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2024 ALPMA Summit 🎆 Save the date, 11-13 September →

Achieving change in a law firm can be challenging.  Law firm managers don’t always have as much scope as they would have in an industrial company.  All the owners are in the building with you, and they need to be convinced before you can start.  At the very least you have to satisfy a management committee.  And lawyers tend to be risk-averse and traditional in their thinking.

It is frustrating when people don’t buy into your idea, or if they make wrong assumptions about your job role and what you want to accomplish at work.  If you have great ideas and want to make a difference in your firm, “thought leadership” will help you get the buy-in and support you need.

By being a thought leader, you can inspire people to take action, or to authorize you to do so.  Thought leadership helps you to communicate your ideas in a unique and compelling way.  Thought leadership helps people see your point of view.

What is thought leadership?  It’s leading – with your thinking.

The term “thought leader” was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor of Strategy + Business magazine.  He used the term to describe the type of experts he wanted to feature in the magazine.  He described a “thought leader” as someone who is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts for having a deep understanding of the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate, and who has distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.

Subject-Matter Expertise

Essential to being a thought leader in your firm is to have subject-matter expertise.  Assuming that you have that expertise, the next step is to position yourself as an expert.  Your job role may not sufficiently describe what you do, or what you want to achieve.  You need to teach people what your job is.

Identify the main principles which guide you in your daily work.  Communicate those frequently and in a variety of ways.  Showcase your expertise and demonstrate how it can benefit others in the firm.

You could produce a White Paper, addressing a particular issue of importance, and recommending a solution.  You could produce a regular blog or podcast.  You could set up a series of seminars to address common problems.  All of this raises your profile and makes you much more visible and valuable in your firm.

Invest in Professional Development

To deepen your expertise and widen your perspective, attend a variety of professional development events.  Join and participate in professional associations.  Give presentations.  ALPMA offers a wide range of seminars and an annual conference where you can network with others working in law firm management.

A thought leader needs to have strong communication skills, oral and written, and the ability to harness a variety of “modes” – “telling”, “asking” and “showing”.  You need to be able to cater to visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning preferences.

Challenge Conventional Wisdom

A thought leader has the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom, rather than simply to echo what everyone else is saying.  Be willing to voice your original ideas and insights. Don’t be afraid to be a “contrarian” – an unexpected point of view gets attention.  But you must have a strong, clear message; be ready to express it in one sentence.

I recommend the book Thought Leaders (2011) by Matt Church, Scott Stein and Michael Henderson (available in ebook form for free), which outlines nine thought leadership skills that will help you to express, promote and implement your ideas:

  1. Uniqueness. Use your unique perspective to stand out and increase the value of your ideas.
  2. Expertise. Know what you know.  Unpack what you know and share it in an engaging way, so that your idea will “stick”.
  3. Perspective. What is going on around you? What are the trends that will affect your business? How does your idea fit in with these?
  4. Positioning.  Know how to position yourself and your organization so that people know exactly what you do and why.
  5. Delivery.  Use the most suitable method to get your point across in a meaningful, effective and engaging way.
  6. Adaptation. Adapt your communication approach to fit the needs of different people.
  7. Execution. Launch your concept, become massively productive and get more done.
  8. Clicking. Connect your ideas to the needs of others so they are truly valued.
  9. Advocacy.  Sell the vision and influence others so they engage with your ideas.

Thought leadership helps you sell your vision and ideas.  Your thought leadership makes you more charismatic, differentiates you in the employment market and attracts talented people to work for you.

To make your mark in your law firm, be a thought leader.


Shelley Dunstone
Shelley Dunstone
Owner & Principal at Legal Circles
Shelley Dunstone is the Principal of Legal Circles, which helps lawyers to have better businesses and more satisfying careers.  She is a life member of the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association and Co-Chair of the Senior Lawyers Committee of the International Bar Association, and has been trained in the principles of thought leadership by Matt Church, founder of the Thought Leaders group.

She founded Legal Circles in 2001, to help lawyers achieve their business and career aspirations.  Her passion is to help lawyers make the most of their unique skills and qualities, so they can develop a practice and a career they truly enjoy.

Shelley was admitted as a lawyer in 1981 and practised in a variety of legal fields before specializing in commercial litigation.  She has been a partner of a mid-sized Australian commercial law firm, and has also worked as a freelance lawyer, helping small firms and sole practitioners to deal with large litigious matters.

Shelley is an Adjunct Lecturer with the College of Law, and is the author of A Practical Guide to Drafting Pleadings (published by Thomson Reuters).


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