What does it take to rise to the top in the legal profession? 

Good eggs

The Brief talks to a top legal coach, identifies lessons from leading practitioners, and looks at a new initiative that aims to make lawyers more “O”-shaped.

The legal profession is full of successful people. To qualify in law is a marker of success. To secure a training contract is a marker of success. And to gain your first role as a solicitor is a major marker of success.

So, in a field where everyone has, to a greater or lesser extent, proved themselves highly capable, how can an ambitious lawyer stand out from the crowd? And, possibly more importantly, what are the qualities that will shape the profession’s future leaders?

Call of duty

Donna McGrath is the founder of The Lawyer’s Coach, the only business in the UK and Ireland that provides coaching and mentoring specifically for in-house lawyers. She also has significant experience working with solicitors in private practice.

When asked about the factors that motivate those lawyers who rise to the top in their careers, she eschews the idea that money is the primary driver. “Most of them have an overwhelming sense of duty,” she says.

“That sense of duty, and doing the right thing, seems to be very core for a lot of good lawyers, and they have something visionary inside them that really helps them embed that across their businesses. That seems to translate into those particular lawyers being recognised as trustworthy.”

Success, she continues, comes from understanding your sense of purpose, what you want to achieve, and your position in the world. McGrath says there are habits everyone can adopt that will help develop and sustain this sense of purpose.

She explains, “You need to build habits that enable you to spend time by yourself and achieve some freedom of thought and reflection about how you can help other people and your business. This helps connect you to something bigger than yourself, because it’s about what you can offer to the world.”

Commercial realities

In private practice the path to promotion has usually been based on lawyers’ contributions to business development and financial performance. Of course, at least to an extent, those solicitors who have good reputations and are trusted by their clients will naturally attract more work but, according to McGrath, an exclusive focus on financial results also sees good lawyers leave firms, or the profession as a whole, resulting in the loss of other vital but undervalued skills.

There are at least two realities at play here with which the sector has to grapple. The first is that law firms of all kinds need clients, and those clients have to come from somewhere. The second is that new consultancy models and fee-share firms mean that a growing number of lawyers now have a choice about the surroundings in which, and terms upon which, they practise their profession.

While law firms have historically been driven by financial targets, many lawyers themselves – in private practice as well as in-house – have actually been seen by their clients or colleagues as uncommercial. When The Brief talked to Ben Goodman, Legal Director Appliances EMEA and Group Legal Counsel UK & Ireland at Spectrum Brands, a couple of years ago he referred to outdated stereotypes of legal teams as “roadblocks” and “the fun police”.

Rounding up

To address the substance that might still lie behind some of these stereotypes, in 2019 a group of general counsel got together with legal education experts to launch “The O Shaped Lawyer Programme”. The goal of this initiative is to make the legal profession more “human-centric” and emotionally intelligent, and also more commercial, accountable and less risk-averse.

The O Shaped Lawyer Programme is being piloted by organisations including Addleshaw Goddard, Pinsent Masons, Network Rail and Centrica, and has also developed a course for students in association with the University of Law. The Programme is based around a framework of five behaviours and mindsets (each of which, naturally, begins with an “o”): Optimism; Ownership; being Open-minded; being Opportunistic; and being Original.

This need to be commercial, and to understand what clients, or colleagues in business, require from lawyers is increasingly recognised within the profession at large. It is now far more common than it was even five years ago for the home pages of corporate and commercial firms’ websites to emphasise their can-do attitude and business acumen.

As Clare Jackman, Intellectual Property Partner at Ashfords put it in an interview with The Brief in 2019, “Lawyers are [now] expected to express an opinion or give a clear steer and not leave it up to the client to try to work out the answer for themselves. Unless you can actually add value and offer something worthwhile then you’re not really doing your job properly in my book.”