chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November 01, 2018

Leadership Development That Works

Lawyer leaders want to get things done; effective leadership—the process of setting direction, achieving alignment and getting commitment—produces collective results.

Kathleen Bradley

In 2010 I wrote an article for this publication that asked the question—Should law firms invest in developing the leadership skills of their lawyers? I was motivated to help firms get to a yes because I had observed too many missteps by lawyers and firms during my own long career as an international finance lawyer. However, I had also seen leadership development programs go poorly because firms had failed to think strategically about their investments and did not understand the sustained attention and discipline required to get results.

In 2018, as I rescan the lawyer leader landscape, I am encouraged to see that law firms are increasingly getting to a yes and, more importantly, they are learning to do it right. What I see are expansive offerings of leadership development programs designed for lawyers and law firms not only by my organization, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), but also by Harvard Law School Executive Education, a variety of consulting organizations and bar associations, and even law schools. Increasingly, lawyers ranging from law professors to solo practitioners to practitioners in small and midsized firms are enrolling in leadership development programs like CCL’s and Harvard’s. CCL is also assisting large firms with the development of leadership competencies and the utilization of its 360-degree feedback tool, and it is designing and delivering tailored leadership solutions to firm executive teams, partners and lawyers.

Lawyer Leadership Challenges

So, what does leadership development look like for lawyers and law firms in 2018? The answer, which lawyers clearly understand, is that it depends on the leadership challenges the individual or firm is seeking to address. Representative recent challenges, as articulated by CCL’s clients—whether they come from small, midsized or large firms—fall into the following categories.

  • Strategic planning. How can I formulate a business strategy that navigates the rapidly evolving nature of the legal profession? What can I do to improve my strategic thinking, decision making and tactical business leadership skills?
  • Leading change. How can I create sustainable, long-term change and improvements? How can I integrate new partners, groups or firms into my firm?
  • Influence. How do I get my partners to share a common purpose and pull in the same direction? How do I affect the perspectives or behavior of my partners in a particular direction and over time?
  • Teamwork. How can I create cohesive teams and a sense of “we’re all in this together”? How can I motivate the best associates to work on my teams?
  • Communication. How do I articulate my vision for where I want my firm or practice to go (or voice concerns over where others are heading)? How do I communicate effectively with my clients, partners and associates?
  • Talent management. What do I need to do to attract and retain the best talent? How do I ensure that my rainmakers stay with the firm?

Of course, there are no black-and-white answers to any of these questions, but there are core competencies that have been identified as requisite for effective leadership as well as clearly defined processes that can assist lawyer leaders to navigate toward their own answers.

Core Leadership Competencies

CCL incorporates its Fundamental Four of leadership into most of its programs, whether they are designed for students, new professionals, mid-tier professionals or top executives. They are:


A lawyer’s understanding of his or her strengths and weaknesses is critical for ongoing and long-term effectiveness as a leader. The most common way to jump-start individual self-awareness is through the use of a 360-degree assessment designed to provide feedback to lawyers so that they can identify gaps in their skills. Lawyers also benefit from various personality assessments that identify characteristics that help and hinder leadership effectiveness.


Communicating information and ideas is consistently rated among the most important skills for leaders to be successful. Writing clearly, speaking with clarity and using active listening skills are all core skills that are fundamental to the practice of law. As lawyers progress through their careers, and particularly when they become partners or step into leadership roles, communication skills become increasingly important for encouraging discussions, building trust, conveying vision and strategic intent, and pulling people along.

Learning agility.

To develop as leaders, lawyers need to be active learners. This involves being open to feedback; recognizing when new behaviors, skills or attitudes are needed and accepting responsibility for developing them; learning from mistakes; and responding well to new situations. For managing partners, executive team members and practice group leaders, learning agility is also about inspiring learning in others and creating a culture of learning throughout their firms and practice groups.


