The 6 C’s of Effective Leadership in Law

A recent article for Corporate Counsel by Larry Lohman, an Assistant GC and VP of Harris Corporation, and Andrew Shipley, A Government Contracts Partner with Perkins Coie, highlights what the authors believe to be the 6 essential leadership traits of law department and law firm managers. Each of the traits starts with the letter “C”, so we will affectionately refer to this list as “The 6 C’s of Law Leadership”. The traits are: (1) Character, (2) Commitment, (3) Competence, (4) Communication, (5) Courage, and (6) Compassion. Let’s briefly go through each:

Character: John Wooden, the late and great longtime UCLA men’s basketball coach, once said: “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” This is critical for leaders in any field, but particularly so in law. Leaders often face the choice between seeking to win at all costs and relentlessly representing clients, versus taking a step back and evaluating if their decisions come at the cost of doing the right thing. Similarly, the authors point out the importance of “trustworthiness” and recognizing that when you are a leader no conversations or interactions with your group are “off-duty”. Your character and integrity is always under scrutiny. It has the potential to draw others towards you or to propel them away.

Commitment: As a law firm or law department leader, commitment is what sets the tone for those that you lead. Similar to the battlefield analogy of a general who directs troops from the flank, versus a leader who will jump into the trenches beside you, the group’s commitment can hinge on a leader’s willingness to be present and alongside at the critical moment. Law leaders also have to learn how to balance dual responsibilities of commitment to the organization and their employees, which the authors suggest “may sometimes appear to conflict, but they shouldn’t…a leader can support the organization’s position while respecting the fact that some in her group may have reservations or doubts.”

Competence: There is an expectation that law leaders, or leaders in any field, know the right answers, make the right decisions, at the right times. In some ways this is understandable. In fact, rising up the ranks to a position of leadership generally indicates that you have demonstrated these qualities over time. Yet Lohman and Shipley take this one step further: “A truly competent leader, however, possesses self-sufficient awareness (and humility) to recognize when she needs help and has the confidence to ask for it.” This is not easy by any stretch. It takes the highest level of competence to admit that you need help.

Communication: We have heard this time and again. In every job description, at every leadership forum, you name it. And it’s true, good leaders do need to be effective communicators. However, communication can take many forms: verbal, written, non-verbal. And as Lohman and Shipley point out, “there is no magic formula that makes communication happen. It takes an investment of hard work and time.” Good communication is not easy. It can often be awkward and you may feel vulnerable, but setting the stage for communication will go a long way with your team. As Lohman and Shipley suggest, empower your group to ask even what they feel may be “dumb” questions, and take the time to provide “thoughtful responses”.

Courage: C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” What Lewis meant by this was that courage is a foundational virtue, and that if we lack courage in key moments, we will miss the opportunity to follow through on other virtues we may have. For example, it takes courage to be honest or be loyal when the time comes or your reputation is on the line.

Compassion: This last trait brought up by Lohman and Shipley helps to bring it all together. What really separates some of the most effective leaders is a mentality of seeing others as more than just colleagues. As Lohman and Shipley put it: “The practice of law can be quite stressful…One way for a leader to minimize stress is to remember that he works with people—and not just bodies bearing job titles and responsibilities…Sometimes our better natures can lost in the pressure and stress of everyday business.”

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