October 28, 2019 8 minutes to read ∙ 1800 words

Building a Practice: Manage by Leading

By Terrie S. Wheeler

Download the PDF of this article

Learn the difference between leadership and management.

Learn the difference between leadership and management.

One of the biggest mistakes lawyers make is assuming strong leadership and management are the same thing. In law firms, it is a fairly common practice to take the lawyer with the biggest, most successful practice and ask him or her to serve in a position of leadership. The thought is, “She built a multi-million-dollar practice, which must qualify her to serve as our managing partner.” Therein lies an issue. Just because a lawyer can effectively manage the growth of his or her practice does not automatically make that lawyer a leader.

How to Spot Lawyers Who Are Leaders

Think about the lawyers in your firm or other lawyers you know in the community. Now think of the lawyers who seem to be a cut above the rest: the thought leaders who treat others with courtesy and respect. These lawyers are trusted and appreciated by their colleagues in the legal industry, in their communities, on the boards they serve, and by their state and local bar associations. Colleagues seek out and truly value their opinion. They are genuinely kind, selfless people who are constantly giving to help others. These lawyers are true leaders who can inspire others to follow them in new directions. In short, people believe in them. Most lawyers aspire to being perceived as leaders, but many confuse true leadership with management.

Management Is an Important Skill, Too

Lawyers who are managers are great at developing systems and processes for litigation efficiencies or effective execution of corporate transactions. They manage a group of associates and other lawyers by sharing what they have learned and by overseeing each team members’ responsibilities until the work is completed. Managers are very mission driven, and their goal is to accomplish the tasks at hand and move onto the next deliverable to conquer.

Leadership is key.

Leadership is key.

Why Is Leadership So Important to Your Future Success as a Lawyer?

My guess is that most of you are decent managers. You made it through law school and into a successful position as a lawyer . . . but how are your people skills? Leadership is all about garnering the trust and respect of people and giving them the positive feedback and support they need to be successful. Leadership is much more about how you deal with people versus tasks. Above all else, leaders value the contributions of the people on their team.

Be a Leader: Your Marketing Efforts Depend on It

Some fortunate people are “natural-born leaders.” If you were not born to lead, fear not. You can learn the skills necessary to become that lawyer people want to be with; that lawyer whose opinion is sought after; that lawyer who commands the trust and respect of their colleagues. Lawyers who are leaders are much more likely to have success in sales and marketing than those who like to focus on tasks. The following ideas will help you uncover your innate skills as a leader and build important leadership skills that will form the foundation you will build your future practice on. If you implement them consistently over time, you can watch your reputation steadily grow.

Identify Your Strengths.

The first step in building on your strengths is to step back and introspectively determine what your top strengths and personality preferences are. Figure out what type of leader you are. Consider taking Gallop’s CliftonStrengths assessment (previously called the StrengthsFinder assessment). This tool will rate your strengths in 34 different areas within four domains of leadership: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking. Understanding your strengths is the first step in developing your leadership skills. In addition, consider taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI; a free version can be found at www.16personalities.com). The MBTI provides your preferences on a spectrum of introversion versus extroversion, sensing versus intuitive, thinking versus feeling, and judging versus perceiving.

Get involved!

Get involved!

Say Yes!

When someone (a partner or colleague in your law firm, your bar association, or a community group) asks you to do something, step up and say yes. Leaders develop their reputations by engaging in the world around them—not cloistered away in their offices. Many times, saying yes will infringe on your before- or after-work time. Generally, the best networking and relationship-building activities happen early morning or in the evening. Lawyers who say yes are interested and involved in their communities, bar associations, nonprofit organizations, and trade associations attracting prospective clients.

Serve on a Board

Nonprofit boards are always looking for lawyers to bring their knowledge and experience to the table. Board involvement will help you refine your leadership skills by taking an active interest in the board(s) you serve on. Prepare for meetings. Ask great questions. Volunteer to serve on a committee (even as chair). If you say you will do something, do it. Promote your organization on social media and become “tied” to the organizations you support. But choose organizations you believe in so you can zealously support their missions and lend a hand in their fundraising efforts.

Be Active in Your Bar Associations

For other lawyers to see you as a leader, you need to actively participate in your state and local bar associations. Attend the meetings and meet new people. Take the pressure off yourself by genuinely trying to learn more about the person you are talking to. Ask great questions to show you are listening and are interested in what they are saying. Work your way up the leadership ranks by volunteering to serve as chair, vice chair, treasurer, or secretary. Then, show up! Make your bar association activities a priority even when you are busy.


