Why do law firm partners think they are not leaders or managers?

I have been puzzled by this question for years. Reasons for thinking about it pop up in my life on a regular basis. For example:

  • A number of years ago, I participated in a leadership training for partners and counsel at the large law firm I was working for. At the end of the four-day training, I saw one of the senior partners almost crushing the trainer´s hand, complementing him on a great training (that in itself is a rare and beautiful thing to see). Some weeks later, that partner and I had a chat and I asked him how he applied the tools from the training that he was enthusiastic about, and he replied: ”Well, mostly at home with my family, because you know Marion, I am not a leader; I do not have any leadership tasks.” I was stunned and speechless (which is also a rare thing to see ).
  • Recently I met a Head of HR at a law firm where I do Legal Project Management trainings and when she asked the partners of her firm what they needed, the reply was along the lines of “Please, whatever, but no management or leadership training!!
  • In late summer I did a 90-minute session on Feedback during a partner retreat and a young partner thanked me afterwards and added “Well, I for one think it´s fun and rewarding to lead people!” The strange thing was the note of self-consciousness in his voice – he seemed to be aware of the oddity of a statement like that in our industry.

Let me tell you why this puzzles me so much: In my view, law firm partners are leaders by definition. They are the owners of a business and, unlike shareholders, they are also actively working in this business, usually as senior or most senior members of the workforce. So of course that workforce looks to them as leaders. If the law firm has employees – lawyers or support staff – and unless said partners have hired people to manage those employees, law firm partners are also managers.

What´s the difference between a leader and a manager, you might ask and there seem to be a lot of answers. The only point all those answers seem to agree on is that there in fact is a difference, despite the fact that many languages do not make a clear distinction (e.g. in German and Swedish, where both roles can be lumped together under the term “Chef”). In my view, a simple distinction is this one: Managers see to it that things are done right, while leaders see to it that the right things are done.

So here I am, after almost 20 years in the legal profession, and I am still puzzled about my observation that law firm partners seem to not see themselves as leaders or managers. Is it only a matter of tradition? Are they still sole practitioners at heart, even if they are partners of large organizations? If you agree with my observation: Do you have a theory about the reasons? If you don’t agree: What have you observed? Please let me know, I´m really curious.

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.