Lawyers as Leaders: Creating the Vision and Empowering Employees

With President’s Day around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the leadership principles that are needed to successfully manage a legal practice. Naturally, Abraham Lincoln comes to mind as a self-educated lawyer who arguably became the most famous attorney this country has ever known. Lincoln's remarkable leadership abilities -- an unwavering commitment to fundamental goals, the capacity to weigh opposing perspectives before making major decisions, and the ability to inspire others to carry out his master vision -- serve as a reminder of the important role that attorneys play as leaders today. 

We sometimes overlook the direct relationship between the interactions of managing attorneys with legal staff and the level of motivation, morale and achievement these individuals display. These essential skills aren’t often taught in law school, so we need to be vigilant about developing and honing those capabilities in our daily work.

Here’s my perspective on the qualities shared by many successful leaders –- and how legal professionals can use them to enhance their effectiveness and inspire their staff:

  • Lead by Example: For teams to be motivated to excel, attorneys in leadership positions must do the same by setting high standards for performance and demonstrating creative approaches to problem-solving, professional tone and respect.
  • Provide Strategic Direction: Most employees want to know their work is important and meaningful. Counsel can help by discussing with employees how they can support departmental objectives. Staff should clearly understand their individual responsibilities, their relationship to achieving the company’s goals and criteria used for performance evaluations.
  • Trust and Support Employees: To earn the respect and loyalty of staff, managing attorneys must show trust and confidence in their abilities. For example, encourage prudent risk-taking, innovative thinking and creative solutions to challenges. Take time to find out staff members’ legal career aspirations, then find ways to help them achieve these objectives. Remember to delegate tasks and involve staff in decision-making and planning. Offer to personally mentor promising attorneys to help enhance their leadership capacity.
  • Be Approachable: Establishing an open-door communication policy encourages team members to come to department leaders with their concerns. Observations or issues raised during these informal meetings can help you address underlying problems before they impact the performance and productivity of the team.
  • Recognize and Reward: Public recognition of individual or group accomplishments is one of the hallmarks of outstanding leadership, especially during difficult business cycles. Positive verbal reinforcement is a simple and effective technique. Use team-building activities or informal celebrations to help foster camaraderie and unity.
  • Avoid Micromanaging: The responsibility of the managing attorney is to establish goals, clarify objectives, set expectations, and motivate employees. By empowering employees rather than becoming overly involved in how they perform their jobs, you’ll enable the team to focus on results, not process.


Are there leaders who have served as your role model? What leadership attributes do you consider most important? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.