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Do Your Law Firm Leaders Lead or Manage?

Susan Saltonstall Duncan


Leadership is not a title or a position. The best leaders have developed competencies that enable them to drive their firms forward, think conceptually and strategically and effectively build and rely on teams and networks. According to the 2016 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, eighty-nine percent of companies see leadership as an important or very important issue, and one that is growing in importance and urgency.

In law firms, there is a good chance there are more managers than there are leaders. Many managing partners are doing more managing than leading, but with so much disruption in the profession, law firms need leadership now more than ever. The primary difference between these two is that leadership focuses on vision, culture, the future and innovation whereas management focuses on the status quo, processes and execution of tasks. Firms absolutely need both to be successful.

Warren Bennis in his well-known book “On Becoming a Leader” very clearly delineated the difference between these two:


Law firms, like other businesses, go through cycles that usually are tied to the economy and other external forces. Unlike cycles of the past, however, the pendulum will not swing back to the most robust and profitable years. The changes presently affecting the profession are permanent and potentially crippling:

  • Increasing growth of in-house legal departments
  • Procurement officers and COOs of legal departments
  • Client insistence on greater value, efficiency and new rules for pricing
  • Continued automation of legal processes and artificial intelligence
  • Expansion of alternative legal providers
  • Enhanced technology resources and tools
  • Aggressive competition and fee compression
  • Baby Boomer/aging partner cliff and the lack of effective succession planning
  • Generational changes in workplace preferences, engagement and diversity
  • Multi-disciplinary practices, e.g., Big 4, whose law practices are among the largest in the world and who offer bigger brands and holistic solutions

This is a very difficult time to lead any type of organization, since many of the trends that threaten law firms also pose significant challenges for other types of business. It is the reason that those who are in leadership positions in law firms that only manage rather than lead will have a very difficult time getting their firms through this time of disruption unscathed.

The most important characteristics that today’s law firm leaders must have in order to effectively lead their firms include:


View toward the future, willing to innovate and take some risks, invest in the longer-term, not get pulled down by the inherent focus on short-term profits and cost-cutting.


Driven by clients and markets, build consensus for goals and path forward, align growth, recruiting and talent around strategy, ensure culture supports strategy, drive and manage change.


A realistic sense of strengths and weaknesses, compensate for weakness through strengths of others, honest with self and others, humble and able to laugh at oneself, candid, self-confident, resilient.

Drive and Purpose

Drive toward results, deeply committed to firm, partners and employees, have and expect a sense of urgency, sets and holds all accountable to high standards of excellence in service and skill, inspiring, motivating.

Others before Self

Desire to put firm success before personal agenda, status or financial gain; focus first on clients, then partners and employees, then self; open-minded and flexible, commitment to the development of others, credit and celebrate others’ successes.


Honest and open communication, listen to listen, not just to respond, empathy, reliability, responsiveness, competence, model desired behaviors.

Social and Political

Ability to manage conflict, find common ground, influence and persuade, build consensus where appropriate, make tough decisions when necessary, encourage collaboration.

The best leaders are not just born that way. Lawyers did not learn these skills in law school so current and future leaders will need training, on-the-job experience and coaching to improve these competencies. Leading firms today will require exceptional leaders working together with highly competent managers who can execute on the vision, strategy and culture established by the leader.

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About the Author

RainMaking Oasis founder Susan Saltonstall Duncan is a vanguard in law firm management with over 30 years in the field. She is known for her strategic mind-set, her energy and enthusiasm and her ability to bring transformational change to her clients and the legal profession. Susan can be reached at