The difference between a manager and a leader

Leading a law firm is a difficult task. It requires expert legal knowledge, business acumen and people skills. These aspects of the job require different skills and the ability to bring all three into a unified perspective. This can be done by fully understanding both your role as a leader and your organizational purpose, and these will act as a focusing lens as you move your organization forward.

Sarah Adler

Leading a law firm is a difficult task. It requires expert legal knowledge, business acumen and people skills. These aspects of the job require different skills and the ability to bring all three into a unified perspective. This can be done by fully understanding both your role as a leader and your organizational purpose, and these will act as a focusing lens as you move your organization forward.

Let’s start with distinguishing between managers and leaders. A manager is someone who deals with assigning tasks to others, overseeing workflow, acting as a subject matter expert and who steps in when files get complicated. Leaders leverage the knowledge of managers to inform their decision-making and to understand the challenges facing the business. Being a manager is integral to the role of the lawyer as they oversee various clerks, paralegals, case files and clients.

A leader is someone who holds a vision and understands the purpose of an organization. A leader has the foresight to see what the organization has the potential to become, can develop a plan to get there and can communicate the plan to inspire the team who will realize it. A leader’s goal is to keep the organization unified and moving in the same direction. If you’ve ever tried to lead a group of lawyers, you realize the magnitude of this task.

Lawyers often make good managers, but the jump from manager to leader is a tough one because it requires a different set of skills, ones that don’t necessarily come easily to those who have been practising lawyers for several years.

As lawyers, we are trained to spot legal issues, apply rules and argue a position (sometimes referred to as IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion). This process requires the lawyer to identify a problem and drill down into the details of the law and the facts. This training is excellent for arguing a case, but it isn’t as helpful when it comes to firm leadership. Leading is a proactive exercise as opposed to a problem solving or reactive one. Of course, leaders need to solve business problems, but the way in which those challenges are met should be informed by the bigger forward-moving picture.

In legal practice, sharing information can mean losing strategic advantage, so lawyers also tend to keep information to themselves and respond to alternate views with counter arguments. Legal practice also requires the ability to think quickly on your feet and be ready to prove the correctness of a given position. These same traits in business and leadership discussions can prevent open and productive discourse and limit potential opportunities. 

Leaders need the ability to openly discuss their vision and operational plan and consider constructive suggestions that can develop ideas and help the organization thrive. It’s the difference between deconstructing an existing problem and building something new.

The first step in moving from a manager to a leader is to understand what the firm does best and the motivation behind it. People, be it employees or clients, will rally behind an identified purpose. It inspires and gives life to an organization. 

Many lawyers have a reason or purpose as to why they entered into the profession. Profit can be a key motivator; however, profit is generally considered a result of work and not the purpose for it. Many of us decided to go to law school for a reason: a desire to fight for social justice, to have global influence, for the intellectual challenge or the prestige of the role. For me it was a love of policy development, which creates the structure to solve social challenges. 

Leaders can draw on the reasons why they became lawyers to inform their purpose and to motivate the work that their firm does. If you have risen to a leadership role within an existing firm, understanding the firm’s history and the purpose of its founding partners may be the key.

The purpose and the area of law practised do not necessarily need to be directly related. An example of this is a lawyer I know who has a passion for social justice and practises and teaches tax law. Although the two seem incompatible, he views tax law as the means for encouraging and discouraging social behaviours, an expression of societal values. In this way, he brings a sense of social justice and development to a topic that can seem arbitrary. He uses his passion to inspire both his work and a room full of tired and cranky law students. He leads and innovates through his sense of purpose.

Once you identify your firm purpose, you can use it as a filter to make informed and consistent decisions on all levels whether legal, business or people based: how to develop business leads, where to grow the firm’s potential, how to staff and structure teams and the list goes on. 

This big-picture thinking requires law firm leaders to move away from getting caught in the details and to take a step back to think about the big picture. This can be challenging for lawyers, but the conscious effort to do so can improve your firm operations, distinguish your firm in the marketplace and help to achieve success.  

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