January 01, 2015

The Leading Edge

Laurie Ristino

Bringing It All Back Home


For Professor Cheryl Hanna, 1966–2014

Infamously, in 1965, a folk icon strapped on an electric guitar to the jeers of a once adoring audience. Why the outraged response? Fans felt their protest-song-writing hero had sold out. But, the fact is that Bob Dylan was never that musician—in true American icon-style he continues to defy categorization. This is the challenge for both individual and organization: to be true to who and what you are and resist the pull of expediency or the moment’s fashion. Easier said than done.


We’ve gone through some seismic changes in the legal world. In the last decade, high-powered law firms—which one would have never thought vulnerable—buckled. This routing was the result of a confluence of events, and the take-away was that there was new reality for the legal biz.

And then, a wave of critical press questioned the value of a law degree, given the high price tag and the paucity of (well-paying) legal jobs. The cumulative result has been a painful contraction in the legal academy, which has left many law schools reeling.

In these moments, it is easy to panic and lose sight of the mission. When the fight or flight instinct kicks in, disciplined vision, clearly communicated and confidently led, becomes an endangered species. This is precisely why people like Lee Iacocca (Chrysler) or Billy Beane (Oakland As) practically become heroes. It’s the rare person who can lead through difficult times, and those who do are often credited with what is a group effort to turnaround an organization. In difficult times, people crave visionary leadership to be led to better days.

Lawyers aren’t traditionally trained to be change management leaders. But, it’s this set of skills that are necessary to lead in this down market, if you will. Here the fundamentals are key: internally articulating mission and managing true to it while outwardly defining and communicating brand, the thing which differentiates your organization from others. Mission and brand provide a disciplined focus for the organization and a clear message to the outside world, both essential in a competitive market. What’s even harder, because human instinct is to retrench in times of crisis, is to innovate while staying true to brand. One fine example of innovating while staying true to the core brand is the venerated English clothing company Burberry, which has updated its look while maintaining the design elements and quality that define its brand.

Just because we are lawyers or law professors doesn’t make us immune to the market forces that impact other sectors. We may not feel comfortable using business terms or, for example, equating academia to business. But, ultimately, we all thrive or die in the marketplace.

It’s a special kind of leader who can lead through crisis, which inevitably requires organizational change. It’s that rare person who understands the defining character of an organization, how to communicate that essence to the outside world while galvanizing the members of the organization to move forward. It’s not easy, but it is possible. And it’s starts here: Bringing it all back home.

Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is the Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and an Associate Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School. The views expressed in this column are solely the author’s own.