Your firm’s leadership pipeline – some tips to make it flow better

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] November 15, 2019

Creating a pool of competent future leaders in your law firm requires clarity around the expected qualities and competencies of the candidates, as well as transparency around the route to the top, writes Leonie Green.

According to Google’s dictionary, a pipeline is “a long pipe, typically underground, for conveying oil, gas, etc over long distances”. The same may be said for a leadership pipeline in many instances. Much of it is done ‘underground’ and it simply conveys humans from the initial recruiting process through to becoming a firm leader, which can be quite a long distance for some.

So, can we improve the ‘flow’ of this leadership pipeline? The quick answer is ‘yes’, of course. The longer answer is ‘yes, so long as you are clear on how you want to improve it and take consistent action to adjust as you go’. I would also add that, ideally, you bring the pipeline above ground – that is, it is important to make it as transparent and clear as possible.

Be clear on needs

Improving the pipeline starts with defining what you need by way of structure. The pipeline structure might resemble a core-competency framework. This is where clear competencies are developed across each area or level within your firm.

These competencies are not just in law (that should be a given), but in the other core areas which need to develop over time in order to be successful in your firm. The categories of competency should be developed to best match your firm, but may include:

  • practice management;
  • financial management;
  • people management; and
  • business development.

These are all areas that your future leaders will need to have developed over the course of their careers. The clearer you are on what expectations you have of your people at each level within your firm, the easier it becomes to develop them based on those competencies, to measure performance against the competencies and, critically, to recruit and promote based on those competencies.

It never ceases to amaze me how lacking in competence many senior lawyers can be when it comes to their business skills. While it’s never too late to learn, we need to think about introducing the development of level-appropriate competencies much earlier in people’s careers, beyond competency in a chosen area of law. Only then will our leadership pipeline work in the intended way; that is, with a smoother transition into leadership roles.

Recruit and promote wisely

Once you have built the structure of your leadership pipeline, you need to turn on the flow. That entails recruiting and promoting based on the firm’s agreed structure. Improving the flow of the pipeline is about recruiting talent that will perform well within the structure of your pipeline. That recruitment of talent should match what your firm needs now, and what you need for the future of the firm.

Recruitment and selection based on core competencies takes time and effort, but when it is done in a way that is considered and intentional it can make all the difference. For example, if you are recruiting or promoting a Senior Associate who you want to develop as a leader within your firm, make sure you are clear on what your expectations are of this role, and measure their suitability against the core competencies needed now, and their likely ability to develop in the core areas needed in the future.

This may sound generic, but when done properly, it is anything but generic: it is equally situational (what does the firm need right now for this role) and holistic (what will work for the entire firm, both now and into the future).

Work to be done

A Thomson Reuters white paper – The State of Law Firm Leadership 2018, provided some very interesting data in relation to the experience of law firm leaders and highlighted, if nothing else, that we have a long way to go to improve the way we develop our future leaders and have them leader-ready as our firms grow and age.

So, what can you and your firm do to improve your leadership pipeline today?

1. Work on a core-competency framework that matches your firm’s needs. Make this as tailored as possible to your firm. Think about the key areas required to be successful within your firm, based on where you are at today, and where your firm is going in the future.

2. Recruit and/or promote lawyers who best match the competencies identified. If you need a rainmaker, hire a rainmaker; if you need an all-rounder, hire an all-rounder; if you need an innovator, hire an innovator. However, make sure you are not putting that requirement ahead of the holistic needs of your firm – that is, measure the situation (the reason for recruitment or promotion) and the whole-of-firm needs.

3. Develop your lawyers based on the core competencies needed to be a successful lawyer within your firm. Development that is targeted and progressive in the core areas – for example, financial management, people management or business development – will help your lawyers feel as though they are growing (moving through the pipeline) and will enable them to feel more leader-ready when they arrive.

This, of course, is more complex than a 1-2-3 scenario, but it starts with being intentional about leadership development and building a pipeline that works for your firm, rather than risking the leaking of great talent along the way, and getting the wrong leader for your firm coming through the pipeline.

Leonie Green is a co-founder and director of the Corvus Group, a workplace and legal advisory firm with more than 20 years of senior legal and HR experience working in Australian and international companies. She practised as an employment and industrial relations lawyer for a number of years prior to moving into management roles in industrial relations, shared services and human resources. She can be contacted via email at