The partnership structure of law firms creates specific communications challenges for law firm leaders. Some communications styles are more effective when leading a group of people over whom you have little absolute authority, and with whom you have to interact on an ongoing basis. Unlike some corporate structures, the people at the top of a partnership often can’t rely on the ability to fire subordinates. To be sure, accomplished communicators in a corporate setting rarely have to rely on overtly threatening to fire those who disagree with what they say. Good leaders in corporations and partnerships rely more on persuasion and motivation than threats of coercion.
And that’s the challenge for many law firm partners.
In my experience consulting with law firms, attorneys tend to be more nuanced writers than speakers. For example, the communication skills litigators bring to a lawsuit often don’t translate well to communications with their colleagues. This is especially true with respect to delicate issues such as partner compensation, where lawyers tend to be hyper-vigilant about the direct and implied meaning of every word (including what may have been said in the past that has now been omitted).
To some extent, effective communication requires law firm partners to avoid their inclination to win arguments with fellow partners. As people in successful long-term relationships know, it is easy to erode trust and damage the relationship by winning a short-term argument. Likewise, the well-being of a partnership often requires law firm leaders to avoid escalating issues and to give all partners a sense that dissenters won’t be punished in the future.
The examples set forth above only touch the surface of the communications skills required of law firm leaders. And different law firm cultures require different communications styles. What works in one firm won’t in another.
What is clear, however, is that communications skills are essential for law firm leaders. But how often do you see a firm select a managing partner on that basis? And even more tellingly, how often are future law firm leaders trained to improve their communications skills?
Well-run corporations invest in such training for their most promising executives. Law firms should follow suit and invest more in improving the communications skills of their present and future leaders.