What did you think when you read that headline? Did it make you anxious? Stressed? Tired? All three, maybe?
One thing that law school doesn’t tell you often enough is that you will be leading a lot as a lawyer, whether you are in private practice, in the government, working for a nonprofit, in the judiciary, within legal academia, or in a non-legal role. Although more and more schools are accepting that lawyers are leaders, they spend far less time on the why and how of leadership.
Lawyers, whether they give themselves credit for it or not, have a unique capacity for leadership because a legal education is an education in problem-solving. It is a thinking degree, and those without a law degree know lawyers think differently. When I was building the Tsai Leadership Program at Yale, I spoke to hundreds of alumni, in every professional sector. Some were still practicing lawyers, and some were in non-legal roles. All of them agreed that a legal education gave them a unique lens through which to solve problems and think differently.
Now let’s preface the remainder of the discussion by saying that leadership can come in many forms. I’m not only referring to the small frame of leadership as that which is formal, appointed and denotes command over others. If you are interacting with others, you have an opportunity to lead just by the way you show up. Let’s also clarify that the act of leading doesn’t imply a value judgment about good or bad leadership. There are lawyers who lead poorly just as there are lawyers who lead well, but the agency is yours to take the initiative to lead given the unique leadership skillset that legal training affords us.
If lawyers are leading every day, why am I making a call to action that the time to lead is now? Because the demands of legal work have changed and the attitude towards the workplace have shifted.
The demands of the profession have changed and increased. Even prior to the pandemic, technology and globalism have shifted how we do our work. Lawyers are now available 24/7 and clients are all over the world. The pandemic further magnified these demands and made them more acute by removing the old framework within which we worked and learned. It is obvious now that the way we used to train law students and develop and support lawyers is no longer adequate for the current demands of our clients and our work.
The shift in attitudes towards work has opened an opportunity to upgrade how we lead in the law. Diversity and inclusion efforts, the ESG movement, and a greater awareness of the importance of lawyer wellbeing have all reframed how we think of the many dimensions of working and leading in the law. A younger generation of law students and young lawyers have agitated for positive change in a way that has reminded all of us that what they seek from their professional experience should be the baseline for a profession that is looked upon to lead. The shift in attitudes towards work in the legal profession has become even more pronounced during the pandemic, and employers seem to finally be taking these issues more seriously as the talent market gets tighter.
How can lawyers be better leaders?
It’s clear that we need our legal institutions and organizations to step up. For the past four years I have been asking the question, “how can lawyers be better leaders?” As the inaugural dean of the Tsai Leadership Program at Yale, I was in conversation with lawyers and students about what they believed was needed for better, more successful, more ethical leaders inside and outside the law, and what role did legal education play in helping lawyers become better leaders? As I gathered feedback, I was looking at the topic of lawyer leadership from the perspective of my own experiences: as a confused law student with no professionals in my family, as a practicing attorney who began to see the gaps in how we train and develop lawyers, as an operator in a startup who worked with hundreds of lawyers and legal professionals to address the gaps in how we help lawyers be practice-ready, as a business strategist who helped lawyers build client relationships and shape their books of business, as a recruiter and manager of in-house talent that had to fit into any legal department on a day’s notice, as a yoga teacher who could see the impact of the profession on wellbeing, as a woman who has worked in a traditionally male-dominated profession, and as an immigrant who had to make sense of the hierarchies and norms of a very unique guild. I was analyzing the feedback of students and lawyers from every perspective I could imagine, both lived and imagined, and I was designing a leadership program framework to support all those varied experiences.
From these conversations, I took away some fundamentals of how lawyers can step up and lead more effectively from wherever they are.
Approach with compassion and empathy: We are all tired. The pressures have increased exponentially on all of us. Leaning into empathy and compassion with those around you is a free and immediate step we can all take to lead better. If you become frustrated at the pace or work product of those you are working with, ask yourself what you would need if you were in their place right now. Would you want to have permission to reset expectations? Would you like the freedom to ask more questions? Would you like more guidance? As lawyers, we are taught to live on implicit assumptions and hard conclusions, but when we are working with other people, we rarely verify our assumptions about others, causing us to come to erroneous conclusions. When something isn’t going how you expect it to, take a beat, and ask yourself how you can make some space in the situation for everyone to work well together.
Iterate towards your long-term objective: Solutions that worked before may not work now, because you, the people around you and the situations have all shifted. One of the things that I loved most about working in startups is the constant demand to pivot our solutions. We may have had one plan for a project at the start, but a week into that project we would have to shift. Instead of holding on stubbornly to the first plan (like many of us did when we were lawyers), we adapted and came up with a new solution that fit the current circumstances and the updated set of facts. Recently, the legal profession had to adapt to working remotely, and many workplaces took this as an opportunity to leverage or upgrade their technological infrastructure. Some managers saw a new opportunity to change the way they supervise those on their teams, the way they set expectations and review performance. Keeping that innovative mindset to problem solving is an immediate leadership upgrade. Does the current plan fit your objective and the current circumstances? Iterate accordingly.
Check the mirror often: as a leader, especially as a lawyer leader, you are both performing and managing, meaning that you are simultaneously delivering your subject matter expertise, and managing how others deliver that expertise and how others consume that expertise. When you are trying to juggle such complexity, you are likely not pausing to regularly reflect on and assess what is working and what is not working, both in your approach to your work and in the bigger team dynamic. I recommend in the back of your mind, or in a work journal, tracking what is working, what isn’t working and what can be changed to improve the situation. Do this assessment with everything. Do it with your team dynamics. Do it with your direct reports. Do it with your client relationships. Do it with your organizational structure. And don’t forget to run this assessment reflection on yourself. Ask lots of questions about why you and those around you do what they do. The more curious you get about the dynamics around you and the more invested you become in thinking about how you can improve the situation, the less likely you will be caught off guard by emergency problems.
As the demands of the legal profession continue to increase, lawyers must upgrade the skills necessary to lead effectively. The current moment is an opportunity to approach the demands of talent development and client management with a fresh perspective. Those who take on the challenge with a growth mindset will differentiate themselves as leaders who others are eager to follow.
About the Author
Anastasia Boyko is an independent consultant working with law schools and law firms to create holistic leadership development programs.
Anastasia was most recently the inaugural dean of the Tsai Leadership Program at Yale Law School, where she built an innovative leadership development program with curricular, programmatic, and career pathing components. Prior to her work at Yale, Anastasia held a variety of business operating roles in growth companies and professional service firms after beginning her career in private legal practice.
Anastasia earned her law degree at Yale Law School and her undergraduate degree at the University of Utah.