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Leadership is a skill that’s essential to most legal roles. As student now and shortly a new lawyer, you may think you’re not qualified to assume a leadership role today or when you land your first legal job because of youth, inexperience, or your short tenure on the job. However, you don’t need to have the authority of a position to lead.

“Social skills; the ability to communicate effectively and with respect; the ability to demonstrate empathy and compassion; the ability to connect emotionally, intellectually, and on a basic human level with your colleagues and have them respond to you: These are what will propel you up the ladder,” said Carlotta Zimmerman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, career coach, and success strategist who’s worked with law students, practicing attorneys, and judges.

“These ‘teachable moments’ are what will, over time, become badges of proven leadership,” she said. With your head in your books now, you may be thinking you don’t have time to think about leadership now. But focusing on leadership skills early will set you apart and pay off down the road. Here are strategies that can help you develop strong leadership skills and avoid common mistakes along the way.

Inspire others

“It’s been said that you might think you’re leading, but if no one’s following, you’re just taking a walk,” said Jonathan J. Russell, a partner at Drake, Hileman & Davis in Doylestown, Pa. Leading isn’t telling people what to do, Russell noted, but rather collaborating with others in a way that accomplishes more than anyone could do on their own.

Jamie Lewis Smith, a leadership and organization development psychologist, agreed that a person isn’t a true leader if people aren’t choosing to follow. “You might have formal authority, which you can use to punish or force those below you to do your bidding,” stated Smith, who owns Pixel Leadership Group, a Boardman, Ohio, organization that helps young professionals transition into their roles and expand their leadership capabilities. “However, you won’t get the best out of others if you aren’t inspiring them to be a leader.”

A “command and control” approach won’t inspire others to follow you. Instead, become a better leader by taking an engaged approach by listening and collaborating with others. Once you graduate, transitioning into leadership roles within a law firm can be a challenge. Law school is a competitive environment that pits students against each other to compete for class rank, internships, on-campus interviews, and other opportunities.

Law firms often embrace the same competitive culture. This type of environment may breed a win-at-all-costs attitude where lawyers force those below them to follow their will without asking questions, Smith noted. While this approach may yield results in the short term, in the long-term, people won’t be motivated to give their best. In fact, they tend to resist, producing a less productive workforce. “At the heart of inspiring and engaging others is humility, listening, and vision,” Smith said.

Above all, being humble will help you strike the right balance between capable leadership and not appearing too assertive or cocky.

Show your vulnerability

Many new lawyers believe they need to exude confidence and decisiveness. But showing vulnerability and seeking the advice of others can help you forge relationships and develop into a successful leader. “The biggest mistake many lawyers make is in assuming that they alone have the answers to all questions,” said Ron Helmer, a partner at Helmer, Conley and Kasselman in Haddon Heights, N.J.

“Lawyers who don’t seek, value, and use the counsel of others, both attorneys and non-attorneys, make unnecessary mistakes and achieve weaker results than those who work well in strong and diverse teams.” Helmer noted that strong leaders of any age ask questions and seek information before expressing opinions or suggesting strategies. “Young attorneys who study the issues they’re trying to address, seek input from other sources, and present their ideas as questions or possibilities for discussion rather than a declaration of certainty will fare well,” Helmer said.

Smith agreed that you shouldn’t feel that you have to know everything, pointing out that those with an “I’m-anattorney-so-I-have-to-have-all-the-answers” mindset won’t seek out the resources they need to be successful. “Most successful folks who transition into leadership embrace that it’s okay to be open to other people’s help,” stated Smith. “Teammates will respond to you if you’re willing to show vulnerability.”

Another common mistake new attorney-leaders make is focusing on what’s going wrong or what must be fixed. However, focusing on the positives will foster a more inspired and engaged team of people working with you. “The most successful leaders recognize when things are going well,” Smith said. “They identify the strengths of team members and focus on building those strengths instead of focusing on what’s going wrong.” This persuasive, influential approach is ultimately more effective than a pure power approach, she noted.