When trying to establish yourself as a leader, put yourself out there by offering to speak at various community, nonprofit, religious, or even CLE events. Once you begin speaking on a regular basis, new opportunities will find you. Speaking builds leadership skills because you engage with the audience. Draw them into your topic by providing example after example to demonstrate your points. Practice your speaking skills because the more speaking you do, the better you will get! As with anything, come prepared. Never “wing” a professional speaking engagement.

Write Articles

You build your leadership skills by writing articles because you are demonstrating your subject-matter mastery. You are generously sharing tips and ideas to help educate your readers on topics of interest to them. Be willing to give away some of your expertise to showcase your knowledge. At my marketing agency, PSM, we have worked with many lawyers who are leaders—those well-known and respected in the legal industry. When asked what they attribute their success to, time after time they will say: writing and speaking. The more of each you do, the more people will see you as a leader and subject-matter expert, and the more you will be asked to speak and write articles. Talk about positive momentum!

Be a Leader in Your Firm

Remember leadership is about how you engage with people and inspire them to follow you toward reaching a common goal. Volunteer to serve on committees in your firm, such as diversity, marketing, law school recruitment, and myriad other committees that make your firm tick. Try to have a personal relationship with every person at your firm, from secretaries and legal assistants to the managing partner. Have conversations, ask questions, and listen. If you can, act on their ideas and give them public credit for having brought their thoughts to you. Leaders are respected and adored by those around them. But you have to “walk the walk.”

Be a Community Volunteer

When you stand up for your community, you will stand out in business. You know how busy the practice of law can be. That said, find the time to volunteer for at least one community organization that could use your help. Just make sure it’s for a cause you are passionate about. As a community volunteer, you will meet myriad other leaders in your community. Once the group sees you are committed to their efforts, they will envelope you into the inner circle of their group. But be prepared. It can take a little time for community groups to be convinced that you are in it for the long haul. Show up, do what you say you will do, and watch yourself rise to levels of leadership in your community.

Consider pro bono work.

Consider pro bono work.

Pro Bono Work Matters

Many firms have official pro bono programs, while most rely on the lawyers themselves to meet the guidelines established in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. To be a leader, you need to be selfless and look beyond what’s in it for you. Pro bono legal representation can provide a personally rewarding way for you to give back and help people without the means to hire lawyers of their own. Check with your bar association for local pro bono opportunities. Find one that resonates with you for both personal and professional reasons. Adding your pro bono opportunities to your biography will show you are a lawyer who is not just focused on billable hours or fees. Rather, you are a lawyer who deeply cares about others and seeks to give back.

Kindness and Respect

Because leadership is about the gravitational pull you have on others, you must treat people at all levels in all organizations with kindness and respect. Smile at people in the hallway, say hello, check in with your peers and colleagues to see how they are doing. The ultimate compliment as a lawyer is, “Sue is the best lawyer we have, and she is an amazingly thoughtful and caring person.” No one is too busy to show common courtesies to others. As with everything else in life, it can be the small things you do that have the greatest impact on others. Set a goal of making someone’s day with genuine compliments and by showing your gratitude.

Collegiality and Professionalism

Lawyers who are strong leaders attract others to them—even opposing counsel and those they are at odds with. Many lawyers think they need to demonstrate aggressive or rude behavior for clients to view them as strong and tough. You can be a smart, tough litigator while still maintaining a focus on your relationships. Focusing on people and relationships doesn’t make you weak. Rather, it strengthens you as a leader. So, the ultimate compliment here? “Jack is a really tough and accomplished lawyer but is also fair and generous in his approach to compromise and settlement.”

Some people are born natural leaders, but others, with a commitment to building leadership skills, can do so. How? By showing others you care about what’s important to them and that you are willing to spend some of your valuable time helping others achieve their goals. While you will also need to develop strong management skills, it is your leadership skills that will draw people to you, create trust and loyalty with peers and colleagues, and offer the most personally and professionally rewarding aspects of your career.

Next Article > > >


Terrie S. Wheeler, MBC, is the founder of PSM Marketing, LLC.  She spends a significant amount of time coaching lawyers to become successful and enduring leaders. Terrie writes and speaks nationally on ethical marketing strategies for lawyers. She recently completed a six-year term on the MN Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and teaches marketing and client service at two law schools. Contact Terrie at 320/358-1000, or terrie@psm-marketing.com.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 3, October 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.