Servant Leadership For Lawyers

My “Gen-Z” daughter works in one of those fancy paint bars that seem to be popping up all over. All employees at this location are trained in all facets of the business, from cooking to bartending to the actual leading of the paint class. One day, my daughter was scheduled to be the lead teacher for a late afternoon birthday party of 20 children.

A few hours before her shift, and during the shift preceding my daughter’s birthday party session, the manager found out that the assistant teacher for my daughter’s shift was sick and would not be available to assist. The manager told no one and my daughter, who had a full class, did not have an assistant to observe and aid the excited children. I am certain you can imagine how this story ends.

The manager had options that day. Hopefully by the end of this article you will put yourself in the manager’s shoes and determine the appropriate path she could have chosen.


Allow me to start with a quote that a colleague forwarded to me when I opened my first small firm in 2002:

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, it took me some time to truly understand the weight this quote actually carries. I cared about being a good lawyer, and I cared about winning and making money. Our firm had a secretary and an associate, and we seemed to be quite successful. I met with our associate a few times a week, and she seemed happy. Soon, the associate left, and we took on another associate. About a year later, that associate left, and we hired someone else. After several years, it seemed that our happy little firm was stuck on the “hamster wheel” of business, making a good living but not really experiencing fulfillment or satisfaction.

It was some time in the mid-2000s that I was introduced to the concept of “servant leadership.” Our firm was not growing, our book of business was stagnant, and I personally felt that I wasn’t reaching out to potential referral sources. I had heard of the term “servant leadership,” but didn’t truly understand what it meant.

While the concept of “servant leadership” originated with the Eastern sages, the term was made popular by Robert K. Greenleaf, who is considered the founder of “modern day” servant leadership. In his book Essentials, Greenleaf stated:

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

In 1992 Larry Spears, founder of the Spears Center of Servant Leadership, broke down Greenleaf’s writings to a set of 10 characteristics of the servant leader that is critical to the development of servant-leaders. These characteristics are: listening; empathy; healing; awareness; persuasion; conceptualization; foresight; stewardship; commitment to the growth of people; and building community. An in-depth discussion of each of these characteristics is available here.


It is critical in any type of legal matter to work as a team – not just any kind of team, but an effective one. This concept is key in obtaining a successful result for a client. Firms that have a “tiered” practice structure – partner>associate>paralegal>administrative assistant – have teams in place for handling legal matters as well as practice management decisions. Even a sole practitioner must create this team synergy by making the client a part of the team, along with those crucial to the case, be it an accountant, witness, treating physician…whoever. This “team synergy” is what is at the heart of “servant leadership,” and will allow those who understand the concept to be most successful. However, for the servant-leader, the concept of the team is more than the outcome of a case or firm profitability; the team develops and promotes individual success and promotes servant-leaders from within.


A key principle in any relationship that provides value is the “know, like, trust” (KLT) concept. Whether it be a client, friend, referral source, or team members, this is the cornerstone of any valuable relationship. In lay terms, these are the three words that make people want to buy what you’re selling. This is the relationship a servant leader must have in building successful teams.

Let’s start with a firm with some form of “tiered” system. The firm may have an administrator, a paralegal, an associate, or several legal departments. This firm may have a staff of two or 2,000. In a system such as this, there will usually be a superior – let’s call them the “boss.” The boss makes hiring and firing decisions, and usually is invested in the long-term success of the practice. The boss, if he or she is a lawyer, will have some say in the “mentoring” of young associates or paralegals, and may even be involved in the mentoring of staff. If the boss isn’t involved in the mentoring of staff, the boss will likely assign someone else to mentor the staff.

Mentoring is not servant leadership! Mentoring focuses on personal achievement, and how the mentee can better perform their specific job responsibilities. Mentoring focuses on individual success and advancement, and not the advancement of the team as a whole. The KLT principal does not have as much importance, if at all, in the mentor-mentee relationship.


How does the servant leader create the successful team? The servant leader already understands the value of KLT relationships. They know how to incorporate the 10 principles into the team culture. They conduct meetings where every team member has an opportunity to speak and be heard – team communication is key. The servant leader asks open-ended questions so every team member has an opportunity to speak and be heard, allowing them to feel empowered. The servant leader may run the meeting but never has the last word. It is likely that there will be disagreement within the team from time to time. However, if the servant leader has established the 10 characteristics with their team, they will have gained the trust of their team to power through the adversity the team may face. A mantra I have developed is “there is no such thing as a problem – only a solution.”

The attorney servant leader cannot forget that the client is a part of the team. This notion is equally important for the sole practitioner. Each of the ten characteristics are of paramount importance to the attorney-client relationship. The relationship between attorney and client is built on the KLT pillar.

If there is a “leader,” there will usually be “followers.” As stated earlier, servant leaders create a product that others want to buy into. For the sole practitioner such as myself, my followers are my referral sources and clients. For my referral sources, while I cannot discuss facts about cases they refer to me, I create teams when these individuals come to me with questions pertaining to their business, and on occasion I bring in other professionals to create a team and provide solutions. With respect to my clients, I make certain I contact my clients on a regular basis and, while I may not have an update on their matter, I make certain to ask if I could be of assistance in any way to see if there is an opportunity to create a new team and provide a solution to whatever may be on their mind. Building this “team” relationship with your client will make them want to refer new business to you, extending your brand and the product you sell.

The fundamental premise of servant leadership is that the leader strives to develop a culture that leads the people who work with the leader to be in a better place. There must be in place a need to build trust and camaraderie, and the servant leader must use the 10 characteristics to navigate many personalities and agendas to build strong and effective teams. The result of effective leadership using these traits is a healthier firm culture with a loyal and receptive staff, and ultimately, greater productivity.

So, what really happened that day at the paint bar? At the end of the early shift, the manager asked the staff to stay and explained the situation – they were going to be one short at the birthday party. The manager asked the team if anyone wanted to stay to assist my daughter. Not only did my daughter have an assistant, but others volunteered to stay to serve at the party to ensure it was a success. Afterward, the mother of the birthday girl emailed both the local manager and district manager to compliment the staff on a successful party.

About the Author

Alan Klevan is the principal of The Law Offices of Alan J. Klevan, P.C. in Framingham, MA. He is also the owner of Summit Law Practice Solutions, a legal consulting firm focused on assisting solo practitioners and small law firms. 

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