When it comes to identifying and developing top leadership talent, law firms are way behind the curve. In a survey of large law firms conducted with the research arm of The American Lawyer‘s parent company, only 20 percent of respondents said they have formal leadership development programs. That’s a dismal result, given the prevalence of such programs in other professions.

Changing times create a demand for more sophisticated leadership styles and skills. Law has become a big, high-stakes business, dominated by firms that increasingly resemble large corporations. Today it is common for a firm to have as many as 20 far-flung offices, up to 40 practice groups and scores of industry teams. The leadership challenges of such an enterprise are far different from the informal, consensus-based management style of the past. Today’s top firms have complex organizational charts and operational systems, topped by C-level executives who are judged more on their ability to boost the productivity of others than on personal performance as big producers. Up-and-coming practice group leaders and business developers will have to show that they can build high-performing teams — a role for which few were trained in law school.

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