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November/December 2020

Simple Steps

Critical Skills for Aspiring Leaders

Allison C. Shields Johs

The abrupt closures and restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have changed much about how law is practiced today and will be practiced in the future. But with change comes opportunity. Leaders who can pivot and innovate in a rapidly changing marketplace will help their firms to survive—and thrive—while other firms fall by the wayside. However, in an article for in May 2020 titled “Leadership and the Law: How Law Firms Can Fix a Puzzling Quirk,” leadership coach and law firm leader Betsy Miller says that while law firms cultivate the skills required to practice law, they often fail to appropriately invest in their talent by not teaching or valuing the skills required to lead, leaving a leadership void at a time when those skills are needed more than ever.

Miller recommends that firms build capacity by identifying and developing lawyers willing to take on the challenge of adapting law firm governance. But if law firms were not investing in training or coaching their lawyers to develop the skills necessary to become effective leaders before the pandemic, after experiencing closures, reduced cash flow and increased pressure on law firm budgets, even fewer firm resources may be available for leadership training and development after the pandemic. As a result, it may be time for aspiring law firm leaders to take charge of their own leadership development.

Aspiring leaders willing to make an investment in themselves and develop these skills on their own will have an advantage when leadership opportunities arise. And if their firms do decide to invest in cultivating future leaders, those lawyers who have already demonstrated a commitment to leadership development are likely to reap the benefits first.

Be a Student of Leadership

A great place to start is to be a student of leadership. Look for leaders you admire, whether those leaders work within the legal industry or not. What characteristics make them good leaders? What do they have in common? How do they engage people and get them to follow their lead? What results do these leaders achieve, and what methods do they use to achieve them? Are those methods still appropriate now?

Read books about great leaders and leadership and ask the same questions. Search online for leadership development programs, many of which are now offered for free or at low cost. Take advantage of resources available through the ABA Law Practice Division and your local bar

associations, including books, webinars, articles and blog posts. Find leaders in the legal industry whom you admire and ask them to mentor you. Consider hiring a leadership coach.

Critical Leadership Skills

There are many skills that characterize great leaders. A few of those skills are crucially important in today’s tumultuous world. These include resilience, innovation, team building and obtaining consensus.


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that drastic change can occur without warning. Resilience is a key skill for lawyers to develop. Rapid changes in the marketplace demand leaders who can manage stress well, quickly adapt and help their teams to continue to perform under fluid and unexpected conditions. Resilient leaders suffer setbacks, but they have the ability to bounce back quickly.

To cultivate resilience, acknowledge uncertainty while embracing change and looking for the opportunities that lie within it. Build resilience by acting in the face of that uncertainty. Focus on what you can control. Return to your values and the values of your firm; how can you fulfill those values in new ways? Learn from past mistakes by looking for lessons to be learned within them; how can you plan differently for the future? Seek help from your network to support you and your organization, or begin building your network so it will be available to you in the future.


Although lawyers are taught to look to precedent as a guide, by definition, a leader’s job is to look to the future instead of relying solely on what has worked in the past. Good law firm leaders have to embrace innovation. They need to not only continually seek alternatives and new ways of working to better meet clients’ needs now, but also to develop the ability to predict clients’ future needs.

In his book, Lawyer Forward: Finding Your Place in the Future of Law, author Mike Whelan Jr. says that with their training in issue-spotting, lawyers are well positioned to recognize patterns in clients’ problems and to devise solutions. What patterns can you see in the problems your clients experience? What are your firm’s biggest challenges? How have they changed? What new solutions can you offer? Talk to your current and former clients to discuss their most pressing concerns and seek out experts who can help.

Team Building

The best leaders know they cannot do everything themselves. They identify and focus on their strengths and then build a team with diverse and complementary backgrounds, skills and experience to support them and their firms. Aspiring leaders should cultivate the ability to identify experts or individuals with key skills and use them appropriately.

Great law firm leaders of the future need to know how to build teams that include individuals both within and outside of the firm, as well as experts in nonlegal fields, such as technology, to learn from and collaborate with. Look for opportunities to work with people who have diverse backgrounds or experience so you can learn from each other.

Building a great team also requires providing your team with the support and resources they need to perform at the highest level and then allowing them to shine. Look for ways to use your talents and expertise to help others in your firm; how can you support them?

If necessary, create your own opportunities to lead by building your own team. Put together a discussion group, committee or team to work on a problem and devise solutions. Ask for feedback from your superiors, peers and others on your team. Provide constructive feedback where appropriate.

Obtaining Consensus

It is impossible to lead or to create results without consensus. You can put together a stellar team and lay out a vision and a plan, but if your team doesn’t believe in it, they won’t execute. Building consensus requires an ability to listen to other perspectives, assess alternatives and develop a course of action that the team can get behind. During times of turmoil, when emotions are high and the media and other factors seek to divide, the ability to bridge that divide, bring people together and build trust—even with those with whom you do not agree—may be one of the most critical skills for leaders.

To develop this skill, seek out people with opposing views and listen to what they have to say without judgment. Ask open-ended questions. Try to see the situation through their eyes, from their perspective. Identify common ground and look for shared objectives. Offer alternatives and ask for team members to propose solutions.

Lawyers are in a unique position, particularly during controversial times; they are sworn to uphold the law, but they also possess the means to effectuate change. By investing time and effort in developing strong leadership skills, you can create constructive change in your firm and, perhaps, in the world at large. 

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Allison C. Shields Johs


Allison C. Shields Johs is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA 2013) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA 2014). [email protected]