” in job titles for non-lawyer employees or pay profit-based performance bonuses. Tim Corcoran is matter-of-fact in his reaction to this ruling. In his blog post, Bar Associations: Protecting Consumers or the Status Quo?, speaking as an accomplished businessman and former CEO, Tim writes:

The Texas ethics commission ruling is ridiculous and unsound. It reflects the worst of the closed-minded lawyer mindset…

Tim is the President of the Legal Marketing Association. His organization and four other legal associations sent a powerful letter to the Texas Bar asking that this ruling be reconsidered:

Real-world experience and research tell us that the decade ahead will be shaped by powerful economic, political, technological, environmental and socio-demographic global forces. Collectively these forces underscore the necessity for new thinking and large-scale change to serve a rapidly changing world….

Recognizing that many lawyers do not have the training and expertise in these areas, many firms are recruiting seasoned professionals and executives with corporate backgrounds who have experience with complex organizations, including entities with global operations. By prohibiting law firms from using titles such as Chief Financial Officer, Chief Technology Officer, and the like, the Committee is greatly impeding firms from recruiting and retaining professionals with the skills and experience necessary in today’s legal environment.

This creates greater risks for both law firms and their clients.

More from Tim’s blog post:

If a senior business person in a law firm can help the lawyer-leaders understand how to budget, how to profit from efficiency, how to embrace continuous improvement, how to lower fees while improving quality, how to better communicate with unhappy clients, and more, then not only should that businessperson be given a title befitting that knowledge, he or she should be given a compensation package commensurate with that experience, experience that is highly prized in the business arena….

If you’re unable to distinguish between a non-lawyer who improves firm operations and client-focus, and one who is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, I question your competence as a lawyer.

Such frankness is necessary to wake up lawyers and bar associations.

ReInvent 2Gerry is right. A lawyer’s mindset differs in significant ways from a business person’s mindset. Roger and Andy are right. Trained business managers are in a better position to lead a law business. Tim and the legal associations are right. This ruling is short-sighted and hurts the legal profession’s ability to adapt.

The change afoot in the legal industry requires the fresh eyes and high quality leaders. Finding a Bo Jackson who can excel at two sports is rare. Finding a lawyer able to leap from practicing law to leading a law firm is even rarer. Law firms leaders could be — but do not need to be — lawyers. If a lawyer is the best choice to lead a law business, then get that person some quality leadership and management training.

And, take Gerry’s observation to heart: “Winners, you will notice, consistently surpass the performance of their peers because they continually improve in small incremental steps. That is the secret to their success.”

Good luck developing an edge if you’re not receptive to change.

So, what do you think of Gerry’s mindset slide? What’s your view on the Texas State Bar ruling? Are the leaders running your law business effective?

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Kevin McKeown (@KevinMcKeown) is president of LexBlog, which empowers lawyers to increase their visibility and accelerate business relationships online. With LexBlog’s help, legal professionals use their subject matter expertise to drive powerful business development through blogging and social media. Visit

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