5 ways to lead by example

There a number of other tactics you can take to develop stronger leadership skills. Here’s a quick list:

  • Do your job well. This sounds like a no-brainer, but some new lawyers coast once they’ve landed a job. Hard work paves the way to effective leadership. “A great way for law students to assert leadership skills is first to gain them by working hard on their assignments and their social skills,” Zimmerman said. “Too many law students still think that just being in law school creates entitlement. Today, the legal field is packed, the industry is glutted, and the Internet has put clients in the driver’s seat like never before.” By working hard and going the extra mile, you gain the respect of others and open new opportunities, even if you’re lower in the organizational hierarchy.
  • Go the extra mile. This will help you stand out. “Finding the balance between respecting that you’re the most junior person on a file while also making it clear that you don’t want to stay there is a tough task,” said Lori Keeton, a solo practitioner in Charlotte, N.C., and a coach, trainer, and speaker. “Don’t be afraid to do the grunt work,” she advised. “If someone needs to make the copies or get lunch, be secure enough to pitch in if you can. While some people are fearful that people won’t respect them if they help with the administrative tasks, I believe the opposite is true. True leaders will do whatever needs to be done to move toward the goal at hand.”
  • Find a mentor. This can also help you sharpen your leadership skills, but finding the right one can be an art. Check out “Finding a Mentor: You Don’t Have to Go It Alone in Law School” on p. 20 for tips. “Ideally you’ll have several mentors,” said Amy M. Gardner, a lawyer and certified professional coach at Apochromatik in Chicago. “You want to have people you can go to when you aren’t sure of the next step, trusted mentors who can give you advice and guidance.” Along the same lines, finding a champion in your organization who’ll make sure you get the right work and experience can help you carve out a leadership role, Gardner said.
  • Focus on your strengths. To help bridge the transition from leadership roles in law school to leadership in the working world, Smith suggested focusing on what you do well. “It’s important to be in touch with your own profile of strengths and weaknesses, appreciate where you can shine, and play those things up in your new role,” she stated. Also be aware of those things that can derail you as you take on new roles. By playing to your best skills and understanding where you need to improve, you’ll feel more comfortable, build confidence, and forge a connection with the people around you.
  • Become involved. Join the boards and governing bodies of non-profits and community organizations, advised Russell. “These organizations typically want to have lawyers on their boards,” said Russell. “And by serving on a quality nonprofit board, you’ll gain invaluable experience in developing your own leadership style in a setting that allows you to ask a lot of questions without feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing—which is one of the greatest fears for law students transitioning to being lawyers.”

Another way to demonstrate leadership skills is to volunteer to lead any pro bono efforts sponsored by your firm or organization. “Leading pro bono work, plus engaging in nonprofit board work, are soft-power ways to demonstrate leadership skills to firm management without being too bold about it,” explained Paul A. Dillon, president and CEO of Dillon Consulting Services in Chicago.

Be a good listener

It can be a challenge to assert leadership skills without coming off as aggressive or conceited. But you can do it by being thoughtful and careful. “Understanding different work styles and how others engage with you can help you be more flexible and responsive and motivate others to follow you,” said Smith.

“Even if you have to give tough feedback or discipline, understanding the needs of others can help you avoid coming across as cocky or a jerk. “Listening to the needs of others is also important because it helps you build buy-in and alignment,” added Smith. “So even if others don’t choose to go with your ideas, they’re more likely to agree with your decisions because they feel like you listened to them.”

Active listening can also help you gain respect as a leader. “You can do more to benefit an organization or firm by asking good questions than you can by trying to appear that you have all the answers,” Russell stated. “New lawyers frequently struggle with being deferential. This is usually not something that comes easy; it isn’t a skill set developed in law school.

“Leading doesn’t mean getting what you want,” continued Russell. “Effective leaders encourage participation and input from all involved in the process while communicating the value each person has to contribute to the whole.” If you listen to others and solicit their input, others will tend to value you and your leadership style because they’ll feel valued by you, he noted.

Few attorneys start their career with significant leadership skills or experience. But with some planning and purposefulness, you can develop the leadership abilities you need to stand out. You’ll also create opportunities that will transform you into one of tomorrow’s legal leaders.

SALLY KANE is a lawyer and writer who publishes frequently on legal career-related topics. Kane (@sallyannekane) serves as legal content director for PaperStreet, a digital marketing agency that helps law firms promote their brand and drive business through content marketing and web design.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.