Does leadership matter for lawyers?

Today marks the release of the first issue of the new twice-monthly e-newsletter, Leadership Matters for LawyersMy conversations with lawyers have revealed deep interest in the topic of leadership.  Law firms have initiated leadership development programs and bar associations have instituted Leadership Academies.  Attorneys are reading (and writing) books that address how leaders are made.  Lawyers in private practice often aspire to be leaders – perhaps by becoming managing partner of the firm or being named to the executive committee.  But is leadership development just another box to tick for the “average” lawyer, another drain on precious non-billable time?

I hold that leadership reflects action rather than a title and that the action of leading is intrinsic to the profession.  Lawyers lead in their practices, through business development, and in numerous other ways.  Leadership capacity is directly tied to success and satisfaction in practice, so smart lawyers spend time and energy in developing their skills.  The first step on the leadership development path lies in revealing the many dimensions of leadership, which opens opportunities for a leader’s growth.  And it’s that conversation where we begin by asking the question: Does Leadership Matter for Lawyers? 

It’s a fair question, and a good place to start off with the Leadership Matters for Lawyers newsletter series of articles.  After all, if leadership doesn’t matter, there’s no point in spending valuable time reading (or writing) on this topic. 

The truth is, leadership absolutely matters to lawyers, and it matters on several levels.  We’ll begin by identifying these levels, and future articles will address them with greater depth. 

Internal Leadership

Internal leadership matters for lawyers as the basis of individual success and as the foundation of advancement within any kind of organization.  “Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.” (Thomas Watson, Sr., former IBM president from 1914-1956.)  The capacity to lead begins with discipline and the ability to set and execute plans with integrity.  Leadership is based in vision; the process of bringing a vision into reality requires great discipline.  “Do as I say, not as I do” usually doesn’t hold water with children, and it certainly isn’t a platform that will inspire others to follow.  Leadership matters to lawyers in developing the discipline necessary to succeed on a personal level. 

Leadership as a Skilled Practitioner or Rainmaker

A similar leadership concern also exists when a lawyer strives to develop competency and then excellence as a practitioner or a rainmaker.  Such a level of development requires great internal discipline and also implies some measure of leadership of others, as with a trial lawyer who’s learned how to lead a jury to follow her logic and return a verdict for client.  Becoming a “leading attorney” in a substantive area or in bringing clients to a practice requires competency in leadership skills. 

Team Leadership

Leadership also matters to lawyers on the team level in the workplace.  We tend to think of law firm leaders as being practice group leaders, managing partners, partners in charge of an office in a multi-office firm, and so on.  But every lawyer who is in charge of a team of any description is a leader and must exhibit leadership abilities to be effective, whether that person is a partner in charge of a team of lawyers working on a particular client matter or a first-year associate who’s heading up a team of paralegals doing document review.  

Leadership in the Community

Consider our society and the roles that some lawyers choose to play in it.  Those who become members of boards, who serve on community committees, or who become involved in politics must possess leadership abilities.  Those who succeed and advance in politics must be master leaders to be effective. 

Leadership to Effect Change

Finally, those who seek to effect change through any kind of grassroots campaign must possess leadership skills — not just the “leaders” in name, but those who canvas door-to-door to find support for the cause, those who speak at rallies or before Congress, those who write persuasively.  Certainly, not all lawyers engage in these activities, but some do.  Leadership matters for those lawyers. 

Why Does Leadership Matter to You?

So, consider your own life, your practice, your goals and desires.  In what way are you currently serving as a leader, using these broad definitions?  Whom are you intending to lead?  Whom are you “supposed” to lead?  What value do you find in assuming a leadership role? 

Future issues of Leadership Matters for Lawyers will probe leadership skills, how to develop those skills, and how doing so will enhance your practice. 

2 replies
  1. Herb Rubenstein
    Herb Rubenstein says:

    I agree that leadership matters for lawyers and that is why I wrote the first book on the subject, Leadership for Lawyers. The second edition is being published this month by the American Bar Association and it is my hope that all CLE providers will provide leadership training and CLE credit will be given for this essential topic for lawyers. Thank you for publishing your insightful newsletter. Herb Rubenstein 303 279-1878

  2. Julie Fleming-Brown
    Julie Fleming-Brown says:

    Herb, thanks for your comment. Your book is one that I had in mind when I mentioned that lawyers are writing books about leadership, and I received notice in the last couple of days that the ABA had shipped your book. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing it.

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