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Vol. 37, No. 4

Changing times, changing leadership academies: Bars focus on connection, community, careers

by Robert J. Derocher

When the Alabama State Bar launched its innovative Leadership Forum nearly a decade ago, law school applications were at a record peak, lawyer unemployment was low, and bar association membership was stable.

Faced with fewer new lawyers, more unemployed attorneys, and declining membership, the Leadership Forum’s core mission—developing the next generation of bar leaders—hasn’t changed, says its director, Ed Patterson. What is changing, he says, is that the forum now includes programming that addresses leadership skills that can transfer beyond the bar.

“There is a distinct difference in attorney needs today, especially since 2008,” says Patterson, the bar’s longtime assistant executive director. “There is a more sober attitude among the younger attorneys.”

As bars with existing leadership development programs like Alabama tweak their programs, other bars are also emerging with new leadership initiatives that are taking similar aims: focusing not only on the future of bar associations, but on the future of practicing attorneys as well. Networking, diversity, practical legal skills, and pro bono—all areas of increasing importance to today’s lawyers—are becoming key components of bar leadership initiatives.

Some of the association leaders behind these programs say their future direction is increasingly being driven by newer members looking for more than a path to the bar presidency. Leadership, many believe, is a valuable skill that transcends the bar, and will likely continue to do so in the years ahead. It is also a skill, they add, that will benefit both the bar and its members.

Building trasferrable skills

As the District of Columbia Bar began gathering feedback and accepting applications for its first Leadership Academy, this spring, it became clear to the bar’s Leadership Task Force and prospective participants what the goals of the academy should be, says Cynthia Hill, the bar’s chief programs officer.

“We wanted to have future bar leaders, and we wanted leadership skills that were transferrable to community service and employment settings,” she says. “And that’s what they wanted, too.”

After talking to several bars with similar programs across the country, sifting through 500-word essays from applicants, and getting buy-in from their employers, the D.C. Bar’s Leadership Development Committee developed a curriculum featuring three full-day sessions for the 19 participants who were selected.

While the sessions feature prominent lawyers, judges, professors, and community leaders, Hill says, a key part of the academy is extensive personality and self-assessment instruction led by professionally trained facilitators. That combination, she adds, is meant to help academy members learn about different leadership styles and how they can be used to lead teams, develop strategic thinking, hone communication skills, and influence people.

“These are all skills that will help them become better leaders, wherever they are,” Hill says. “They are going to be people who are going to be more than capable of taking top leadership positions in the bar.”

The theme of blending bar, community, work, and service leadership is also present in the new Chancellor’s Leadership Institute launched in March by the Philadelphia Bar Association. The goal, Chancellor Kathleen Wilkinson stated when introducing the program, is “to provide ongoing substantive programming aimed at assisting and developing leadership skills and opportunities for women attorneys, attorneys of diverse backgrounds, and young lawyers new to the profession, so they can succeed in today's legal profession.”

The institute was developed, Wilkinson says, in direct response to the changes in the profession, using “today’s norms.” And one of those norms—increasing time demands on lawyers—influenced the bar’s decision to open up the institute’s leadership sessions to all interested lawyers, rather than selecting a small class. Nearly 100 lawyers attended the institute’s first session, which was also available via podcast.

“We felt that we might not be able to reach everyone who needs and wants this,” Wilkinson says. “We saw [the bar’s role] as filling a need. In today’s legal world, the bar association is more relevant to leaders than ever before.”

Developing diverse leadership

A collaborative group of bar associations is also hoping to capitalize on changes in the profession—and demographics—in order to add more diverse leaders to mainstream bars and bar associations of color across the country, both locally and nationally. The American Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, and the National Native American Bar Association are joining forces for the Collaborative Bar Leadership Academy, a two-day event to be held in Minneapolis this June.

The academy hopes to draw 100 participants through a juried selection process by the five sponsoring bars—participants who will not only develop leadership skills, but will also bring those skills back to their bars, says Wendy Shiba, president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and member of the steering committee for the academy. “We hope we will inspire people to contribute as leaders in their respective bar associations,” she says.

While one of the primary purposes of the academy is to “build the bench and pipeline” of future bar leaders of color, perhaps the most important aspect of the academy, Shiba adds, is the collaborative nature of the program that will bring the different bars together—the first time these associations have joined forces for a leadership initiative of this kind.

“We hope [the participants] will recognize the academy as an opportunity to sit in the same room with leaders from sister bar associations,’” Shiba notes. “It’s a unique opportunity to interact and share best practices with a diverse cross section of peers.”

Diversity in leadership opportunities is also a critical component of academy initiatives in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, and several other new or revamped leadership programs.

