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After the Bar

Professional Development

The Importance of Leadership in the Practice of Law

Susan Doktor


  • Should law schools make leadership training a prerequisite for graduation? As a new lawyer, you may not have given much thought yet to your definition of leadership, but there's no reason to doubt your ability to lead.
The Importance of Leadership in the Practice of Law

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It’s hard to name a business, government agency, or NGO that doesn’t need leaders. Leaders are the catalysts that solidify teamwork. They’re goal setters. They’re champions of change. They keep the engine of innovation humming. Without leaders, organizations stagnate and lose their competitive edge.

Given the widespread demand for leaders in the workplace, it’s not surprising that leadership training is a core element of many post-graduate degree programs. Whether a student aspires to be an academic administrator, an executive in the mortgage lending industry, or the director of development for a community organization, chances are they’ll be required to take a couple of courses in leadership. Nowadays, hundreds of universities in the United States offer master’s degrees in organizational leadership. Students can take their pick of online leadership certificate programs, too. Educational institutions are getting behind leadership preparedness as a career qualification.

Leadership Training Lacks in Law School

But at many law schools, leadership training is something of an afterthought. Some law schools may offer an elective course or two in leadership, but studying leadership isn’t mandatory at most of them. Many students graduate with no background in leadership theory—or experience in leading. One could even argue that the foundation of legal learning isn’t leading but following: following procedure, following precedent, following the canon of ethics. The study of law is grounded more in tradition than innovation.

Many Prominent Leaders in History Were Lawyers

Throughout history, some of the most renowned leaders in politics, academia, philosophy, and even the arts, were trained as lawyers. Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela all studied law before rising to political prominence. Modern artists like Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky and movie and television celebrities like John Cleese of Monty Python fame and Jerry Springer, an early influencer in reality television, all earned law degrees before launching the careers that made them famous.

Many of these figures attended law school long before leadership courses began showing up in law school course catalogs. Perhaps some had a natural inclination to lead or were drafted by circumstance to lead without the benefit of formal instruction. And law school does, of course, teach students to become highly critical thinkers, to see all sides of a story, and to manage conflict. Some law school classes—particularly those geared toward litigation—emphasize the art of persuasion.

But is a traditional law school education enough? Or should law schools make leadership training a prerequisite for graduation? At this point in your career, you may be asking yourself, “How well did law school prepare me to lead?”

Why Should Lawyers Be Leaders?

From the perspective of self-interest alone, there’s one apparent reason: you can lead yourself into a more influential position in your company or area of practice. You’re more likely to make partner in a large firm if you’ve demonstrated the ability to mentor other lawyers, for example. You’re more likely to run cases efficiently if you can marshal internal and external contributors such as paralegals, investigators, and expert witnesses and maximize their contributions. That’s another leadership skill that can help you climb whatever ladder stretches before you. When you work a case, you’re going to encounter adversaries, of course. Influential leaders are skilled at defusing tension and setting the stage for open, mutually respectful communication.

You Can Make a Lasting Impact

If your passion is social justice, you’re more likely to make a lasting impact on the law if you can envision what better laws look like and enlist the legal and legislative communities toward your cause.

Your Leadership Trickles Down

Best of all, leadership has a way of trickling down. Fostering a culture of leadership is rewarding in its own right. But witnessing the long-term results of your leadership is a lifelong pleasure. You can be proud of your teammates’ success—and the accomplishments of their teammates right on down the line. In other words, you can make legal history.

One New Lawyer’s Perspective on Leadership

Ashley Futrell graduated from Howard University School of Law in 2015. After a three-year stint as assistant district attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, she became an assistant US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Currently, she’s an associate with the largest law firm in northwest Ohio, Shumaker, Loop, & Kendrick, specializing in complex litigation, labor and employment, and white-collar criminal cases. Leadership is her stock in trade and her passion.

Leadership Is at the Heart of Advocacy

“Law schools could do a much better job of teaching leadership. And they should. Leadership is at the heart of advocacy. Making good law is every attorney’s responsibility,” she remarked during a recent conversation. But the bulk of Futrell’s leadership training didn’t happen in law school. In addition to her JD, she also earned her master’s degree in government and political communications. She earned a certificate in advanced leadership studies while studying at American University. Today, she devotes some of her time to advocating for establishing a leadership training program at the University of Toledo School of Law. She’s leading the charge for more effective leadership in the field of law.

The Best Leaders Are Self-Aware and Authentic

Like many leaders, Futrell continues to be inspired by the leaders in her life that she admires. “The best leaders I’ve known have been true to themselves. Showing up authentically every day, no matter the task at hand, is critical to leading. The best leaders I’ve known have been extremely self-aware and secure in their own beliefs,” she recalls. Futrell strives every day to know herself better. She advises other new lawyers to find their sense of purpose and lead from that perspective.

A Public Defender and Climate Activist’s Take

Michael Burleson graduated from Lewis and Clark Law School in 2019. He immediately ran for mayor of Portland, Oregon. How’s that for stepping up to a leadership role? He didn’t win the election, but you have to give him major props for being gutsy.

