If you’re not going to nurture your career, who will? Take charge of your career from the moment that you graduate from law school. Whether you want to open your own practice, become a partner at a firm, or merely want to get the most out of your career, building leadership skills is a good place to start.
To be a good leader, you should cultivate a whole host of skills. Read almost any article on leadership for lawyers and you will see that some of the most important leadership skills discussed include:
- Integrity – being honest, true to your word and doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
- Critical thinking – analytical skills, creativity, and problem solving.
- Communication skills, including written and oral communication.
- Advocacy and negotiation skills – supporting and arguing for a cause, obtaining a result through discussion and persuasion, often overcoming obstacles to do so.
- Judgment – making sensible decisions; forming an opinion after considering all of the relevant facts.
- Assertiveness – standing up for yourself and your clients, displaying confidence.
Here are three other leadership skills that are discussed less often, but that are highly valued in any law firm or legal organization.
Cultivating an Ownership Mindset
The biggest difference between business owners and employees is the ownership mindset. The same goes for lawyers. If you want to be an owner or to attain a high-level position within your legal organization, you need to develop an ownership mindset.
What is an ownership mindset? When you think like an owner, you are focused on the big picture. You think about the implications of taking – or not taking – specific actions. You think about how any action affects all of the firm’s stakeholders, including partners, associates, staff, clients, referral sources, and possibly even vendors. You think about the firm as a whole, rather than being attentive only to the things that affect you personally.
Owners know that sometimes they need to adapt, or to be resilient in order to thrive. That may mean you need to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. Leaders have no choice but to find solutions, rather than looking for problems. If you want to be seen as a leader in your organization, don’t just present problems; suggest solutions. Leaders need to make decisions. Be decisive. Everyone makes mistakes, but there are few mistakes that can’t be rectified. But failing to make decisions prevents you from moving forward. How you deal with mistakes, unforeseen circumstances, or crises says a lot about your character, and ultimately carries a lot of weight with clients, colleagues, and subordinates. Rather than hiding your mistakes, learn how to ‘fess up, apologize, and find out what it will take to make it right.
Building and Nurturing Relationships
Have you ever heard, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?”
Relationships are at the core of what you do as a lawyer. It’s never too early to begin building relationships that will boost your career. Get to know the personalities, the legal skills, and the diverse personalities within your firm. Look for opportunities to work with and learn from other leaders. Volunteer for projects that allow you to collaborate with different members of the firm. A good relationship with a firm leaders or more experienced lawyers can open many doors.
If you have an opportunity to socialize with other attorneys in your office, take advantage of it. If your firm has tickets to a bar association event or other function and you are offered an opportunity to attend, do so. That face time with other attorneys, particularly outside of the office, can be invaluable. But don’t just stick to the group of people you already know. When you attend events, make it a goal to meet new people.
The legal professionals who are not lawyers may be your best allies in your firm. They can also be valuable sources of information about personalities, such as when is the best time to approach a particular partner with a question, or who is the expert in the firm on a specific legal issue.
The same goes for the clerks in the courthouse or the people working behind the desk in the records room, at the bank, etc. The people who are the first line of defense can often be the best and easiest way to get things done. They usually know the system better than anyone. It sounds simple but being nice to people in those positions will go a long way to boosting your career.
The relationships you build within your firm can last throughout your legal career, even if you move on to other endeavors. Keep those connections alive if and when you change jobs – don’t burn your bridges with those at your old firm. Even if you leave due to a problem or conflict or because you didn’t like something that was happening at your old firm, part ways with integrity.
Get out of your comfort zone. It is easy to make the mistake of joining groups, networking, or interacting only with people who are similar to you. This creates an echo chamber effect in which the same ideas, information, and people are reflected back to you. To avoid that, build deep, diverse networks. Widen your net so you get information from different people, areas, and perspectives. Look for new groups, voices, and discussions online. Seek out people in other industries for new ideas. Join groups organized around a cause or activity you are passionate about, especially if they are not directly related to the law – this may result in more diverse contacts and more diverse perspectives.
Social media has intensified the echo chamber; your news feed on social platforms is likely to contain content mostly from those within you’re a close circle of family, friends, and colleagues, many of whom share your interests, concerns, and views. Actively seek out those with differing points of view or perspectives.
In addition to building new relationships with your firm and through networking, remember that no matter how long you’ve been an attorney, you already have connections and relationships, and you keep making more in your day-to-day life. Don’t think that business is just business and personal is just personal. Your clients and colleagues may ultimately become your friends, and your friends and family may one day need your legal services.
Begin Business Development Activities
You may think that, as a young lawyer, you can’t do anything to bring business to your firm or to become a rainmaker. Don’t make that mistake. Having the opposite mindset puts ahead of the game.
When you meet people, begin thinking about what you can do to help them, rather than what they can do for you. You never know when you might be able to provide help – even if it’s help that doesn’t have anything to do with your practice. You may be surprised at how effective you can be at helping others – and how much that brings you in return.
Maintain your relationships with the clients you come into contact with. Often, existing clients are more important than new ones; you never know when a contact at an existing client will go to a new company and have the ability to send business to your firm, or when a contact will get promoted and have more control over where their legal business goes.
Ask the more experienced lawyers in your firm if you can accompany them on client meetings to see how they handle clients and how business gets done in your office.
Get involved in something you’re passionate about. You never know where business will come from or where the next opportunity will arise.
Join committees at the bar association – these are learning opportunities and opportunities to make connections with other attorneys in the community who might serve as mentors, strategic partners, or referral sources.
Offer to help with your firm’s newsletter, to write articles for the website. Put together a CLE program with a colleague. Post about your firm’s activities and provide interesting, informative content on your social media accounts.
If your goal is to become a leader in your firm or legal organization, cultivating these three skills can help you stand out from your colleagues and demonstrate that you recognize that being a leader goes far beyond being a good lawyer and having good communication skills.
About the Author
Allison C. Johs is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency, and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including Make LinkedIn in Work for You (2019) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line, 2nd Edition (ABA 2022). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org