Lawyers are keen negotiators, but they often struggle when they seek to influence their partners. Developing influencing skills helps lawyers to communicate their vision and goals, align the efforts of others and build commitment from their partners. Ultimately, influence allows lawyers to get things done and achieve desirable outcomes. For early career lawyers and lawyers in individual contributor roles, influence is about working effectively with people over whom they have no authority. This requires an ability to present logical and compelling arguments and engaging in give-and-take. For managing partners, executive team members and practice group leaders, influence is focused more on inspiring and motivating individuals and teams to steer them toward achieving long-range objectives.

These four broad competencies equip individual lawyers to contribute effectively to generating desired outcomes—the collective process that is happening when “leadership” occurs.

Direction, Alignment and Commitment

Ultimately, what lawyer leaders want is to get things done. At its most fundamental level, achieving leadership objectives involves a social process—one that enables individuals to work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results, results that could never be achieved by a single person working independently. CCL uses the acronym DAC to refer to this process. It is the process of producing direction (D), alignment (A) and commitment (C) to achieve a shared goal.

Direction is agreement in the group on overall goals—what the group is trying to achieve together. In groups with strong direction, members have a shared understanding of what group success looks like and agree on what they’re aiming to accomplish. In groups with weak direction, members are uncertain about what they should accomplish together, or they feel pulled in different directions by competing goals.

Alignment is coordinated work within the group and integration of the different aspects of the work so that it fits together in service of the shared direction. In groups with strong alignment, members with different tasks, roles or sets of expertise coordinate their work. In groups with weak alignment, members work more in isolation, unclear about how their tasks fit into the larger work of the group and are in danger of working at cross-purposes, duplicating efforts or having important work fall through the cracks.

Commitment is mutual responsibility for the group, when people are making collective—not just individual—success a personal priority. In groups with strong commitment, members feel responsible for the success and well-being of the group and know that other group members feel the same. They trust each other and will stick with the group through difficult times. In groups with weak commitment, members put their own interests ahead of the group’s interests and contribute to the group only when it’s easy to do so or when they have something to gain.

DAC happens in many different ways. Sometimes a single lawyer plays a major leadership role in making it happen; for example, a rainmaker who lines up a team to work for a major client. Sometimes it simply emerges in the conversations and interactions among people working together. It could be a small firm or practice group who brainstorms on how to expand the practice. Sometimes different people play different roles to bring it about. An example would be a team working on a proposal for a large complex project that requires input from multiple practice groups. Often the culture of the firm or team will influence the process. (See the accompanying illustration for further information.)

Leadership Alignment Chart

Pulling it All Together

It’s easy to see how skill in the Fundamental Four leadership competencies—self-awareness, communication, learning agility and influence—helps lawyers and firms achieve DAC to produce collective results. Take, for example, a combination of the leadership challenges referred to above—How can I formulate a business strategy that navigates the rapidly evolving nature of the legal profession and get my partners to buy into the strategy and pull in the same direction? As the leader of this initiative, I need strong communication and influence skills to articulate the strategy, to effectively share information with those I need to coordinate with and to tailor my communication to my partners in ways that fit with what each individual will find most motivating. I also need to be aware of my own leadership style, including my strengths and blind spots, to most effectively utilize my communication and influence abilities. Likewise, I need to be agile enough to be open to feedback to respond to inevitable pushback and to inspire others to follow me.

Does Leadership Development Really Work?

The short answer is yes, when done correctly. This involves making leadership development a learning process rather than an event; grounding the learning process in an organization’s culture and informing the experience with cutting-edge research, and tying what participants learn in the classroom to the leadership challenges they face on the job.

Results aren’t automatic. There are plenty of initiatives and programs that fall short as a result of lack of senior-level support, expecting large-scale change without aligning a program with business strategy or overselling the power of a single experience or tool. But carefully planned, research-based development programs led by specialized, reputable institutions do work. In fact, evidence indicates that it’s practically a certainty that they improve performance at both individual and organizational.

Kathleen Bradley

Kathleen Bradley is a global senior advisor at the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive education that develops leaders through its focus on leadership education and research. Prior to joining CCL, she spent 25 years practicing law with large global law firms and as associate general counsel for a national oil company in the Middle East, and nine years as a consultant and executive coach specializing in developing lawyer leaders in law firm and corporate environments. Email her.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.