Today Burleson is leading the fight for criminal justice, one case at a time, as an associate with Morrison Sullivan, the firm that holds the contract for public defense work in Hood River County. He also practices environmental law and advocates fiercely for policies that curb climate change and protect our natural resources.

Leaders Create Lasting Social Change

Burleson has never taken a specific course in leadership. They were not and still aren’t offered at Lewis and Clark Law School. But he has a precise definition of leadership and brings his principles to his practice. “Leadership is about advancing human rights and supporting a scientific worldview to influence social outcomes,” he told me when we spoke. He views the law as a tool for bettering human lives and preventing suffering. So how’s that working out for him?

Leaders Have to Be Skeptical

“To me, being a pain in the butt is part of being a leader. Leaders have to be skeptical. I challenge assumptions all the time, particularly assumptions about my clients.” Legal practice is based on precedent, and Burleson sees his role as reframing precedent in the service of greater justice. “I argue from the margins a lot, and that’s okay by me.”

Leading Is a Slow Process

Burleson admits that leadership, as he defines it, can be emotionally taxing. “It’s a slow process. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught up in a meat grinder. Losses are demoralizing when the stakes are someone’s life and liberty,” he told me. “As public defenders, the need for systemic change is obvious to us. But doing justice one person at a time? Sometimes that’s the best we can do.”

Changing Leadership Models in the Practice of Law

Historically, in larger law firms, leadership was the responsibility of a firm’s managing partner or partners. Managing partners were charged with overseeing their firm’s finances, premises, information technology, other infrastructure features, and more while also earning fees for legal services. That’s a pretty tall order.

Practice Managers Oversee Operations and Set Policies and Processes

Today, it’s increasingly common for large firms to employ practice managers. These administrators, who may or may not be licensed to practice law, oversee all of a firm’s operations and are expected to lead in various functional areas. Individual lawyers may be responsible for meeting personal revenue goals and contributing to a firm’s top line, but practice managers are responsible for the bottom line. Partners and associates are responsible for their own ethics, of course, but practice managers focus on more significant compliance issues, keeping abreast of new legislation that affects attorneys’ professional behavior. They set policies and processes to ensure that all of a firm’s employees are toeing the line.

Practice Managers Handle Employee Professional Development

One of the most critical responsibilities practice managers take on is conceiving and deploying effective human resources strategies. They recruit attorneys, interview candidates, and draft employment contracts. They address employee grievances, and they own employee retention, too. It’s their job to keep workers happy and reduce turnover. And that can be a challenge when strong leadership is missing from a firm.

Practice Managers Nurture New Leaders

In a recent study by Built In, nearly 80 percent of employees cite unsupportive leadership as their reason for quitting their jobs. Three-quarters of respondents cited culture as a top consideration when evaluating employment opportunities. What’s more, some 90 percent of workers report that they’d be more likely to stay with a company that offered robust professional development opportunities. So to keep their firms competitive, the best practice managers focus on nurturing new leaders. They provide the leadership training and other ongoing educational opportunities that are key to employee satisfaction and retention. Firms that can’t retain employees face morale issues with employees who remain with the company—and suffer financial losses, as well.

Are You Up to the Job?

If you’re just starting in your career and have never held a leadership position, you may be tempted to think you weren’t cut out to be a leader. Possibly that’s because you’ve bought into the many stereotypes and myths that surround leadership. Leaders aren’t necessarily natural extroverts. Bluster is not a prerequisite of leadership. Leaders don’t make smart, snap decisions based on some magical instinct but rather by engaging in time-consuming processes—habits they’ve honed through patience, trial, and error. Nor do leaders necessarily draw on some massive store of accumulated wisdom—though some may be quite wise. Leaders approach each challenge with curiosity and an open mind. They’re constantly learning and adding to their store of knowledge. And another thing: leaders aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, they take responsibility for them, and they learn from them. They expect the same from their teammates, too. Does that sound a little bit like you? Then you have at least a little bit of leader in your soul.

Different Lawyers, Different Leaders

Leadership theories and leadership styles vary widely. There may be as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders. Often we define leadership in terms of its parts and skills. Here’s my shortlist of essential leadership qualities. Strong leaders demonstrate:

  • Rock-solid ethics
  • Accountability
  • Empathy
  • Sound judgment
  • Curiosity and open-mindedness
  • Passion
  • Resilience
  • Communication skills
  • A natural affiliation for collaboration
  • Gratitude

You may not have given much thought yet to your definition of leadership. Or you may have a bunch of disconnected thoughts on the subject that haven’t coalesced into a comprehensive leadership philosophy. That’s no reason to doubt your ability to lead. But new lawyers who question their leadership abilities can gain confidence and develop self-awareness—two other leadership qualities that might be on your list—by doing some reading. And if you feel your law school education didn’t quite prepare you to take on a leadership role, it’s not too late to go back to school. Ask your employer how you can make leadership part of your professional development plan. Enroll in one of the umpteen leadership certificate programs offered by top universities, some of which you can engage in remotely.

The American Bar Association and the ABA Leadership Institute champion leadership in the legal profession through a wide range of resources and learning opportunities, as well. We invite new lawyers to take advantage of their member benefits as they seek to hone their leadership skills, advance in their careers, and contribute to a more just society.