Resources Newsletter Archive When It Comes to Leadership Training, Have You Been Left to Sink or Swim? (September 2004)

When It Comes to Leadership Training, Have You Been Left to Sink or Swim? (September 2004)


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When It Comes to Leadership Training,

Have You Been Left to Sink or Swim?

Issue # 35

November 2004


Executive Summary

The typical law school curriculum does not include training in the development of leadership skills. Without adequate preparation, the transition from an exclusive focus on your own technical competence to motivating others to do their best work can be quite stressful. This issue offers ways to ease this passage and help you become an effective leader.

"How eager are you to commit yourself - your heart, your mind, your sweat -
to a distant authority figure with whom you feel no connection? Probably
not much. Formal authority - giving someone a paycheck - will get simple
obedience. Only leadership - reaching out and connecting with people on
their terms - can capture hearts and minds."
~Belle Linda Halpern & Kathy Lubar

A new law firm partner described the following dilemma: The paralegal with whom he worked consistently gave his projects lowest priority. Even his best efforts to explain the urgency of an assignment had no apparent effect.

This young partner's legal assistant completed the work he gave her, but it was typically filled with errors. He'd red line the document and send it back to her, but some of those errors remained uncorrected when she sent it back to him. He doubted that the problem was her competence -- no one else seemed to be unhappy with the quality of her work.

The associate assigned to work on his matters always seemed to be bogged down with work from other partners. He'd gotten so frustrated with her putting him off that he'd blown up at her the other day. He regretted his reaction, but felt completely hamstrung. How could he get his staff to do his work in a timely way?

"Besides," he thought, "even if my associate does the work, the fact that she's a first year means I'll just have to redo it myself."

He wondered if some kind of coaching on how to manage others might help.

As a participant on a panel entitled "What They Never Told You In Law School - You're the Boss: Getting Comfortable With Being in Charge" at the 2004 Pennsylvania Bar Association meeting, I'd listened to many similar stories from men and women alike. Law school does not teach lawyers how to manage the work of others or lead others to accomplish a common goal.

But with your very first job, you're typically required to supervise someone's work. Whenever you're involved in managing projects or leading teams, you need good leadership skills. Even a first year associate needs to motivate support personnel. But usually the new attorney has had no training to prepare her for this.

The situation only becomes more daunting as lawyers move into positions of greater leadership responsibility. Lawyers who've recently made partner in a firm or have been promoted into a management position in government or in a corporate legal department typically find themselves thrust into a role for which they've had little preparation.

This transition can be particularly challenging for women. The higher up in an organization an individual moves, the lonelier it gets. You can't complain to your subordinates about how at sea you feel. And since women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership positions in the law, a woman has even fewer people to turn to for support, guidance and modeling. Every new leader is being tested - and feels that way. But women face even greater obstacles in establishing their authority. (See Deborah Rhode's "The Difference Difference Makes" [2] for an eloquent description of the challenges facing women law leaders.)

In their recent book, *The Leadership Pipeline,*[3] Ram Charan and his colleagues point out that the core challenge of taking on a leadership role is to move from focusing on your own individual contribution to enlisting others to do what you're used to doing yourself. There is a shift from doing work to getting work done through others.

Generally, lawyers move into leadership positions based on their legal skills or business-development success. But being a great attorney or rainmaker does not necessarily mean you know how to be an effective leader.

I have yet to find anyone who says they learned leadership in law school. Perhaps this is why Reed Smith has decided to send its lawyers to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.[4]

More typically, attorneys are simply left to sink or swim in their new leadership positions. The transition into a leadership role offers a wonderful opportunity. But it's also a very vulnerable time. It's easy to get as stuck in negative cycles of interaction with junior attorneys and support staff as the new partner described above.

The need to make a transition for which you're unprepared can be extremely stressful. In an effort to reduce your stress and to get you started in a virtuous circle where you can make great use of your new opportunities, I offer the following suggestions:


Anticipate the greatest vulnerability: you'll want to do only what you do well. Resist the pull. Don't just do what you've always done. Be open to learning; be flexible and adaptable. Fight your inclination to maintain control by micromanaging. Remind yourself that delegating does not mean you've abdicated all power over the product. You will have a chance to review things. And if they need correcting, don't take over. Provide the person to whom you originally delegated the task constructive feedback and another opportunity to correct the work.


In order to mobilize the energy of others to work toward a common goal, you'll have to earn their trust and establish your credibility. You must demonstrate that you're someone for whom others would want to do their best. To accomplish this, you must DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL DO. Always act with integrity.


The most difficult part of the transition to leadership is learning to genuinely value the work of the leader. You'll need to believe that taking time to get to know and coach your team is not just a responsibility you tolerate, but critical to your success. Most attorneys perceive themselves to be too busy practicing law to have time to coach their subordinates. Especially in a law firm environment, where your leadership responsibilities are not billable, it will be very challenging to invest the time. Try to remember that although your firm may not compensate you directly for this work, your ultimate success will be your reward. This is a front-end investment for a long-term gain - and well worth it.


It's impossible to get buy-in without understanding the goals, attitudes and concerns of your team. Take the time to have crucial conversations. Talk to the people who report to you, as well as those to whom you report. Understand their goals and concerns. Be genuinely interested. If you alienate or offend someone, or create fear and mistrust, you may start a vicious circle that blocks your success.

