How to be a successful law firm leader: In conversation with Simon Tupman  

In this conversation, Simon Tupman – non-practising solicitor, podcaster and author – shares his insights and knowledge to help you become a successful law firm leader. 

Simon Tupman, author of The Heart of Practice: Leadership Principles for Legal Professionals, and executive consultant for legal professionals across the globe, joined me in episode seven of our Empowering Law Firm Leaders series.

In this conversation, we discuss what makes a good leader, how to effectively build a high performing team and culture, and advice for future leaders.    

In this conversation we cover:

  • The unique challenges faced by law firm leaders  
  • How to build an effective leadership team  
  • Characteristics of a good leader 
  • Success measures leaders should use to track long-term success 
  • Advice for future law firm leaders  

Watch the interview with Simon Tupman:

Listen to the episode here:

 Simon’s three lessons for running a successful modern law firm  

Having worked in and with various law firms across the globe, Simon believes these three lessons are what all leaders should implement and strive for to run a successful legal business long term: 

  1. Run your firm as a business  
  1. Be human – don’t try to be someone you’re not  
  1. Look to the future – “be aware of not only what other firms are doing, but also look outside for examples of good business practice and innovation and how that might apply to your firm.”  

The unique challenges facing law firm leaders  

Simon wrote The Heart of Practice because he felt no other leadership book addressed the unique challenges facing professionals in law firms. Simon shares he wrote the book, “partly out of professional frustration, because as a consultant I’d help to facilitate a partner retreat then 12 months later I’d go back and everything discussed went on the backburner. Rather than thinking about the future and navigating change, people were just responding and putting out fires.” 

And so Simon took to define what made running a law firm different and identified three peculiarities:  

  • The partnership model 
  • Personalities of the people 
  • Pressures and risk 

Simon believes that the partnership model creates restrictions on decision making that impact long-term success: “In today’s environment, for partners to expect that they – by virtue of being a partner – have the right to have a say in every decision that is made, is simply untenable.”

About Simon Tupman 

Simon Tupman was a criminal defence lawyer for a London-based firm for many years before leaving to study for a master’s degree. Simon then worked at an advertising agency for the research division before moving to New Zealand in 1992. In New Zealand, Simon worked as in-house marketing manager for a 22-partner law firm before leaving to set up his own consultancy business to become a facilitator for law firms looking to navigate change and take the firm to the next level.  

Simon has published four books including Why Lawyers Should Eat Bananas, and his latest release: The Heart of Practice: Leadership Principles for Legal Professionals.  

Modifications to the partnership model, which change how decisions are made, are vital; “In my book I suggest [decision making] should not just be confined to partners, but leaders of the firm who might not be lawyers, but nevertheless are specialists in management and leadership operations.” Simon believes all people within a firm should contribute towards its long term welfare. 

The second peculiarity, Simon believes, is the personality of the lawyers. In the book he refers to a study by Dr Larry Richards who found that the personality traits of lawyers are diametrically opposed to those expected of a leader. “I love the focus on merging leaders, the new generation, who are becoming more self-aware about their blind spots and unconscious biases.” 

And the third peculiarity that impacts how a law firm is run are the risks, responsibilities, and pressures that come from being in the profession. “There is a lot of pressure on people’s shoulders, and we’re only human.”  

Simon believes that the combination of those three things mean, “we have to go back to the drawing board. If we are to do better in the future, we are to create an environment that is engaging for our people, and to put the building blocks in for the long term happy, sustainable future for our firms.” 

Advice for current law firm leaders  

The second half of The Heart of Practice is dedicated to interviews from leaders across the globe. Simon shares that the one consistent theme across all 10 professionals that he interviewed was to be human: “Be human and be yourself. 

“Don’t leave your personality at the door. Bring yourself, bring your energy.” Simon shares that leaders can often hide behind an armoury, but the most successful leaders are authentic.  

Simon advises leaders to find their passion: “I think there are a lot of professionals out there who are slaving away in the office, but they haven’t quite figured out why they’re doing it beyond paying the mortgage.” 

Simon references David Maister who said that only 10% of professionals actually love what they do, and 65% just tolerate it. “I know from my experience, there is only a small percent who have found the sweet spot of being passionate about what they’re doing, it’s meaningful for them, and they’re making full use of the professional skills.”  

Why partnership shouldn’t equal leadership  

In The Heart of Practice, Simon discusses that in order to create an effective workplace culture and address the issues of well-being and mental health in firms, it’ll require leaders to challenge some of the entrenched beliefs and working practices that dictate how firms traditionally operate.  

One of the entrenched beliefs Simon discusses, is that partnership equals leadership: “Our thoughts and preconceptions around leadership have been confined to the partnership table and focuses on leadership being about having the moral authority to tell people what to do, but that’s a very narrow view of leadership that doesn’t work in today’s market, particularly for young professionals.” 