“We have a pretty diverse group,” says the D.C. Bar’s Hill, noting that the bar has made its academy part of its long-term strategic plan to develop new and diverse leaders. “That’s what the committee was looking for.”

Connecting through community service

Along with diversity, several bar associations that have rolled out new leadership development programs or fine-tuned existing ones have discovered that a pro bono element has become a way to attract future leaders, while also bolstering the bar’s commitment to community service.

The Austin (Texas) Bar Association/Austin Young Lawyers Association Leadership Academy was launched last year with 35 participants and a full slate of programs and activities that concluded with community service projects, as well as a “Pro Bono Prom” that raised more than $27,000 for legal aid, according to Sally Pretorius, an academy member.

While the desire to get involved in pro bono work was a driving factor for Pretorius to join the academy, she adds that the experience also served to pique her interest in bar leadership—she is a coordinator of this year’s academy—as well as to broaden her professional network.

“It was amazing to see how many connections we could build from just one class of 35,” she says. “I got lifelong connections and friends. The relationships you build in leadership classes are amazing. You never know where that next job will come from.”

James Nortey, an Austin lawyer and a member of the 2013 class, which began in January, is looking forward to the academy’s pro bono work.

“I think it’s important that lawyers are visible in the community,” he says. “One of the benefits [of the academy] is the affirmation of what positive role in society lawyers have.”

Pro bono and community service projects within the structure of leadership academies have the added benefit of improving the bar’s overall image in the community, says Tom DeGonia, co-chair of a committee that has developed the Bar Association of Montgomery County’s (Md.) first Leadership Development Academy, launching this spring. The Montgomery County bar’s academy will conclude with a community service/pro bono project, with mentoring from the bar’s president-elect.

“We have two goals: We want to develop bar leaders, and we want to promote the image of lawyers and the legal community and get them more engaged in the community,” DeGonia says. “It’s providing a service back to the community.”

Bringing career skills into the picture

In crafting changes to a nearly decade-old leadership initiative, the Alabama bar’s Patterson also took stock of the current challenges that lawyers face, both in what he was hearing from them and what he was seeing in the marketplace. Among the changes, made last year, that have caught the attention of the bar’s Leadership Forum members: a day-long trip to Maxwell Air Force Base, where forum members could learn some nontraditional leadership skills from military officers. Highlights included war game scenarios, working with military JAGs, and a three-hour Leadership Reaction Course that emphasized teamwork and planning.

“It gets lawyers out of their comfort zones,” Patterson explains. “They learn to observe, orient themselves, and then act, instead of creating chaos by talking all at once. It was very fascinating to watch.”

While the forum still hews to its core leadership initiatives that focus on self-knowledge, communication skills, managing conflict, and adapting to change, Patterson says, the military trip brought a fresh outside element to leadership. Another key change, he notes, was a reduced role for legislation and politics (“too polarizing,” he says) and a greater emphasis on business development and management skills—a reflection of today’s uncertain and shifting legal job market.

“If lawyers don’t have these core competency skills,” he adds, “they are going to fall far behind.”

Success: A work in progress

Although changes in the legal community have presented, and continue to present, challenges for bar leaders, Patterson and others say bar leadership academies and similar initiatives are key to helping develop the next generation of leaders who can help their associations thrive—as well as helping them achieve personal and professional goals.

“We tell them to be ready and willing to step out there and play a role. You don’t have to wait to be asked,” says Karin Crump, co-chair of the Austin bar’s Leadership Committee. “But we’re also trying to develop leaders in the community, as well.”

A graduate of a leadership academy program in Dallas more than a decade ago, Crump herself has used those skills over the years to serve as a president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association and on several state, local, and national bar committees, while also becoming a partner in an Austin law firm and president of her local PTA.

Patterson has only to look as far as the work of the graduates from previous leadership forums to see a pattern of success. Those graduates make up nearly a quarter of the bar’s Board of Commissioners, with several serving in key task forces, sections, and committees, while also moving into positions as judges, elected officials, and leaders in their firms. They have also played important roles in a significant reorganization of the bar.

More than half of the 202 graduates to date have gotten together to create their own separate section within the bar, Patterson adds; this section has developed an executive retreat and is making plans for continued bar improvements.

As bars develop and foster leadership programs, Patterson says, it is important that they continue to monitor and evaluate the program and make changes where needed. And that means adapting to changing economic and social times, as well as adjusting for the needs of the bar. It’s not enough, he believes, to create such a program and think your work is done.

“To have a leadership program does not mean you’re producing leaders,” he says.

To learn more about bar association leadership academies, please read “NABE members, bar leaders offer an inside look at leadership academies,” also in this issue.