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Can lawyers make great leaders?

By Mila Trezza. The idea that lawyers often make bad managers is a recurring theme in numerous blog posts and articles. 

Why do many highly capable in-house lawyers struggle as leaders upon promotion to managerial positions? Can lawyers lead?

Drawing on the countless conversations I have had with lawyers over the last thirty years, starting from their rationale and motivation behind choosing a career in law, here is what I have learned.

1)    Beginning of the journey:  Why do people choose a career in law?

Let’s delve into what interests and motivates undergraduate students to pursue law as a profession. Many aspiring lawyers are not excited or even driven by the ambition to lead one day. Their motivation is often grounded in other drivers.

For many, their passion often centres around the intellectual challenge; they want to ‘solve the puzzle,’ ideally one that is complex, or high-profile and impactful. Others are drawn to the lifestyle associated with the legal profession, viewing it as a fulfilling outlet for their ambition. Their journey is often characterised by personal ambition rather than a fervent desire for leadership.

Personality-wise, those attracted to law also often possess traits favouring a more introverted approach, preferring to keep to themselves rather than being what we call a ‘people person’.

While some law graduates have a genuine passion for people, those who do typically pursue alternative career paths early in their careers, diverging from roles in private practice or in-house.

So, do law students have a strong desire to lead and become legal leaders?

I believe that many successful in-house lawyers often come to realise an interest, and possibly even a passion, in the management and leadership dimensions of their roles as they progress in their careers. However, for some, this passion may never fully blossom or develop. Instead, they view managing people as an inherent and, at times, painfully unavoidable part of their senior roles. 2)    Laying the foundations: What do lawyers learn in their early years?

 Most of us learn a lot about what being a good lawyer should look like early in our careers.


In private practice, trainees share offices and work alongside their supervisors. They learn by watching more senior lawyers. By the time they become senior lawyers, most accumulate a mix of experiences and a blend of good-to-great examples, as well as bad-to-terrible examples of what a lawyer should be like.


In many organisations, lawyers in managerial roles are often practising lawyers in the first place and managers in their spare time. Many trainees and junior lawyers are led by lawyers who have never been formally trained to manage others. 


As for the workplace culture they see, many navigate their professional journeys within a culture of low trust and intense competition rather than trust, safety, and collaboration.


What junior lawyers see as an example is also reinforced by the lens of the training they receive.


Even in exceptionally good cases, it’s training that speaks to the head. Yet, leadership journeys require a departure from rational and analytical arguments that resonate to the head. They need a vision that also speaks to the heart.


3)    Transitioning into managerial roles: Managing or leading?

The majority of legal education, training, and development programmes primarily focus on the acquisition of legal expertise and client skills. There is often a noticeable absence of focus on people management and cultivating a leadership mindset.


As lawyers transition from private practice roles to in-house positions, motivated by factors such as a desire to be closer to the business, a dislike for the billable hours model and business development, or a better work-life balance, their career trajectory takes a significant shift.


Despite this transition, the career path to leadership roles within corporate legal departments, such as General Counsel, Legal Directors, and Heads of Legal, still typically lack adequate managerial preparation and seldom prioritises leadership development.

While lawyers and legal departments navigate their unique journeys, they remain part of a larger organisational landscape that is also facing significant leadership challenges. I often wondered whether, for example, leadership thrives abundantly in other departments.

Do finance or HR departments excel in leadership? Does the subject of leadership even surface in discussions within procurement?

Even when management training is provided, this raises a key question: why do many organisations prioritise management over leadership development, especially considering the critical role effective leadership plays in driving organisational success?

In his seminal work ‘Leading Change,’ John Kotter helpfully puts it this way:

“For most of this century, as we created thousands and thousands of organisations for the first time in human history, we didn’t have enough good managers to keep all those bureaucracies functioning. So many companies and universities developed management programs, and hundreds and thousands of people were encouraged to learn management on the job. And they did.  But people were taught little about leadership. To some degree, management was emphasized because it’s easier to teach than leadership. But even more so, management was the main item on the twentieth-century agenda because that’s what was needed. (…) Unfortunately for us today, this emphasis on management has often been institutionalized in corporate cultures that discourage employees from learning how to lead.”