Simon believes that leadership is open to everyone who works in a business, no matter how junior. “I’ve come across young people who have leadership qualities – they’re very self-aware, great with people and clients. And conversely, I’ve come across partners in firms who don’t meet those standards.” 

Leaders should be asking questions of themselves and be prepared for the answers, no matter how critical. “There’s an invitation, in the book, to take a look in the mirror… And to understand what younger generations expect from you and want from you as a leader.” 

Don’t assume that partnership equals being a leader. Simon explains that it’s not uncommon for senior associates to not know what is involved in making the transition from employee to employer. “From my experience most think partnership is a promotion and a pay rise, that comes with the opportunity to have more say.” But Simon warns it’s much more than that and requires knowledge in marketing, business development, innovation, people, cashflow, and more. 

Simon recommends firms put a policy in place that sets a pathway to partnership and what is expected. “I think the divide needs to be bridged because we still have a ‘them and us’ culture. A great deal of building those bridges can come through communication and education. 

“So leadership isn’t just confined to this notion I refer to in the book, which is like boarding school. It’s not about becoming a prefect.” 

How to build an effective leadership team in your law firm  

Simon quotes Joel Barolsky in his book – who was a guest on Simon’s podcast ‘Law Chat’ – who said: “I’m a fan of the dyad where there’s a COO or CEO and a Managing Partner, working hand in glove.” 

In this conversation Simon and Joel were discussing how firms have become more operational over the last few years to help run the practice like a business and remove siloes and the autonomous nature of traditional firms. “I don’t think this is the full answer but when we talk about leadership in law firms, the aspect of governance and decision making is vital. And to Joel’s point, when we talk about ‘who is running this place?’.. many people aren’t trained to take on the role.” 

Simon believes there’s merit in introducing more people into the executive suites such as chief executives, operation officers, marketing directors, IT directors etc. These leaders, Simon believes, should be given authority to make decision on hiring, purchasing software etc, as opposed to several partners trying to decide everything.  

What characteristics or skills make an effective leader?  

Simon lists several characteristics that he believes make an effective law firm leader including:  

  • Commercial acumen 
  • Not afraid to fail  
  • Vulnerable 
  • Compassionate 
  • Has humility  
  • Emotionally intelligent 
  • Curious 
  • Visionary  

To help inspire current and future leaders, Simon breaks down the topic of leadership into four interdependent areas. “The attributes listed above are in the first area which focuses on self-leadership. Gain an understanding of your own abilities and capabilities. The leaders I interviewed go to great lengths to become more self-aware.” 

The other areas of leadership are people leadership, business leadership and community leadership: “I think there is an equal alliance to be placed on each of those four domains of leadership.” 

What are effective success measures law firm leaders should focus on to build a high-performing team and effective workplace culture? 

Tracking ineffective success measures can lead to wrong decisions being made, Simon warns. And implementing the right success measures relies on an effective culture that is based on trust.   

Simons recommends that leaders should ensure employees have responsibility over their KPIs: “Don’t only agree key performance metrics with your people but get them to take control… invite employees to sign up to their own measures.” 

Then, Simon believes, you can give people the opportunity to understand how their contributions fit into the bigger picture. “Every six months, ask how can we be better as a firm? How can you be better at your role? What would you like to do to grow professionally? What training would you like to take?” 

Simon highlights that client satisfaction is a good measure of success and that external feedback helps to shape internal thinking. “Often [success measures] don’t review the quality of work that’s being delivered.” 

Advice for future law firm leaders 

To improve long-term success and be the best law firm leader you can be, Simon advises that you get help when you need it.  

“One thing that came through from the interviews [I conducted] was you can’t do it all alone.” It’s important you have a support network, mentor, or friend that can advise you through the tough times, but also help to point out your weaknesses and blind spots.” An external coach can help you to become more self-aware, which is an important characteristic of a great leader.  

“I encourage you all to have an offsider – someone who can… talk you through issues and help you to find your sweet spot and become the leader that you have the potential to become.” 

Self-awareness, curiosity, and passion help law firm leaders succeed long-term    

The definition of a law firm leader has required a shift in recent years in order to run a successful modern law firm. Today’s legal business requires agile decision making, innovative thinkers, and authentic leaders to stay competitive.  

It’s important for law firms to have inspired leaders throughout the business who can identify opportunities and embed a trusted culture. A successful leader will be their authentic self and have a curious approach to people and business that enables them to identify opportunities, empower employees, and inspire change.  

Watch the full interview with Simon Tupman now to discover more advice and guidance on becoming a successful law firm leader. You’ll also hear Simon’s exclusive advice on the areas of business that successful leaders should be focusing on to improve long-term success.