January 17, 2013 Articles

The Fusion of Litigation and Leadership

Don Bivens, chair-elect of the Section of Litigation, offers advice for young lawyers in becoming leaders.

By Tiffany Colbert

As a young man, Don Bivens, chair-elect of the ABA Section of Litigation, was inspired to make his journey into leadership by the civil rights movement, specifically by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through newspaper articles and television, he internalized the message, the impact, and the concept that one should use one’s skills to make the world a better place. Those beliefs propelled him through law school, in his profession as a civil litigator, and into his involvement with the community. They shaped his role as a leader.

Along the way, Bivens counted several mentors, teachers, professors, and more senior lawyers and judges who helped him develop professionally, including the Honorable Andy Hurwitz, Larry Hammond, and Ed Hendricks. All were extensively involved in their local communities and in the political realm. They set excellent family examples and took the time to invest in him.

“I’m not sure how someone reaches full bloom along the way without someone investing in them.” Bivens said. “It’s an important part of any person’s development as an adult.”

Bivens believes that “litigators are uniquely equipped to appreciate that there are often two sides or more to any question.”

“Litigators learn how to disagree agreeably and maintain an ability to have civil discords over public issues,” he added. “You can’t litigate successfully without that skill; it’s an easy segue into leadership.”

Bivens’s beliefs provide the foundation for his advice on traits that young leaders can develop in the practice of law:

Respect the dignity of every person. A common mistake is treating people according to your perception of their station in life instead of treating them like anyone else. Real leadership does its best to treat everyone the same. The woman on the bus, the woman next to you in church, political foes, adversaries . . . everyone likes being treated well. Respecting others creates followers and gains you the respect of adversaries.

Becoming involved as a leader is as simple as “putting a hand in the air, volunteering for something, and doing an excellent job,” Bivens said. “You will find that you will turn yourself into someone that people want on their team, and that’s the first step toward leadership.”

Bivens believes that pro bono work is another avenue for young lawyers to seek out potential leadership opportunities and can help shape leaders. “[Pro Bono] helps you realize how fortuitous your circumstance is in the world; not everyone gets dealt the same cards,” Bivens stated. “Equal opportunity is important to a just society and a just cause to anyone who wants to lead in America. In general, when you do pro bono work, you have the opportunity to break down barriers and do things for people who are just as entitled [to legal representation].”

Bivens does not have to look further than his own backyard of Arizona to see current social issues. “In A[rizona], [we have] the border issues and long history with Mexico,” Bivens explained.

[We are] learning how to better handle [these border issues with justice in mind]. . . how to better treat people who have immigrated or who are “dreamers” who were perhaps carried across the border as infants, grew up and went to school in Arizona, but find out that they are not U.S. citizens when they try to get a job or go to college. The current law too often treats such people shamefully, and lawyers here helped lead recall efforts with respect to politicians who have championed punitive anti-immigration laws.

Bivens sees the Section of Litigation championing two important goals among its younger attorneys. First, the Section endeavors to provide the tools and opportunities for becoming better lawyers and consummate professionals. Second, the Section desires to see young litigators attach themselves to causes larger than themselves or their own particular communities. Young litigators and leaders can make a national impact.

“Think about children’s law, judicial intern programs, lobbying to preserve legal services for [the] poor,” Bivens explained. “[We are] more effective as an organized group of lawyers. [People are] are happy to have young lawyers participate in leadership in both the communities and at a national level.”

Bivens’s leadership lessons for young lawyers include the following:

  • Leadership begins by showing up.
  • Become active in your local communities, school boards, city councils, or on a national level.
  • Participate, volunteer, and take the time to treat others with dignity and respect.
  • Fuse the skills and talent garnered as a litigator with these simple foundational guidelines, and it will make you a better leader.

Tiffany Colbert is an attorney with the Office of the Public Defender for the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orlando, Florida.