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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Lawyer Leaders of Today and Tomorrow: How Do We Build Them?

Jennifer L Bluestein


  • Crucial for ongoing leadership development is embracing the idea that there is no substitute for actual practice and that the learning process is never over.
Lawyer Leaders of Today and Tomorrow: How Do We Build Them?
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A search of articles on lawyer leadership yields hundreds of results with different theories and dozens of supposed traits and behaviors of successful law firm leaders. Which of these many traits and behaviors are the most essential to effective leadership in our current environment and into the future? And how do we develop lawyers with these essential traits and behaviors to lead our law firms? Notably, there are several key traits and behaviors highlighted repeatedly in the plethora of articles and research: communication and people skills, emotional intelligence, the ability to persuade and inspire others, effective relationship building, listening well, the ability to drive execution, and gravitas.

Leadership Staples

There is a natural shift in leadership traits as times change and trends emerge: burnout, the pandemic, higher attrition, larger in-house legal departments pulling in our talent, an increase in law school debt, retirement of attorneys and the list goes on. But despite the evolution of law practice and the people who practice, certain leadership traits remain stable over time in part because the population of lawyers is difficult to lead. The personality traits of lawyers, according to research by Dr. Larry Richard, generally make them less willing to be good followers: They demonstrate high levels of skepticism, consisting of questioning, skeptical and perhaps argumentative behaviors (lawyers fall into the 90th percentile, compared to the general population ranking in the 50th percentile). They also demonstrate a high sense of urgency, have a high need for autonomy and a very low (12th percentile) incidence of sociability. Educating lawyer leaders about this research and the impact of the lawyer personality on likely leadership challenges is an excellent first step in developing more effective leaders. Leaders need to understand why they are encountering resistance.

In the legal industry, success as a rainmaker is often treated as proxy for effectiveness as a leader. While a rainmaker may benefit from increased credibility with their fellow partners, credibility alone is not a sufficient foundation for leader effectiveness. Additional leadership skills are required.

Be Warm and Approachable

The combination of empathy and sociability are two traits that serve lawyer leaders well now and will continue to be important in the future. Given the low rate of sociability in lawyers, a charming and sociable lawyer could stand out a bit more easily among their peers. Someone who is confident yet not overly so, warm and trustworthy, and a good listener is likely to be viewed more positively than the person who talks endlessly without listening. Interestingly, a humble, imperfect, competent leader often is perceived as a stronger leader than someone who appears to be perfect. This was discovered by a social psychologist named Elliot Aronson who identified something called “the Pratfall Effect.” Aronson studied the impact of small blunders on people’s likability and found that competent, knowledgeable people who made small blunders (like spilling coffee on their suits) were more likable than those who were competent and had zero blunders. Aronson surmised that people who are too perfect might be less likable, and those who are judged as competent were liked more for being a bit more human or humble. Teaching lawyer leaders to show vulnerability, to demonstrate humility and to let go of the necessity of wearing a shield of perfectionism will increase their ability to connect with their colleagues, build stronger relationships and increase their effectiveness.

Cultivate Relationships

In exploring lawyer leadership, Jeswald W. Salacuse wrote a thoughtful book called Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People.

Salacuse, a former dean of Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, has spent significant time contemplating the difficulties in leading lawyers specifically, and he points out that communication and charisma are important traits for successfully leading lawyers; however, he also outlines some specific behaviors that help people leverage their expertise and relationships toward strong results. One of the most helpful behaviors of successful leaders is the ability to cultivate strong relationships with other lawyers.

Salacuse also emphasizes the need for each lawyer follower to feel heard by their leader. Teaching lawyer leaders to listen well is invaluable. Lawyers spend much of their careers learning to speak effectively and little time developing deep listening skills. A successful leader speaks to a group as if they are speaking to each person individually. That is an effective communication technique in a variety of contexts—public speaking, political contests/debates and courtroom advocacy. Encouraging leaders to avoid what one of my mentors calls “I/me/my” language also will increase communication effectiveness. Rather than talking about “my” feelings or “my” experiences, speak in terms of what others have shared or observed, or better yet, what is best for the group. This is more persuasive, builds connection and demonstrates empathy. Teaching leaders to shift their language in these small ways can have a positive impact on their ability to connect with others more meaningfully.

Build Consensus

Another aspect of lawyer leadership that has been and continues to be critically important is the ability to understand opposing interests and yet reach consensus by meeting varying needs as fairly as possible. The traditional example of mediating interests is in the classic mock negotiation hypothetical in which most lawyers have participated: Two sides are negotiating over who gets an orange until the aha moment arrives, and the gifted negotiator uncovers that one side wants the juice to drink and the other wants the rind to make zest for a cake. Rarely in life or law firm practice do we see such an easy solution, but understanding interests does help us find our middle ground and pave a way forward. Teaching a leader to ask open-ended questions to better understand someone’s motivations, concerns and reasoning and to listen deeply—much as they do with their external clients—will undoubtedly result in an easier time finding common ground with those they lead.