Stephen Covey, one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans, explains it this way:

“The main assets and primary drivers of economic prosperity in the Industrial Age were machines and capital – things. People were necessary but replaceable. (…) People were like things - you could be efficient with them. When all you want is a person’s body, and you don’t really want their mind, heart, or spirit (…), you have reduced a person to a thing.

So many of our modern management practices come from the Industrial Age. It gave us the belief that you have to control and manage people. (…) The problem is, managers today are still applying the Industrial Age control model to knowledge workers. Because many in positions of authority do not see the true worth and potential of their people and do not possess a complete, accurate understanding of human nature, they manage people as they do things. This lack of understanding also prevents them from tapping into the highest motivations, talents and genius of people.”

If we wish to understand why many organisations struggle with preparing for leadership, we need to delve into the last century.

4)    Navigating leadership: Where do we go from here?

The transition to managing people presents formidable challenges, necessitating a profound shift in both mindset and skillset. Many individuals promoted into legal leadership roles have first excelled as legal advisers. However, possessing legal skills and expertise alone does not guarantee success in leadership.

While extremely valuable, skills such as advising, problem-solving, and managing clients do not translate naturally to effective people management or leading and inspiring teams.

Team members are not clients.

So, at this pivotal stage of their career journey, how many lawyers in managerial roles truly realise the magnitude of the shift and are actively and adequately supported, encouraged, and equipped with what they need to embark on the distinct path of developing their leadership?

The potential rewards can be immense for those who embark on the leadership journey.

Yet, cultivating leadership skills requires an acceleration in learning when their workload is also considerably increasing. It involves self-education, a blend of internal and external coaching and mentorship, formal education, and a strong personal commitment to extending their role from lawyers to effective managers and leaders.

This journey is typically enriching at both personal and professional levels, and its outcomes are rewarding. Yet, amidst the accolades and internal acknowledgements, a poignant question remains: do the existing organisational carrot-and-stick systems genuinely incentivise and reward leadership?

As organisations increasingly incorporate behavioural indicators into performance evaluations, it begs the question of whether this is adequate to inspire and assist busy department managers in prioritising the investment of additional time and considerable efforts into their leadership development.

When dysfunctional practices, poor listening, and micro-management, for example, are tolerated, the ultimate result for those who invest efforts in their leadership development is usually vastly disappointing.

I believe, therefore, that the complexities behind why many great lawyers encounter difficulties in leadership roles and exhibit poor managerial skills reveal an interplay of many underlying factors and reasons.

These reasons show us what is needed to support the intersection between being lawyers and becoming legal leaders. Indeed, many of these reasons suggest we look in the same direction: fostering a leadership development culture and investing in legal professionals’ growth beyond legal skills at every stage of their careers.

Great lawyers can also be great leaders.

And the call for leadership keeps growing louder.

This Confident Leadership Series focuses on the skills needed to manage high-performing legal teams and enhance your leadership confidence.


About the Author

Mila Trezza is a former General Counsel of a Fortune Global 500 energy company and an award-winning executive and leadership coach. Her company was named one of the Top 5 Executive Coaching Companies in the UK for 2023.

After more than 20 years of international experience, having served as Director of over 30 companies, and lived in six countries, Mila developed her approach to coaching with the sensibilities of a lawyer in mind.

Her mission is to develop a coaching culture for the legal industry that is bespoke to, and has an inside-out understanding of, the challenges that lawyers and legal teams face on a daily basis. Through her coaching, Mila helps lawyers go from lacking confidence and feeling overwhelmed to having a clear path forward, feeling resourceful, and enjoying their roles. Her work on legal leadership was recognised by Women Influence & Power in Law UK, and she was the winner of the 2023 Award for Lifetime Achievement, In-House.

In addition to running her own business “Coaching Lawyers by Mila Trezza”, Mila acts as an expert advisor and consultant for leading global companies. #MilaTrezza #feedback #meaningful #coaching #legal #leadership #growth


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