Leadership and the Law: Skills You Need to Survive in the New Economy

Vol. 15 No. 9

L. Collin Cooper is a Leadership Fellow at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina. Thank you to Faith Rivers James, associate professor at the Elon University School of Law, for her help and guidance in making this article possible.

America’s economic situation has no doubt caused many lawyers to pause and reflect upon their profession’s future—a future where many young lawyers are struggling to find employment and success in an ever-changing legal marketplace. What, then, can lawyers do to improve their chances of survival? Developing critical leadership skills can provide a competitive advantage for young attorneys entering into the new economy.

Law firms and law schools are recognizing that leadership and professional development, even for “born leaders,” are integral to success in the legal profession. They also recognize that leadership skills can be learned—they are not necessarily innate. Such skills are important because clients, as well as our communities, look to us as creative problem solvers, consensus builders, and peacemakers. Young lawyers must, therefore, develop key leadership and professional skills, such as innovation, persuasion, adaptability, and social responsibility, in order to attract and retain clients, as well as better serve their communities.


The essential skills of lawyering—evaluating the legal consequences of an issue and providing a workable and legal solution—are not always sufficient to create a “leader.” This has been particularly true after the economic recession, where innovation and problem solving have become a more highly prized skill. Young lawyers must, therefore, become innovative by becoming more resourceful, forward thinking, and creative in order to meet their clients’ needs and their firms’ expectations.

In his book entitled The Lawyer Leader, Professor Robert Cullen contends that clients are, for the most part, no longer looking for transaction-specific advisors. Rather, they expect their attorneys to be able to adapt to new legal and economic trends and to provide forward-thinking solutions that predict how future legal changes and contingencies might impact their families or businesses. Today’s clients expect advice that simultaneously solves their current problems while avoiding future ones, requiring lawyers who are willing to look forward and think globally. Honing innovation skills fosters client trust and enables lawyers to become better advisors and leaders, both to their clients and their communities.


In his book Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter Northouse defines leadership as a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective or common task. In the legal context, leadership can involve influencing judges or opposing counsel to accomplish the client’s common objective or strategy. Effective persuasion requires mastery of both oral and written advocacy. The persuasive communicator will know his audience and, as a result, will be able to gain their trust, effectively interact with them, and successfully influence them. For example, lawyers should get to know their clients’ expectations, prejudices, and educational boundaries. By clearly communicating the legal issues to your clients in an understandable way, in light of their background and education, clients may place more confidence and trust in your judgment.


Every lawyer has likely been in a situation where the rules changed mid-game—relevant law was overruled midstream or new facts arise that undermine your legal strategy. A lawyer-leader has the persistence and ambition to persevere professionally in spite of these changes. This drive stems from a lawyer’s capacity to adapt quickly and professionally to changed circumstances, coupled with the initiative to learn new things and find innovative solutions.

Adaptability is important, but how can a lawyer build on this skill? The answer is simple: competence and ambition. In their book Simple Solutions, Tom Schimitt and Arnold Perl contend that ambition results in a “can do” attitude, enabling young lawyers to gain the requisite skills necessary to accomplish client goals. Further, adaptability encourages an open mind and a willingness to adjust quickly to new experiences. Stepping out of the box and striving to take on new and more complex projects will not only increase a lawyer’s self-confidence, but will also make them more well rounded and able to meet their clients’ needs when the game changes.

Social responsibility

Although pro bono work and community service are more often suggested rather than required, lawyers should become involved in their communities outside of the normal law practice. This will enable them to understand the “bigger picture” better. Societal problems such as civil rights, poverty, and the current economic recession need educated leaders to solve them, and lawyers are well equipped to help manage these problems if they can learn to adapt and innovate beyond the strict confines of the law.

The benefits of pro bono service go beyond simply solving a societal problem. Through community service and pro bono legal work, attorneys can interact with prospective clients, network, and build relationships in the community at large. Lawyers who know their communities, whether at the local or national levels, can better empathize with and better relate to their clients. As a result, lawyers will gain the trust of their community members and grow a more successful law practice.

Successful lawyer-leaders must look beyond the project at hand. Young lawyers can hone leadership skills by continuing to innovate, improve persuasion skills, adapt to new situations, and tackle new challenges, while serving their greater communities.

Next Steps

Leadership for Lawyers, Second Ed. 2008. PC # 1610162. ABA Book Publishing.



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