The Inaugural ABA Lead Law: A Review

Whether you were part of the live audience in Greenville, South Carolina or among the many attorneys watching a live-stream of the event in the comforts of their law firms, ABA Lead Law—the inaugural lawyer leadership conference presented by the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division—provided a full day of varying perspectives on how attorneys lead and need to lead in their firms and in the profession as a whole.

“Leadership principles are easy to understand, but are not usually consistent with what comes natural, especially in difficult times. Because of our education and training, effective ‘servant leadership’ is even harder for lawyers to implement in their professional lives,” said Tom Grella, chair of ABA Lead Law. “It is our hope that we can help our professional colleagues understand the need to apply effective leadership tools and principles in their daily lives and practice.”

As an attorney in attendance (and a member of the event’s planning committee), I found that the format made for a quick-paced day of useful information and anecdotes. If you did not particularly enjoy or find interest in one speaker, it felt like just a short time before we moved on to the next. Other attendees I spoke with during and after the event found the content strong and the time well spent. The day was kicked off with inspirational words from Law Practice Division chair Tom Bolt. Each speaker’s presentation was recapped and segued to the next by chair-elect John Mitchell.

Dr. Larry Richard’s presentation on “The Mind of the Lawyer Leader” set the stage for the day with a fascinating talk on managing relationships, influencing subordinates, colleagues and leaders in the firm, and clients and others outside of the firm. Getting to a productive result meant having to understand why leadership is difficult for lawyers in the first place.

Focusing on six traits—skepticism, autonomy, urgency, abstract reasoning, sociability and resilience—Richard explained leadership from a psychological perspective. Our job as lawyers often requires us to be “negative,” yet people do not follow “negative.” His presentation focusing on our psychological makeup is critical to understanding how we are led and need to lead.

It was interesting that the first two presenters on the overarching topic of “Lead Yourself,” Dr. Richard and Mark Beese (speaking on how to apply basic leadership principles to law firm environments), were both non-lawyers, giving perspectives from outside of our profession.

The second segment on “Leading Your Clients,” shifted to experienced attorneys in the field. Patrick Lamb of the Valorem Law Group gave first-hand examples of influencing clients and enhancing their experience by maximizing value. “Can you distinguish yourself from everybody else?” he asked. In some cases, Lamb believes clients don’t know great customer service because they’ve never seen it. His perspective on alternative fee arrangements—that they are little more than repackaging of the same old, same old put a dent in claims that AFAs offer  true value.

Stewart Levine’s presentation reminded us that we can choose to “collaborate or die.” From setting the tone and understanding professionalism and presence to the importance of mastering communication skills, Levine identified the costs of conflict and how to get to a successful resolution. A longtime voice on the subject with a colorful background, I’ve enjoyed Stewart’s programs over the years as an active member of the Law Practice Division.

Grella, former managing partner of McGuire Wood & Bissette in Asheville, North Carolina, a past chair of the Law Practice Division and current member of the ABA House of Delegates, is author of the book “Lessons in Leadership: Essential Skills for Lawyers.” He spoke on leading lawyers in times of uncertainty. Grella has studied the subject of leadership for decades, taking traits and tales of many great leaders in world history and putting them to use in the legal profession. He used an example from Winston Churchill’s War Room museum—where Churchill would gather his leaders together to make key decisions—as a starting point for discussing the importance of having good communication. In hard times, you can turn discussions from crisis to opportunity.

ABA President Elect Linda Klein addressed the heart of a law firm leader. She used personal experiences as managing partner of the Atlanta office of Baker Donelson to highlight successful examples of leadership. Once again, the theme of strong communication resonated, as it did for almost every speaker during the day. She reminded attendees that 80 percent of life is showing up—and she meant in-person, not by e-mail. An example of good firm leadership centered on Baker Donelson’s awards program to recognize and motivate staff. Klein noted the importance of strong professional development, diversity and inclusion, and the need to step back and “picture your swing”—using the golf analogy to remind us to step back and examine what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Pamela Woldow presented on the importance of legal project management in scoping out, planning and doing legal work, while monitoring, managing and reviewing along the way. The GRIP acronym of Goal clarity, Role clarity, Interactions and Process & procedure was used to highlight the LPM process.

The final segment of the day—Lead Your Profession—started with a panel discussion on leadership through organized bar involvement. ABA executive director Jack Rives and immediate past president William Hubbard were among those providing pointers on the value of leadership. Artika Tyner presented on the lawyer as a servant to society. The final keynote—leading through a future of change—was delivered by former US Senator Tom Daschle.

For much of the last two decades, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down on a weekly basis with law firm managing partners and management committees to discuss marketing and business development issues. So many examples and anecdotes shared by presenters throughout the day were spot-on to my own experiences in dealing with issues of leadership in a law firm. Some days, it can be agonizingly frustrating; other days, amazingly rewarding. If you did not have a chance to attend Lead Law, it’s not too late. Be sure to visit for more information on how you can access this valuable content today.

About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on marketing and business development, and is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Micah is the immediate past Editor-In-Chief of Law Practice Today and a current member of the Board of Editors. He can be reached at or by phone at 856-234-4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.

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