Leadership Skills for New Litigators
Ian H. Fisher
I began my legal career at a large law firm where all of the new associates were sent to “boot camp” for a few days at the start of our employment. The firm’s managing partner addressed us and informed us that we would be working as a team with our secretary. He then told us to respect our secretaries and listen to them because most of us would be long gone from the firm while our secretaries would remain.
Young lawyers begin working as litigators at law firms immediately after law school. They will be asked to work with subordinates at the firm, often non-lawyers, on a case. But lawyers generally have no training in one of the most important skills necessary to succeed: how to lead. Every team requires leadership. A young litigator may be asked to lead a group of contract attorneys to review documents, to work with one or more paralegals to identify experts, or to work with an investigator to interview potential witnesses. Even in a small litigation matter that is staffed by one lawyer and a paralegal, the two will need to work together. Larger cases that involve several lawyers, paralegals, and other support staff require even more teamwork. Teamwork requires leadership. While some people are innately good leaders, for those who are not, the skill can be learned. Here are seven traits of a good leader:
Set a strong example. No one wants to follow someone who is not good at the team’s job. To be a strong leader of a litigation team you have to put in the work to become a good litigator. In fact, the leader should be the hardest worker on the team. Be diligent and responsive. If a team member has a question, promptly address it. If you are supposed to turn a project around, do so without delay. When you find it necessary to ask your team to go above and beyond—say, by working over a weekend—you need to be working that weekend as well. You never want the team members to wonder why you are not putting forth the same amount of effort as they are.
Be honest. People respect those who tell it like it is. If a team member has messed up, explain what he has done wrong, ideally in private. Do so in an objective manner, without being judgmental or critical. View mistakes as opportunities to help the team member become better at her/his job.
Act with integrity. Do what you know is right and do what you say you will do. Don’t choose an approach to a problem that you would be embarrassed to explain to your mother. Stand up for your team members if they are ever unfairly criticized. Be honest about yourself. When you have make a mistake, take responsibility for it. Finally, never forget that the buck stops with you. If you are the team leader, you are responsible for the team.
Reward good work. When a team member has done a good job, recognize her/him. Everyone has their own style for recognition. For example, a “good job” e-mail or a small “thank you” gift card can suffice. I once had a supervisor who would send congratulation notes in the shape of tennis balls (he was an avid tennis player). But don’t offer false praise—it will ring hollow and dilute the impact of earned praise. Also, where it is appropriate, make sure that others at the firm, beyond your team, know when your member has done outstanding work. Not only is this the right thing to do (integrity), it garners loyalty. When thanking your team, try very hard not to leave anyone out, such as a secretary or another member of the support staff.
Delegate. A good leader leverages her team’s capabilities. Delegate work, but be smart about it. Don’t ask a person to undertake a task that he could not know how to do. But once the person has learned a task, let him do it. It is hard to let go, but—from your team members’ perspective—it is also hard to trust a leader who does not trust them.
Communicate. Clear and frequent communication is important to teamwork in at least two ways. First, a team member working on a small aspect of a very large case will find her/his work more rewarding, and probably more important, if she/he knows where the work fits into the larger picture. You don’t have to explain every nuance of a complicated legal issue, but all team members should understand how their individual tasks fit into the case. Second, you never know where a good idea will come from. By ensuring that all members of the team know the basic contours of a case, you can benefit from their varied perspectives. And, as a bonus, if your case is being tried to a jury, don’t you want the ability to access the wider array of perspectives that could be in the jury pool?
Be positive. Let’s face it—litigation can be a grind. Cases sometimes do not develop as we hope, hours get long, or clients can be unreasonable. Sometimes, the senior leadership above you may be difficult. However, the team leader must remain upbeat and positive. Poor team morale leads to poor work and inefficiency. Plus, no one wants to be there. Find the positive aspects to the work and make sure the team wants to do a good job for team pride, if nothing else. No matter what, never complain or moan about a team member to another. You would not want them to do this about you (integrity) and such sniping damages morale with no countervailing benefit.
Your success as a litigator will depend largely on those around you. Remember the closing scene of My Cousin Vinny (a must-watch for all litigators). Vinny Gambini wins a murder trial with help from his fiancé, Mona Lisa. As Vinny and Mona Lisa begin the long drive home, he complains that he wanted to accomplish victory by himself. Mona Lisa, played by Marisa Tomei, sarcastically responds, “You win all your cases, but with someone else’s help, right? You win case after case and then afterwards you have to go up to somebody and you have to say, ‘Thank you.’ Oh my God, what a (explicative) nightmare!”
Ian H. Fisher (http://www.hahnlaw.com/professionals/ian-fisher/) is a commercial litigator at the Chicago office of Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP