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Law Practice Today

January 2024

How Lawyers Can Use the Power of Tribes

Jeffery W Lantz


  • To thrive in the future, lawyers must understand and embrace change, emotional challenges, and opportunities. 
  • In Tribes, author Seth Godin chronicles the upheaval of traditional work and social cultures, and the “heretics” promoting such upheaval.
  • As a leader, you don’t need to be the one with all the solutions.  But if you create the right environment, your office may be capable of achievements much greater than you may have imagined. 
How Lawyers Can Use the Power of Tribes

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At only 147 pages, Tribes by  Seth Godin is a short read and provides a fair amount of motivation for those seeking to make organizational change. 

Originally published in 2008, one downfall is that the book is now somewhat dated.  Several companies and other matters mentioned in the book are no longer relevant.  

The world demands that we change … and fast.

Many historic tried and true fundamentals for business and organizational success are gone, replaced by new and constantly changing methodologies.  The “safe” career paths of yesteryear – getting an education, working for a long-established firm or business, and having a comfortable lifestyle and retirement – also are mostly long gone (and, in any case, such paths are no longer safe). 

To thrive in the future, lawyers must:

  • Understand the economic factors leading to change,
  • Understand the emotional challenges associated with change, and
  • Embrace and manage change opportunities.

In Tribes, author Seth Godin chronicles the upheaval of traditional work and social cultures, and the “heretics” promoting such upheaval (namely, those opposing traditional principles of order and status quo).  Within this new paradigm, Godin posits that Tribes exist, which he defines as a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Tribes include not only workplaces but also formal and informal associations in which people come together (both in person and online), including charitable and religious organizations.  

The central theme of Tribes is that we are surrounded by opportunities seeking to take shape in the form of a tribe, in which opportunities are furthered by people driven to be involved in a movement.  We need to see these opportunities, accept tribe leadership, and lead our tribes to successful outcomes.

To understand how we as lawyers can build our own tribes and reap the benefits, let’s discuss key tribe elements and how tribes work.

Tribe Formation

Great ideas often exist in a vacuum. Personal injury attorneys throughout the country may have a strong interest in the formation of a group (or tribe) devoted to exchanging ideas about best practices for personal injury law firm marketing, management, and systems.  Such a tribe might exist solely for these sole purposes; the tribe would not, for example, be focused on other matters (even if such other matters might also affect attorneys). 

For this potential movement to occur (and the tribe to form), someone must first be motivated to assume leadership.  Godin wants that leader to be you. But to be a tribe leader, it’s important to understand the make-up and functionality of tribes and your role as the leader. 

The Make-Up of Tribes

Tribes are not made up of sheeple.  Instead, they are made up of “true fans” who want to be great.  They are eager to be part of the tribe. Outsiders (those not aligned with the tribe’s mission) are excluded.

Tribe members connect to further the Tribe’s mission, presumably in activities involving matters such as identifying objectives, gathering information, and crowd-sourcing solutions.

Historically, the development of such movements has been slow, primarily due to organizational barriers, the difficulty and high cost of finding potentially interested tribe members, and the associated limited and high cost of communication.  With the Internet, all of this has changed.

Today, a potential tribe leader with a mission can take advantage of seemingly countless social media websites to connect with others who may be interested in forming or joining a tribe around a specific purpose or movement. New websites can easily be created, and texting, newsletters, and a variety of other methodologies can be used to connect tribe members and further the tribe’s interests on a 24/7 basis.

Your Role as a Tribe Leader

The role of a tribe leader is not to dictate tasks, but rather to harness the direction, power, and energy of the tribe in steering the tribe towards the desired outcomes. Specific outcomes may not be clearly defined, or they may be ongoing (such as to further develop law firm best management technology practices as technology matters evolve).  Often, this will include shifting between “lean in” and “back off approaches concerning more or less management.

Tribe leaders must be authentic and transparent.  The tribe is not about them.

Tribe objectives must also be authentic and transparent, and tied to benefits that all members can realize.  As an example, instead of a traditional company goal of making more money for the business, tribe objectives may be “We need to develop strategies so that all of us individually will make more money and have fulfilling careers around the way in which we want to approach work.”

In addition to a tribe leader, tribes may also be made of up microleaders who often work in the trenches, and who tirelessly take on the many critical tasks of the tribe to help propel the tribe forward.

If Everyone Should Be a Leader, Why Doesn’t This Happen?

Godin suggests that all of us have the ability to become tribe leaders and urges us to do so. He believes that key leadership qualities often assumed to be inherent in leaders – such as charisma – are in fact not inherent, but rather developed as the result of becoming a tribe leader.

With respect to assuming leadership, Godin notes:

  • People aren’t afraid of failure, they are afraid of blame.
  • Leaders must be willing to take risks to build something greater.
  • Leaders must abandon built-in beliefs not fight the status quo.
  • Leaders need to understand that the biggest enemy of change is not “no”, it’s “not yet.”

Your Workplace Tribe

If you lead a law firm, most likely you have never considered yourself to be a tribe leader.  Perhaps this should change.  So – how does operating with a tribe mentality differ from traditional top-down management?

First, as a tribe leader, you need not abandon traditional management duties, such as ensuring profitability.  Instead, as a tribe leader, you can work with your team to develop and implement firm strategy and processes instead of a purely “top-down” management style. As an example, flexible work schedules, work-from-home opportunities, and implementing processes like making use of Slack may increase staff productivity and firm profitability.   

Second, your hiring strategies may need to change. In addition to seeking staff members with specific training and skills, you may also want to ensure that new staff members are comfortable with change and who are willing to take an active role as change agents. Your hiring focus should be on seeking awesome people and letting them do great things within a given framework and rewarding people for initiating change. 

Third, you may need to reexamine firm objectives.  Is the end result of the firm making the most money possible for partners, or do the objectives also incorporate providing long-term dynamic workplaces with opportunities for staff to grow and develop skills? If this second objective is critical, your tribe may be better situated to define the best process to accomplish these objectives.  

As the tribe leader, you don’t need to be the one with all the solutions.  But if you create the right environment, your tribe may be capable of achievements much greater than you may have imagined.