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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    November 08, 2019

    On Balance
    5 Skills Today's Leaders Need for Tomorrow

    Law, like other businesses, is being buffeted by change. Here are five key skills that "lawyers of the future" must have to transition to a new way of leading.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    speaking at meeting

    I stopped practicing law on June 24, 2009, and I’ve been astounded how much the legal profession has changed since then. In the past decade, the market for legal services has experienced the following:1

    • The emergence of new legal services providers and solutions beyond lawyers and law firms,

    • Decreased regulatory restrictions against “nonlawyers” providing legal services,

    • The creation of alternative fee provisions and approaches, and

    • Clients’ assertion of greater confidence in their rights as full participants in their legal solutions.

    In addition, the lawyer well-being movement was established, and legal employers have been urged to begin to address matters related to stress, burnout, substance abuse, problem drinking, and overall workplace culture. As this changing legal landscape continues to evolve, up-and-coming lawyer leaders will need to develop new competencies in order to move with the change and stay relevant. To support new leaders in this regard, law firms and other legal employers must prioritize leadership development, including by unpacking what leadership means and how it can provide a competitive advantage.2

    Specifically, “lawyers of the future” must develop key skills so as to transition to a new way of leading focused on firm and organizational governance, innovation, economics (for example, rates and fee structures), service delivery, legal operations, people management (including how to motivate and engage professionals), and collection of data about all of these things.3 Here are five such competencies new leaders will need.

    Champion Change and Innovate

    Given the forces of change acting upon the legal profession, it will be hard for legal leaders to sit back and do nothing and hope to remain relevant. Innovation is the act of bringing about a new idea, product, or process. This is a vital competency for most industries, and the legal profession is now no exception.

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong.

    Another buzzword associated with innovation is “design thinking” or “human-centered design.” Design thinking is a problem-solving process to generate options, test strategies, and get feedback so that you can innovate, and it is the method most often used to facilitate the creation of new products or processes.4

    While clients are keen to have their lawyers innovate, when lawyers think of innovation, they often jump to legal technology as a solution. In reality, what clients really want is for their lawyers to help them create new strategies for the business challenges they are facing (or have yet to face); legal tech might or might not be one such strategy. Design thinking is human centered when lawyers ask clients about all of their challenges and listen to their answers.

    Collaborate and Have a Teamwork Focus

    When you listen to clients’ answers, you will quickly realize that your legal expertise may solve only a fraction of the challenges clients experience. In fact, as the world of law becomes more complex and specialized, it is rare that any one lawyer has the breadth of expertise to solve all of his or her client’s challenges. That means that lawyers must collaborate (both within their organizations and by adding other allied professionals to create multidisciplinary teams).

    This might present a challenge for lawyers who are part of specific practice groups, because they often assume that multidisciplinary teams will be cost prohibitive for clients. I’ve interviewed several lawyers employed as general counsel by large organizations about this apparent catch-22 and have discovered the exact opposite. Yes, it is imperative to watch costs, but the general counsel I talked to really expect that their lawyers will work in teams and are willing to pay the cost when the business case makes sense. In addition, research reveals that clients served by two practice groups generate much more revenue than clients served by a single practice, and this growth continues when more practice groups are involved.5 For teams to be effective, team members must assess goals, know each other’s strengths and working styles, provide ongoing feedback to each other, and manage conflict.

    What clients really want is for their lawyers to help them create new strategies for the business challenges they are facing (or have yet to face).

    Engage in People Management (and Development)

    The biggest lesson I learned from watching my parents grow a company they started from scratch is this: When you prioritize people ahead of money, you make more money. Law firms don’t make tangible products that can be sold – their best asset is their people, and people are at the core of what firms can achieve. Specifically, “it’s hard to imagine how a law firm can compete today without including the recruitment, management, deployment, engagement and retention of its workforce as an integral part of its strategic management and business planning.”6

    Prioritize Well-being and Make It Systemic

    Issues surrounding the health and well-being of lawyers have come into much sharper focus in the past three years, as growing empirical and anecdotal evidence of lawyer distress and dysfunction have combined with a heightened willingness to do something about the problems. Lawyer well-being is about creating an overall healthy and positive quality of life that involves responsible choices for oneself and one’s clients.7

    This topic has gained traction in law firm and in-house legal departments thanks in part to the publication of a 2017 report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. Most recently, legal employers have been asked to consider signing the “Well-Being Pledge,” which calls upon legal employers to recognize that substance use and mental health problems represent a significant challenge for the legal profession and to prioritize the pledge’s seven-point framework for building a better future.8

    While legal employers have made strides in addressing well-being issues, it is important that these initial efforts don’t stall. As healthcare professionals have discovered in their own efforts to reduce burnout and increase well-being in the profession, organizations often employ novice- or beginner-type interventions that usually have only a minor effect in addressing the problem, and then stop.9 Legal employers must continue to address the root causes and cultural issues that drive lack of well-being in the first place.

    Legal employers must continue to address the root causes and cultural issues that drive lack of well-being in the first place.

    Demonstrate and Encourage Resilience

    A career in law is a rewarding path, but it also is challenging. Resilience is the capacity for stress-related growth and sustained high performance before, during, and after a setback or stressor. Resilience is a set of skills and frameworks that can be learned, practiced, and improved, and it applies to individuals, groups, and organizations. In fact, most of my work in this area over the past year or so has been talking about the need for systemic resilience – the application of these tools to leaders, teams, and organizations themselves.

    Resilience interventions can be placed along a continuum of reactive-proactive approaches, and resilience development can be seen as a general performance enhancer, a response to stressful circumstances, an accelerator of team development, a core capability in organizations that routinely face demanding and challenging conditions, an essential component of leadership development, and a supporter of culture change.10

    The legal profession is going to continue to evolve and will look different 10 years from now. What would you add to this list?


    1 Jordan Furlong, After the Millionaires (Oct. 10, 2018). Jordan’s website is

    2 Scott Westfahl, Learning to Lead: Perspective on Bridging the Lawyer Leadership Gap in Leadership for Lawyers; Essential Leadership Strategies for Law Firm Success 79-88, Rebecca Normand-Hochman & Heidi K. Gardner, eds. (Globe Law & Business Limited 2015).

    3 Terri Mottershead, Introduction: The Survival Imperative – Innovating Through Talent Management in Law Firms in Innovating Talent Management in Law Firms 7-89, Terri Mottershead ed. (Washington, DC: NALP 2016).

    4 See Ngosong Fonkem, Bethany Wilson, Kristen Hardy & Jeff Perzan, Legal Design Thinking: Better Solutions to Client Problems, 92 Wis. Law. 16 (Sept. 2019).

    5 Heidi K. Gardner, Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press 2016).

    6 Mottershead, supra note 3, at 29.

    7 Paula Davis-Laack & Patrick Krill, How and Why to Bring the Lawyer Well-Being “Movement” to Your Law Firm, PD Quarterly (Feb. 2018).

    8 You can read more about the Well-Being Pledge and all initiatives of the American Bar Association Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession.

    9 Tait D. Shanafelt, Joel Goh & Christine A. Sinsky, The Business Case for Investing in Physician Well-Being, JAMA Internal Med., Clinical Review Special Communication, E1-E7 (Sept. 25, 2017).

    10 Mustafa Sarkar & David Fletcher, How Resilience Training Can Enhance Wellbeing and Performance, in Managing for Resilience: A Guide for Employee Wellbeing and Organizational Performance 227-37, Monique F. Crane, ed. (New York, NY: Routledge 2017).

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