Despite the cookie-cutter (or rather, orange-cutter) solution above, sometimes there is no simple compromise, and two sides simply will not agree. This is especially true when it comes to larger strategic issues like whether to expand your practice group or merge with another firm. We have seen firms divided on things like the amount of debt to carry or whether to expand to a second office or second country. And in these cases, transformational leadership is needed. The ability to inspire, motivate and persuade colleagues to embrace more significant changes is essential to successfully position firms for ongoing and future success. For example, rallying individuals by describing a clear vision that is future-focused and tied to tactics on how to achieve that vision is important. Leaders must be able to build consensus and create alliances to move major change initiatives forward. Much of this consensus building results from effective one-to-one communication. Whether one’s firm is a 10-person firm or a 300-person firm, the need to listen with empathy and persuade with both heart and reason is typically an individualized, highly personal effort.

Be Charismatic

More recently, some researchers have focused on the notion of charisma and how it ties into effective leadership. Charisma seems to draw people in—it makes people want to spend more time with those who are charismatic, and it seems to make everything the charismatic person says a bit more believable and trustworthy. In a June 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Learning Charisma,” three professors from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland studied charisma by developing and testing 12 tactics they named charismatic leadership tactics, or CLTs. Most of these tactics are ones that any skilled debater or trial attorney would already know: “Nine of them are verbal: metaphors, similes, and analogies; stories and anecdotes; contrasts; rhetorical questions; three-part lists; expressions of moral conviction; reflections of the group’s sentiments; the setting of high goals; and conveying confidence that they can be achieved. Three tactics are non-verbal: animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures.”

The CLTs seem easy enough to employ, and the article uses examples to help people understand how to use them successfully. Teaching lawyer leaders to apply these tactics to specific communication situations, whether individual or group, will help them persuade and inspire others more effectively. In discussing the use of metaphors, similes and analogies, they use an example from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King compared the U.S. Constitution to “a promissory note” guaranteeing the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all people, while noting that America had instead given its Black citizens “a bad check,” one that had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Everyone knows what it means to receive a bad check. The message was clear and easy to remember and very effective in persuading others to see things the way he did.

Converse and Tell Stories

Another tactic, storytelling, looks simple, but it takes planning and thoughtfulness to employ the method effectively. Training can help leaders develop and practice storytelling. Think of some successful politicians on the campaign trail. They repeat the same stories, and they tie those stories into what they learned along the way and how they arrived at their political views. Because storytelling is a highly effective tool to engage listeners and to convince someone that your perspective is correct, it is worth spending time thinking of anecdotes that might tell an inspiring or persuasive story.

The Harvard Business Review article describes effective leaders as demonstrating charisma by using the above key communication tactics consistently in group and in one-on-one conversations. In addition, asking rhetorical questions, even something as simple as “Where do we go from here?” or “How does our working together help us succeed?” increases engagement, and it helps people feel like they are part of the plan and the solution.

Learn to Lead

Teaching the skills outlined in this article is possible using a variety of methods. Formal training is obvious, but self-directed learning is often overlooked. Anyone interested in becoming a better leader would be wise to invest time in reading leadership books, watching webinars or listening to podcasts. Working with a coach is also an excellent way to receive vital input on your current and future approaches to leading others.

Mentoring conversations with those who have already walked the path of leadership can be valuable in gaining essential perspective on important to-dos and pitfalls to avoid. Input from clients and from those being led in the form of a 360-degree review is essential to improving a leader’s self-awareness. This feedback can alert leaders to their blind spots that may be negatively impacting their effectiveness, as well as provide vital affirmation about what is working and appreciated by their colleagues. Crucial for ongoing leadership development is embracing the idea that there is no substitute for actual practice and that the learning process is never over. Leadership development is an iterative process.

A review of literature and research on leadership can be overwhelming, but a thoughtful analysis can help a budding leader understand leadership behaviors that will enhance their success. Demonstrating proven traits specifically focused on leading those who are smart, successful leaders in their own right will help lawyer leaders succeed in the long term. The differentiator is the need to practice these skills on an ongoing basis, developing one’s self-awareness and demonstrating agility and listening skills with all the varying types of attorneys in the workplace. And in trying to lead any large-scale initiative, lawyer leaders who focus on long-term strategy and vision will need to revisit their progress and overcommunicate on a path toward their long-term success and support from their colleagues.