Vol. 36, No. 1

Book review: Leadership for Lawyers

by Ralph A. Chatoor

Rubenstein, H. (2008). Leadership for Lawyers (2nd ed.). Chicago, Ill.: American Bar Association. ISBN-13: 978-1-59031-844-7, pp. 215. Soft Cover. $39.95. To order, visit ababooks.org.

Reviewed by Ralph A. Chatoor, B.Sc., P.Eng., LL.B., LL.M., MBA, attorney at law and professional engineer, . Ralph Chatoor may be contacted at ralphchatoor@rogers.com.

Background of the author

Following his graduation from Georgetown University School of Law in 1982, Herb Rubenstein worked as a trial lawyer for more than 20 years. He has written more than 100 articles and books in the area of leadership, strategic planning, organizational development, and law-related topics. His accomplishments include serving as a director of the International Leadership Association, teaching at five different universities, and running for Congress.

Introduction

Lawyers often occupy special seats of influence and power, placing them in privileged positions in our society. They often find work in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, and when asked to lead social causes invariably assume positions of leadership (Griffin, 2007). In fact, 10.8 percent of the CEOs of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-Stock Index have law degrees (France & Lavelle, 2004). In spite of their lack of formal training in finance and accounting, many of these lawyer-CEOs lead corporate entities successfully. So it is surprising to me that Rubenstein (2008) states that lawyers should learn about leadership in an effort to improve their influence as leaders.

The author stresses the idea that although leadership can be taught, it has been neglected from law school curricula and continuing legal education training. By taking this approach, he writes, the profession has done itself a disservice by denying the development of better lawyers and the improvement of the legal profession as a whole. Without an opportunity for lawyers to engage in leadership training at an early stage, Rubenstein believes, the full potential of those who possess a legal education may not be realized. The author claims that this is the first book written by a lawyer for lawyers on the subject of leadership. What follows is a summary and critique of the contents of the book.

Rubenstein notes that several bar associations have established leadership academies. He would also like to see bar associations and other providers of continuing legal education add leadership-related topics into their existing CLE roster. While he does not intensely focus on bar associations as a place to develop and employ leadership skills, elected bar leaders and staff members will likely find that much of Leadership for Lawyers is of interest to them and applicable to bar associations.

Contents of the book

Regardless of their area of practice, Rubenstein claims that leadership training will be of benefit to all lawyers to improve their legal skills and increase their ability to lead clients and manage organizations. The author outlines the most popular theories of leadership, including trait theory, style approach, contingency, path-goal, leader-member exchange, transformational, team leadership, psychodynamic approach, and leader of leaders.

Rubenstein particularly addresses the challenges women face in the profession by highlighting the unfair treatment they have received historically and that continues to be an ongoing barrier to professional success. He makes this point in part by citing the statistic that although “well over 50 percent” of total graduating law school classes are women, fewer than 20 percent of all partners in law firms are women. It should be noted that while the partnership statistic still holds true, the percentage of law students who are women has since declined; the most recent figures from the ABA indicate that women make up slightly more than 47 percent of all law students and slightly less than 46 percent of all new law grads (“A Current Glance at Women in the Law 2011,” 2011). Also highlighted is the difference in leadership styles of women as opposed to men. Men often subscribe to the traditional top-down command and control approach, Rubenstein writes. Women, on the other hand, lean toward collaborative leadership that centers on discussion, persuasion, and partnering.

The relationship between ethics, natural law, and leadership is examined. Rubenstein covers this topic by defining ethics and natural law within the context of leadership. He makes the point that ethics is built into the rules of professional practice but falls short of the expectations under the rules of natural justice. Lawyers finding themselves in conflict between positive law and natural justice are advised to follow the doctrines of natural justice as it meets the objectives of dispensing and supporting justice.

Rubenstein asserts that systematically taught leadership development courses can help the profession significantly improve the reputation of lawyers in society as a whole. Leadership courses provide a competitive advantage for lawyers in obtaining and excelling in leadership activities in the community, which can put lawyers in a very favorable light with potential clients, the media, and other lawyers.

