The Leadership Dilemma Law Firms Face Amid COVID-19

DLA Piper announced this month that it has extended the term of its global CEO and Managing Partner Simon Levine, who was set to be term-limited out in 2022, by two years in a bid to provide "surety" for the firm and its clients in uncertain times.

The decision comes as law firms across the industry grapple with difficult decisions about whether to keep leaders on longer or to implement a transition amid a pandemic.

A transition can create turmoil even in good times, according to law firm leadership and strategy consultants. On the other side of the coin, though, keeping leaders in place too long who aren't sufficiently innovative and forward-thinking, especially when the world is changing as rapidly as it is now, can create a greater harm.

"Firms are always trying to balance between steady and consistent leadership and being able to rotate in new leaders with new ideas," said Scott Westfahl, director of Harvard Law School's executive education program.

Here is a look at the push-and-pull law firms face as they approach decisions around whether to implement a leadership transition in the current environment.

The Perks of an Established Head Honcho

In times of crisis, it can be worth a lot to keep on a leader who provides a deep sense of trust and comfort to those in the organization and who, as a result, can help move the organization forward to adjust to the changes going on around them, according to Westfahl.

"Firms that are opting to extend current leadership are realizing that current leaders, leaders in place for a long time, probably have a greater capacity to account for all stakeholders and have enough credibility and gravitas to help people understand the world is changing," Westfahl said.

Leaders' biggest task in today's environment, he said, is helping people in the organization be open to the major changes happening around them and helping the organization to "shed some of its DNA that is no longer adaptive and move forward to create new DNA and patterns."

Or, in other words, he added, "disappointing them at a pace they can handle."

"These new realities require the kind of leadership that allows people to grieve what they're missing and what is changing and the loss of their established ways of doing things, but also be able to embrace new ideas and new approaches," Westfahl said.

A transition from one firmwide managing partner to another can also be tumultuous even in normal times for attorneys and staff as the new leader learns the ropes and the top ranks get reshuffled, according to law firm strategy consultant Patrick J. McKenna.

McKenna said he's seen in many cases that either the new leader gets rid of an existing chief marketing or chief operating officer they don't mesh with or one of those other leaders is unhappy with the new selection and leaves on their own.

"There is usually a fair bit of C-suite administrative turnover within the first six to eight months," McKenna said. "Even under normal circumstances it's very disruptive."

The Importance of a Changing of the Guard

Forgoing a leadership transition may be a "very reasonable" management decision to make during this time to avoid bumps in the road, but for many law firms it could be a huge missed opportunity, according to Mark Beese, founder of consulting firm Leadership for Lawyers LLC.

"Many leaders in place now are not adept at leading change initiatives," Beese said. "What law firms need are leaders who can help their firms adapt and deliver services differently and do it quickly. I think that's where most law firms are struggling."

There has been a movement within law firms in recent years to usher in new, younger and more diverse leaders, and it would be a detriment to those firms if that came to a halt because of the pandemic, he said.

"This past year was a year of awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I think we're going to see a lot more diverse leaders in that frontline leader role. That's going to be great for the profession," Beese said.

This is a time when all firms should be reassessing their structures and pipeline, according to Jill Huse, founder of law firm consultancy Society 54 LLC.

"Firms need to take this opportunity to evaluate their paths to leadership and identify how they can generate more opportunities for inclusivity within the leadership ranks," Huse said. "These changes not only bring fresh ideas, but a needed perspective that is missing in many firms."

And she said law firms should be talking to their clients about leadership shifts and use this time to align themselves more closely with their clients' leadership ranks and objectives for long-term growth.

"I see all of this as a wonderful opportunity to reassess and realign and the firms that embrace the change in a thoughtful, deliberate manner, will be better prepared for leading their firms to success," she said.

--Additional reporting by Emily Lever. Editing by Brian Baresch and Alyssa Miller.

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