Sunday, March 3, 2013

What Lawyers Lack: Leadership

That’s the title of an important article by Professor Deborah Rhode in 9 University of St. Thomas Law Review 471 (2011). There, she argues that although lawyers hold many leadership roles in their profession and in the larger society, they often are ill-equipped for those positions, and it falls on law schools to provide training in leadership skills. Here are some excerpts:

According to one consultant, the main reason many lawyers do so well financially is that they have to “compete only with other lawyers.” Rarely do the leaders of legal organizations have any management training, and many are not even selected for management ability. One partner put it bluntly:“[T]he historical model for law firms is to put [people] in a leadership position. . . often not because of leadership skills but because of [rainmaking]. . . and hope they don’t drive into a ditch.” This inattention to leadership development raises particular concern in light of a recent study finding that the most powerful predictor of large firm profitability is “the quality of partners’ leadership skills.”

Empirical research finds that leaders’ most essential qualities largely cluster in five categories:

-Values (such as integrity, honesty, trust, an ethic of service);

-Personal skills (such as self-awareness, self-control, selfdirection);

-Interpersonal skills (such as social awareness, empathy, persuasion,

conflict management);

-Vision (such as forward-looking, inspirational);

-Technical competence (such as knowledge, preparation,


 Studies of professional service organizations (including those in law similarly find that many qualities critical for leadership are not central in the core curricula of legal education: integrity, empathy, vision, and abilities to listen, inspire, and influence. Nor are many of these leadership qualities characteristic of individuals who choose law as a career. Several decades of research find that attorneys’ distinctive personality traits can pose challenges for lawyers as leaders, particularly when they are leading other lawyers. For example, attorneys tend to be above average in skepticism, competitiveness, “urgency,” autonomy, and achievement orientation.

  Skepticism, the tendency to be argumentative, cynical, and judgmental, can get in the way of inspiration, vision, and training that focuses on “soft skills.” “Urgency,” defined as the need to“get things done,” can lead to impatience, intolerance, and inadequate listening.  Competitiveness and desires for autonomy and achievement can make lawyers overly self-absorbed, controlling, combative, and difficult to manage. Lawyers also rank lower than the general population in sociability, interpersonal sensitivity, and “resilience” (the ability to respond constructively to criticism), all of which can be critical to leadership.


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