Remember the new partner in the story above. He finally had a long-overdue conversation with the resistant paralegal. He discovered that she had earned a law degree but had relocated for family reasons and had been unable to find a position as a lawyer. Had he recognized her training and wish for appropriate respect, the relationship might have evolved quite differently.


Never forget that support personnel are human beings - and often the first point of contact for clients. Develop respectful, supportive relationships with your staff. Be polite: always say "please" and "thank you." Invite their input about how to get things done. Acknowledge and reward their good work.

When errors occur, consider whether the individual is overloaded, under greater-than-normal stress, or ill. Re-evaluate the clarity of your instructions.

If problems recur, address this directly. Perhaps the relationship got off on the wrong foot and needs repair.

Always remember that your staff are important people and deserve to be treated with civility and respect.


The essence of leadership is the ability to inspire others to do their best. Take ownership of the success of the people working for you. Plan your time to include both your own client-related work, as well as opportunities to help others perform effectively.


Spend time planning how to delegate your work. Realistic delegation requires attunement to the attitudes of others toward your goals as well as a solid sense of their current level of functioning. Effective delegation can motivate a young attorney by giving her the sense that she's acquiring skills that will enhance her career development. In this way, you'll align her goals with your own.


Your ability to inspire excellent work depends upon the quality of the relationships you develop with the people who work on your matters. Similarly, your ability to obtain needed resources and support depends upon the quality of the relationships you develop with the people to whom you report. Genuine connections produce the best results.


Learn to genuinely value your relationships with junior attorneys. These are mutually beneficial relationships. Make it your goal to help them develop professionally. Empower them to accept responsibility and make good decisions. Collaboratively establish performance goals and hold them accountable. Give immediate, concrete, constructive feedback, rather than waiting for annual evaluations. Address problems directly and in a timely fashion.


Seek to become a great coach. Set clear expectations; assign work according to an individual's abilities and professional development needs; monitor the progress of work; be available and responsive to questions; celebrate successes and use mistakes as learning opportunities.


Believe that being approachable is crucial to your role as a leader. Failure to set aside time for, and value skills like coaching, effective communication, emotional intelligence and rewarding successes dramatically increases the risk of poor performance and attrition of talent.


As a leader you'll need to model how you want others to act. This requires self-awareness - you have to know what you value in order to align your actions with your values. Developing your emotional intelligence will allow you to be aware of your own emotional reactions so you can choose how to behave rather than allowing your emotions to drive your actions. Awareness of your style, biases, strengths, weaknesses, need for control and how you want things done will help you in your efforts.


Learn to monitor your own emotional reactions so you can regulate their expression and choose how to act. Pay attention to how your feelings tend to affect your behavior. Be aware of the feelings of others so you can effectively plan how to approach them. Be attentive to changes in their emotional state so you can adjust your behavior to have the desired impact.


Be sufficiently self-aware so that you can deliver the message you want to deliver in a way that it is heard and understood. Pay close attention, not only to what you plan to say, but to the reactions of others as you say it.


Try not to be defensive if your initial efforts fail. Remember, you're new at this. Don't ignore criticism or blame your mistakes on others. Be willing to examine your contribution to problems, take responsibility for errors and try again.


It's not uncommon for lawyers to have had a somewhat adversarial attitude toward management before assuming a leadership role. Now that you're one of "them," you'll need to maintain your own values and perspective while developing relationships with other managers throughout the organization.


You'll need the support and guidance of your personal board of directors more than ever now. (See "Beyond the Billable Hour," Issue # 15, available at If necessary, recruit new members.


Be prepared for setbacks. Bolster your resilience by seeking support, having realistic expectations of yourself, maintaining a vision of your goal, and remaining optimistic.


Of course, having your own coach makes the whole transition much easier.


1. Halpern, Belle Linda & Lubar, Kathy (2003) *Leadership Presence.* New York: Gotham Books, p.109

2. Rhode, Deborah I (2003) "The Difference 'Difference' Makes," in Rhode, Deborah I. (ed.) *The Difference Difference Makes: Women and Leadership.* American Bar Association, p.3-52.

3. Charan, R., Drotter, S. & Noel, J. (2001) *The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company.* New York: Jossey-Bass.

4. Lin, Anthony (8-13-2004) "Reed Smith to Send Attorneys, Staff to Wharton Business School." *The New York Law Journal.*

Leadership Excellence Right From The Start

A New Virtual Coaching Group from Lawyers Life Coach LLC

8 Wednesdays beginning October 6, 2004 3:00-4:00 pm Eastern (NY) time

"LEADERSHIP EXCELLENCE RIGHT FROM THE START" is a group for lawyers who have recently, or are about to, assume a new leadership role. The purpose of this group is to coach you through this momentous transition.


  • Share your experiences with others going through the same transition.
  • Reduce your isolation.
  • Learn, by discussion and practice, essential leadership skills.
  • Set specific goals for your own development as a leader and have the group coach you to accomplish your goals.
  • Reduce feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability by identifying your strengths and increasing your competencies.
  • Learn what you never learned in law school about motivating others to share your vision and work collaboratively.
  • Discover how to identify "coaching moments" and learn how to use them to accomplish professional development, succession planning, and personal career goals.
  • Observe how your feelings influence your behavior and receive supportive feedback about how you're experienced by others. Learn how to come across as you intend.
  • Develop strategies for managing others within the culture of your workplace.

This group is open to lawyers working in any setting - private practice, corporate legal departments, government, non-profits, etc. The only requirements are that you be new to your leadership role and that you want to coach others and be coached.

Information is also available on the Lawyers Life Coach website at

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