The Future of Leadership in Law Firms

Author: Joey Yerace, Assistant Director of Marketing + Publications

Chris Szydlowski, Director of Externships, discusses transformational leadership approaches that align with a dynamic legal landscape.

According to the NALP Foundation and NALP’s 10th annual recently released Law School Alumni Employment and Satisfaction Study for the Class of 2019, the landscape of the legal profession is dynamic and ever evolving, marked by continuous change and high turnover rates. As such, the demand for effective leadership has shifted beyond being a priority; it has become a pressing necessity. Paving the way as a strong voice in this domain is Christine Szydlowski (JD ’91), ACC. Drawing from her extensive experience as the Director of Externships at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, and her role as a leadership trainer and coach with The Pillar Approach, LLC, Szydlowski offers a subtle viewpoint on the complexities of leadership in her recently published article “How to Build a Leadership Culture that Attracts and Retains Talent,” in the December 2023 issue of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) Bulletin.

In a profession where aptitude often defines one's trajectory, Szydlowski challenges this conventional view, affirming that leadership transcends a standard label. Instead, it should be embraced as a mindset that cultivates evergreen behaviors and outcomes. This perspective stands in contrast to the traditional practice of promoting individuals solely based on their legal expertise. Szydlowski contends that proficiency at one’s job does not necessarily translate to effective leadership skills. She identifies behaviors such as poor communication, credit-taking, and micromanagement that often emerge in those elevated to leadership positions without the necessary foundational leadership mindset.

Christine Szydlowski, Director of Externships

Christine Szydlowski, Director, Professional Developpment + Placement, Externships at UC Law/ photo: UC

To address these challenges, Szydlowski advocates for a proactive approach from organizations. Moreover, she emphasizes the need for ongoing support and guidance to help leaders continually refine and develop their skills, recognizing that the journey towards effective leadership is a continuous process.

In light of the NALP Foundation and NALP’s 10th annual Law School Alumni Employment and Satisfaction Study for the Class of 2019, Szydlowski's insights gain even more relevance. According to the study, graduates reported a considerable level of mobility, with over two-thirds stating that they have already occupied two or more positions since completing their education.

The data highlights dynamic legal career paths, emphasizing the need for legal professionals to possess both technical expertise and strong leadership skills for evolving roles.

The Four Pillar Framework

For law firms aspiring to foster a culture of leadership excellence, Szydlowski proposes a comprehensive four-pillar framework:

  1. Find the Right People: Szydlowski encourages a shift in recruitment practices. She encourages businesses to prioritize candidates with both skill and attitude, moving beyond the traditional evaluation of legal expertise.
  2. Help Them Learn to Lead Themselves Well: Recognizing the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome among newly minted lawyers, Szydlowski advocates for a comprehensive approach to education. This involves not only deepening knowledge in practice areas but also providing training in soft skills and emotional intelligence. This pillar focuses on self-assessment, core values, feedback mechanisms, professional communication, networking strategies, and wellness initiatives.
  3. Build Upon This Foundation with Executive Training and Opportunities to Lead Others: As legal professionals progress in their careers, Szydlowski suggests targeted workshops on leadership competencies. These include, but are not limited to, giving constructive feedback, navigating change, and fostering creative problem-solving. Active engagement in community leadership roles and mentorship opportunities further enhance these skills, ensuring a well-rounded development.
  4. Spread the Word: The final pillar involves actively marketing the firm's commitment to a leadership culture. Szydlowski argues that intentional development of true leaders distinguishes a firm, attracting and retaining top talent and quality clients. Communicating this commitment not only externally but also internally becomes crucial in embedding a leadership mindset across all levels of the organization.
Business persons shaking hands on a meeting

Leadership team meeting at law firm \ Photo: istockphoto

Szydlowski's insights provide not just a set of guidelines, but a comprehensive roadmap for law firms grappling with turnover issues and aiming to establish a resilient leadership culture. By challenging conventional promotion practices and advocating for intentional recruitment, ongoing education, and executive training, she presents an elevated framework. Embracing these principles can turn law firms into environments that not only nurture, but also retain exceptional legal professionals.

As the legal profession continues its evolution, Szydlowski's insights underscore the pivotal role of leadership in shaping its future. Her call to action resonates not just as a solution for turnover, but as a strategic approach to laying the foundation of the legal profession in an era of constant change. By purposefully nurturing leaders and dedicating themselves to ongoing growth, law firms can not only establish their presence as legal entities, but also as dynamic, flexible, and flourishing organizations prepared to tackle the challenges of the future.

Embracing Szydlowski's insightful perspective and acknowledging the imperative need for proactive leadership in navigating the evolving landscape of the legal profession creates stewards of change. Law firms must heed the call to action not merely as a remedy for turnover but as a strategic imperative for shaping the foundation of the legal field amid perpetual transformation.

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