Although training in leadership can do little to solve the challenges of maintaining one’s billable hours, it can help in formulating new ways to complete the work. This can be achieved by opening up new pathways to innovation, business planning, and strategic planning. Leadership training may also improve the reputation of the profession, improve civility among peers, reduce burnout, curtail substance abuse, increase worker satisfaction, reduce complaints against lawyers, and promote self-awareness. Most important, the leadership mindset will be critical in setting up the mentor-mentee relationship and in promoting the concept of participatory leadership through one’s organization.

A series of leadership assessment tools are outlined in the book. These are provided with the objective of constructing a framework for lawyers to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Rubenstein does this by providing a list of 41 competencies that define successful leadership practices as a lawyer (such as active listening, strategic thinking, fairness, etc.). He then goes on to list the 40 most popular leadership behavioral styles (such as focused driver, collaborative initiator, engaged adapter, etc.). Appendix A of the book provides a brief summary of 90 brands of leadership training that are on the market.

Near the end of the book, Rubenstein notes that the challenge comes down to teaching leadership in a way that makes an impact, in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. He is of the opinion that the most effective way to do this is within the workplace itself. He suggests first setting up mentor-mentee relationships and then sending mentors on leadership development courses. Mentors who receive this training can then train subordinate staff while at the same time creating a bond between teachers and learners.

Criticism of the book

Rubenstein asserts that lawyers who have leadership training are more effective in their role as lawyers. Throughout the book this claim is made repeatedly, but Rubenstein fails to cite any research or generate data to substantiate his claim. The author never answers the obvious question: In a competitive environment, how is our attitude about winning at all cost tempered by leadership training? Perhaps Rubenstein could answer this question by drawing on the experience of lawyers who have exhibited exemplary leadership, citing their commitment to high ethical and natural law values and showing how this has made a difference.

The author is very careful in writing the chapter on the challenges women face when entering the profession, out of fear that he may alienate his readers. It is an uncomfortable subject to write about, as men and women do compete within the profession for clients and prestige. Among other points, the author challenges the legal fraternity to redefine its traditional metrics of success (billable hours, rainmaking, out-of-office networking, etc.) and focus more on measures such as client retention (brought about by relationship building) and collaborative leadership displayed by those who create opportunities for subordinates to grow. By adjusting its institutions and practices, Rubenstein argues, the legal profession may be able to maximize the contribution from all of its members. These suggestions make sense, but the author confirms what has been known for a long time and falls short by leaving unaddressed the practical aspects of implementing the changes he recommends.

Arguably, the discussion around conducting a leadership assessment on the self is one of the most important in the book. Rubenstein provides some diagnostic tools for lawyers to complete an inventory of their leadership skills, but this chapter could have been strengthened by weaving individual theories together.

In the closing chapter of the book, Rubenstein advocates teaching leadership via a “New Model” by setting up mentor-mentee relationships and making the training more practical than theoretical. In my respectful view, the author should have spent more time on how his “New Model” promotes vision, inspires followers, instills unity, acts as a catalyst for change, promotes employee engagement, and preserves best practices. A visual depiction of his leadership training model and how it ties all of the concepts in the chapter together would have been helpful.

Despite Rubenstein’s position that both lawyers and the legal profession can benefit from leadership training in any number of ways, he cites no studies nor generates data to support that argument. The most damaging threat to his perspective is that as long as lawyers are seen as being naturally fitted with leadership ability, there will be little or no need to promote leadership training in the profession.

Conclusion

On balance, I would recommend the book, as it provides a useful start for lawyers to thinking about leadership training as a means of improving their leadership style. It also challenges the legal community, including bar associations, to think about how leadership training may improve the public’s view of the profession. I hasten to add that the contents of the book could be strengthened by relying less on anecdotal evidence and more on academic research to substantiate its claims.

References

  • A Current Glance at Women in the Law 2011. (2011). [Article]. Perspectives: A Magazine for & About Women Lawyers, 19(4), 15-15. 
  • M., & Lavelle, L. (2004). A Compelling Case for Lawyer- CEOs. [Article]. BusinessWeek, 39(12), 88-89. 
  • Griffin, K. (2007). Lawyer CEOs. Leadership Excellence, 24(3), 
  • Rubenstein, H. (2008). Leadership for Lawyers (2nd ed.). Chicago, Ill.: American Bar Association.