Book Review – Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, by Laura Empson (First published in the Law Society Gazette)

by Sue Bramall

In her most recent book review, Sue Bramall looks at Laura Empson’s ‘Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas’.

If you are looking for a book with practical advice to help you lead your firm to success, to establish a rock-solid power structure, or to deal with those few partners that give you all the headaches, then this will not be the book for you. Laura Empson concludes that “this book has not attempted to provide the answer to questions of leadership in professional organizations.”. However, if you are new to law firm management or aspiring to join the Executive Committee, then this book provides a great deal of insight and could certainly help you to avoid some career-limiting mistakes.

Empson is Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School and Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Centre on the Legal Profession. She has drawn on many years of interviewing over 500 professionals in leadership positions in a range of professional firms and has analysed this information to draw a very accurate sketch of leadership structures, dynamics and paradoxes.

The academic style is leavened by the many verbatim quotations from lawyers, accountants and consultants, which are candid and revealing of the many frustrations experienced by leaders and those who are led. One chairman describes his role as “like walking a tightrope”.

Empson starts with an exploration of the foundations of leadership, governance, and how different structures can reconcile the competing goals of the individual and the collective, whether short-term financial returns or long-term legacy. While professionals decry political behaviour, it shows how they create intensely political environments.

The second section focuses on the leadership team, usually (and ideally) a pair of leaders (a dyad), how a culture is built through social control, and how leaders need to be consummate politicians without seeming to be political. Empson’s leadership dyad framework proposes four types of leadership dyad depending on whether roles are distinct or overlapping, and whether the relationship is harmonious or discordant. The section on insecure overachievers is intriguing and will have most readers doing some soul searching!

Chapter 7 discussed the role of management professionals within the leadership team. The research study for this focused on very large City law firms, and the changes in relationships and power over time. Given that some of the mid-tier law firms are now run by accountants, it would have been interesting to see what impact this has had on leadership.

Empson then goes on to look at leadership performance as firms grow. Firms need to pass through a crisis at each stage of growth in order to progress to the next level of management: founder-focused; collegial; committee; delegated; corporate. She then looks at leadership issues in post-merger integration and during restructuring.

The book demonstrates how leadership in a professional firm is more ambiguous, “more temporary, more insecure, and more subject to negotiation” than conventional leadership thinking.

I hope Empson is planning a future edition, as I’d love to know Empson’s opinions on a few issues that were not covered, such as: Diversity and leadership – how can firms improve? How can individuals break through? External funding – what are the influences of external investors and shareholders? Skills development – which firms bring on leaders well? What support would new leaders like? I suspect that readers who are managing partners would like some more information on performance management – there was little advice for dealing with the prima donnas!

Empson’s observations rang true to my experiences (which, like her research subjects, have encompassed a niche consultancy, a global firm, a top law firm, and several mergers) and I could hear former colleagues muttering the various comments. Anyone involved with leadership in a law firm will find this book fascinating and insightful.

Available from Oxford University Press: £35.00

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/leading-professionals-9780198744788?cc=gb&lang=en&

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by Sue Bramall

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