Leadership skills can certainly be taught, however, and the drive for leadership can be nurtured. Our experience has shown that leadership skills gained outside the workplace can pay dividends within the firm, including in client service.

Leaders are naturally inclined to make contributions to all facets of the world around them. For example, running a community volunteer effort, a philanthropic event or a bar association gathering can be as fulfilling — and equally challenging — as running a law firm committee or practice group. Even being a parent or a coach provides opportunities to lead outside our work lives — whether by example or by instruction.

Any activity that requires good listening and communication skills, attention to others’ needs and accountability can be considered a great exercise in leadership skill development.

 Opt-in, all-access training 

There are many leadership training programs geared to law firms and individual attorneys. Unfortunately, however, such programs are often reserved for partners, practice group or department leaders or rising stars.

But developing future leaders — regardless of their current age, seniority or position within the organization — must be a strategic imperative for a successful law firm. There are many benefits to a leadership development program that can be tailored to all employment levels, from staff to associates to senior partners. The result can be a well-rounded, collaborative team that also can apply leadership skills to the workplace and to life outside the office.

Much, Shelist P.C.’s Leadership Training Institute was started in 2011 by my predecessor and current firm chairman, David T. Brown. Our goal was to create an opt-in program for senior staff and attorneys to help them identify their own leadership styles and hone their skills.

 Participants learn from each other as well as outside speakers, such as local corporate suite executives and civic leaders. 

They quickly discover that the challenges and opportunities in leadership are the same regardless of organization or circumstance.

Institute participants do not just sit and listen to lectures. Each program involves interactive learning activities such as small group discussions, panels and workshops. In addition, participants are encouraged to share real-life experiences that are relevant to the topic at hand.

Tailored informal opportunities

Formal programs are effective, but they are only one part of building a leadership-based culture from the ground up. Finding the “leader” in everyone requires not only training but also identifying and providing ongoing opportunities to develop and nurture those skills. And in today’s multi-generational workforce, those opportunitiesdo not always look alike. For example, young associates want to provide input on their own professional development, and they seek opportunities to network with other young professionals. Midcareer attorneys typically desire greater levels of responsibility — some seeking roles in firm governance — while also looking for ways to mentor younger generations.

Recently, an associate at our firm who attended several institute sessions approached a senior partner and fellow institute participant for help in pitching and landing one of his first clients. Three partners collaborated with the associate and two participated in the pitch. Together, they earned the business.

None of the partners had a financial stake in the outcome. They wanted the associate to be successful. This story demonstrates two key things about a leadership-based culture: The up-and-coming leader felt empowered to reach out for help, and the current leadership cared more about nurturing and developing future leadership and success than about sharing the credit, a win for everyone and the firm.

While financial returns are certainly important, making an investment in leadership training can pay off in many other ways. 

First, inspiring people to lead helps improve culture. It drives confidence and clarity of direction. Clients benefit from higher levels of strategic thinking and from a motivated team focused on service and results. Attorneys become more effective communicators, both in internal collaboration and in external sales skills for those who aim to develop business for themselves and the firm.

Encouraging leadership development — especially in an inclusive way — has additional cultural benefits. It can help engender loyalty and increase attorney tenure by creating a greater sense of teamwork and “firm-mindedness.” It delivers the message to all firm employees that firm leaders care about everyone’s development. It allows people to take risks, learn from mistakes and continually improve their performance. 

Patience and humility required

Leadership is not something you can expect to achieve overnight; you need to have patience and understand the process requires hard work and focus over a long period of time. It requires careful attention and nurturing.

One thing I know for sure is that there is always more to learn, regardless of your position or level of achievement. Consider leadership training as an investment in the people you care about, in the success of your organization or firm and in the communities where you and your colleagues live and work.

Over time, like any solid investment, it will yield great returns.

Reprinted with permission from Law Bulletin Publishing Company