IN-HOUSE TOM: Chapter 1.6 Legal business leadership is not billable by the hour; ergo it’s not rated & not taught at law school

I’m writing a book with the working title: IN-HOUSE TOM: a new target operating model for law departments – initially as a series of blogs.

You can follow the full index of the blogs as they build here: IN-HOUSE TOM: INDEX

Chapter 1.6 Business leadership is not billable by the hour; ergo it’s not rated & not taught at law school.

The fifth, of seven weaknesses, in the current in-house target operating model is that since law firms, in which crucible most in-house lawyers thinking was forged, cannot bill leadership and the art and science of business by the hour it follows that lawyers – apart from the most “a-typical” (ibid) – do not rate or value business leadership and consequently law schools don’t teach it. In the UK, it’s not even a module for the new SQE.

Since business leadership is a key strategic resource in any business target operating model – and law departments are internal businesses – it follows that the current in-house target operating model cannot be strong if this key strategic resource is not rated, valued and understood.

Although I have worked with in-house leaders and teams for over 15 years, it took me some time to figure out that antipathy towards business leadership and knowledge was at the heart of the dysfunction in the function.

Lawyers are invariably bright. Often stunningly bright. But their high IQ frequently cloaks mind-blowing gaps in knowledge and awareness.

A few experiences convinced me that the legal emperors had few business or leadership clothes:

  • One senior GC, when I suggested to him that “Legal should be run as a business, not like one”, replied: “Frankly I think that’s too simplistic”. I took that to mean that Legal was “above” business.
  • One law firm equity partner of not insubstantial fee-earning numbers, when I extolled the value of marketing as an art and science, snorted “What’s all this fuss about marketing, eh? All one needs is a hefty wodge of tickets to Wimbledon!” [Full disclosure: slight, but only slight, literary license used in this story]
  • When facilitating a lawyers’ business board meeting, it became clear to me that no one, but no one, around the table, understood the difference between a strategy and a plan, nor cared less. It was as shocking as it was dangerous.

I believe this weakness is the most difficult of all seven to fix because it’s so embedded in the lawyers’ culture.

Culture is a function of a host of factors which bolster identity. There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that lawyers’ identities are in no way connected to their prowess as business leaders.

This is problematic because law departments need strong business leaders, especially the larger ones, not strong lawyers. And since organisations tend to promote the best lawyers and not the best leaders to GC roles, the problem becomes almost intractable.

Almost. As I will set out later, the problem is remedial, but first we need to confront how bad it is now.

There are vast volumes of academic material available to support this assertion. I particularly like this excerpt from Legal 500 GC Magazine Winter/Spring 2020 Edition sent to me, very helpfully, by a GC client:

“If asked to describe the ‘typical’ lawyer, the person on the street might have a few ideas. Popular culture is strewn with stereotypes of lawyers, some admirable, many not. But is it possible to truly make generalisations about the typical personality traits a lawyer might have?

Yes, according to psychologist (and former trial lawyer) Dr Larry Richard. After ten unhappy years in practice, Richard followed his heart into psychology. But far from leaving the law behind, he remains fascinated by it – or by one aspect, at least.

‘Having put in all that time and grown up with my colleagues in law school and practice, I said “I’m going to study us and find out what makes lawyers tick”,’ he explains.

At his Pennsylvania-based consulting firm, LawyerBrain, Richard applies neuroscience, social psychology, positive psychology, leadership science, and a variety of other social science disciplines to lawyer performance.

‘Lawyers are the most atypical occupation on the planet. We are more different from the general public than any other occupation since data has been published. We are the original outliers,’ he says.

Among 21 traits measured on a standard personality profile, Richard’s research shows that lawyers’ average scores for seven of these are dramatically atypical compared to the general public (it’s considered unusual for even one trait to be atypical in most occupations). According to his research, lawyers score highest on scepticism, as well as on need for autonomy, urgency (read impatience) and ability for abstract reasoning. So far, so predictable, perhaps. But he also found that lawyers score low on sociability, psychological resilience, and cognitive empathy.

Richard argues that scepticism is particularly encouraged at law schools, which, he says, attract candidates already predisposed to this trait and then train them to be even more so.

‘The training that we have as lawyers trains us to look for the negative. We are trained to look for problems, what could go wrong, what is wrong, what’s not ok – we ignore the 95% that’s working. Whenever anyone else makes an assertion, we’re trained to always question the underpinnings of what they’ve said: never accept, never give the benefit of the doubt, always challenge. We’re trained to be vigilant about hidden motives, what do you really mean by that, what’s your agenda – it’s that kind of hidden, almost paranoid mindset. All of these things make someone a very competent lawyer, because the better you can do these things, the more you’re going to protect your client from a host of unseen potential problems,’ he explains.

‘But there is a price to pay and here’s the built-in tension. All the other roles that we ask lawyers to play these days require just the opposite, because almost all the other roles are founded on relationships.’

In Richard’s view, supervision, mentoring, managing, leading, being collegial, innovative – all important roles for lawyers as they climb the career ladder, particularly in-house – could be made more challenging by legal training.”


Ciarán Fenton

2 thoughts on “IN-HOUSE TOM: Chapter 1.6 Legal business leadership is not billable by the hour; ergo it’s not rated & not taught at law school

  1. We teach law in business schools but not business in law schools. Antipathy to marketing and sales is rife across all professions and firms. Event planning and content publishing being the pinnacle of best practice.

    Rainmakers, as described by, David Maister are all that is required to grow a practice. It’s a long time since Managing the Professional Services firm was published. Amongst the countless changes witnessed since then is of course the ‘Digital Vortex’.

    Electronic signatures and video conferences will be boosted by Covid 19 but the legal profession has only tickeled the belly of the digital fish. The firm of the future will make it leap.

    Keep it coming, Ciaran.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s