Change Management: Are You a Manager or a Leader?

The business of law reimagined.

Change management is critical for law firms looking to thrive in today’s evolving legal landscape. Successful change requires both strong leadership and effective management.

Leaders and managers play different but complementary roles in catalyzing positive transformation. Both are absolutely necessary to every business organization; typically, if you look deep enough, you will determine that you are one or the other.

Leaders have no defined authority. Their influence stems from their vision, values, and ability to inspire others to follow through conviction rather than coercion. Leaders set direction by communicating a compelling future vision that excites people. They lead by example, modeling the mindset and behaviors they hope to promote.

Effective law firm leaders focus on culture and strategy. They articulate core values that shape firm identity and unify attorneys around a shared purpose. They define a strategic vision for the future and encourage new opportunities and creative thinking to get there. Leaders think big picture about where the firm is headed and why it matters.

In contrast, managers have defined authority and formal decision-making power. Managers focus on execution, ensuring day-to-day operations run smoothly to deliver consistent results. They create infrastructure, systems, and processes to organize collective efforts. Managers break large goals into tasks and ensure work gets done on time and on budget.

Creating the Perfect Balance

Top-down directives lose sight of perspectives from the front lines of legal service delivery. The most successful law firms balance strong leadership with inclusive management.

Leaders provide vision and direction while empowering managers to lead change. Promoting a culture where everyone has a voice and feels ownership over improvements unlocks the potential for positive transformation. Sustainable change comes through engagement – equipping attorneys and staff at all levels with a voice in decisions that impact their work.

With both leadership inspiration and management execution, law firms can implement changes that better serve clients and position their organizations for long-term success.

In law firms, management duties include staff and workload management, budgeting and billing, talent development, and technology implementation. Good management brings order and predictability. The challenge is not relying too heavily on defined structures and hierarchy, which can stifle agility, innovation, and ownership.

Law firm leaders can set the direction, but they need buy-in and initiative from managers to execute the vision. Managers closest to the work often have the deepest insights about improving systems and processes. Effective leaders empower managers to lead change within their spheres of ownership.

Empowered managers allow creativity and innovation to flourish up and down the hierarchy. The best ideas often come from unexpected places, so leaders should promote a culture where everyone feels comfortable thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo. Transformational change happens when people across the firm feel inspired to reimagine and reinvent how things are done.

Are You a Manager or a Leader? There’s No Wrong Answer!

Ask these questions to determine if you are more of a manager or a leader:

  1. Examine your focus – managers tend to focus on tactics, details, processes, and short-term goals. Leaders focus on strategy, vision, innovation, and long-term goals. Where do you naturally gravitate?
  2. Consider your strengths – managers excel at organizing, coordinating resources, and boosting efficiency. Leaders excel at motivating people, driving change, and aligning teams with a common purpose. What are your standout abilities?
  3. Assess your approach – managers seek to maintain stability and control processes. Leaders aim to inspire progress and push boundaries. Do you prefer to cultivate or disrupt the status quo?
  4. Look at your relationships – managers have authority over their direct reports. Leaders accumulate influence across organizational layers to gain buy-in. Do you leverage formal power or social capital?
  5. Understand your value-add – managers optimize systems and execute plans. Leaders develop engaged cultures and set strategic directions. Where do you add the most value?
  6. Consider what energizes you – managers gain satisfaction from keeping operations running smoothly. Leaders get motivated by painting a vision for the future and making progress toward it. What activates your enthusiasm?
  7. Reflect on your mindset – managers anchor in realities, constraints, and “how.” Leaders operate in possibilities, imagination, and “what if.” What perspective drives you?
  8. Assess your soft skills – managers need administrative skills. Leaders rely on abilities to communicate vision, boost morale, and read group dynamics. Which skills come more naturally?
  9. Think about your weaknesses – managers may struggle without structure, avoiding risk, or giving up control. Leaders can flounder with tactics, follow-through, or embracing accountability. What are your pitfalls?

These factors can help reveal where you gain energy, add value, and excel. Self-awareness of your innate inclinations shapes your understanding of whether a manager or leader role fits best. The most effective organizations have both strong managers and leaders working in symbiosis.