Two years ago, I published an essay titled “The Qualities of Tomorrow’s Top Lawyers.” It has logged the most visits of the SeytLines posts. On this anniversary, I wanted to consider whether anything has changed and publish a freshened version of the essay. I hope you will share your comments. Do these qualities ring true two years later?
I have edited and updated the text of the original essay, but I have done so with a light touch. The essential points and my comments have remained the same. Note that familiarity with technology and artificial intelligence is absent from the mix. The omission is intentional. The article on which this essay is based made, I believe, a significant if unstated assumption. To qualify as “top” in the future, knowledge of technology will fall in a category similar to where knowledge of reading and writing falls today. You must have certain essential skills to be in the game. To get to the top of the game requires going far beyond those skills. As you read this essay, assume a baseline of technological competency. As you read along, keep asking this question, “Do we train practicing lawyers and law students to have the qualities they need to succeed?”
The Qualities of Tomorrow’s Top Lawyers
When I graduated from law school, we knew what it would take to be a “top” lawyer. First, you had to know the law. You needed the legal-knowledge wherewithal to stand out in a competitive profession.
Second, you needed drive. To be at the top, you had to put in the hours. I remember reading about former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. He worked as a junior lawyer at Cravath, Henderson & de Gersdorff (now Cravath, Swaine & Moore). For those who think that the work-life balance issue in law firms is a modern one, read about life in Cravath back in the 1920s.:
The sixteen-hour workdays at Cravath were well known; [Bruce] Bromley was then putting in over three hundred hours a month of time billable to the firm’s clients. [William O.] Douglas was undaunted. While he was a Cravath associate, he even accepted a part-time job as lecturer in law at Columbia [Law School]. He taught one class each in Bankruptcy, Damages and Partnership, although he had studied only one, Partnership, while he was a law student. Douglas prepared and taught his Columbia classes at 8:00 a.m., then rushed to Cravath for a full day and night of duty, sometimes not returning to his wife—the Douglases now lived in Pelham, New York—before four in the morning. It was an inhuman work schedule by other people’s standards, but not by Douglas’s. At least, not at first. Eventually the pace and substance of the work seriously impaired his health.
Third, you needed sufficient personality to bring in work. It was the rare lawyer who, because of brilliance and area of practice, could get work without having at least passable conversations with clients.
With those three qualities, you could climb the rungs to the top. There were, of course, things that would make the climb go faster or smoother, but it was impossible to get there without those three.
Times Have Changed
Having those three qualities alone won’t get you near the top in the next decade. Knowing the law is essential. But, other qualities are replacing the capacity for hard work. That doesn’t mean lawyers can slack off in the next decade. It means that knowing how to use various resources available to the modern lawyer will influence your career more than putting in 16-hour days. Indeed, as millennials take over the work force 16-hour days spent on drudgework will become a badge of dishonor.
The third quality, what we called “personality,” is critical. During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will drive the lawyer’s work and her interaction with clients.
In an article published in the World Economic Forum’s Agenda, Andreas von der Heydt, Head of Kindle Content for Amazon Germany, set out what he views as the seven top qualities for tomorrow’s leaders. It is fair to assume that top lawyers, at least those who want to be leaders, will want to share these qualities.
I have set out von der Heydt’s seven qualities and how I think they relate to the future practice of law. In them, you will see pieces of the three qualities I described.
“Tomorrow’s top leaders truly think bold and big. They challenge themselves and their teams to live their dreams. They trust in their skills and capabilities, search for the big picture, and enjoy looking beyond it. They think, feel, behave, and act positively. They surround themselves with like-minded believers, positive shapers, and creative makers.”
What I see and hear from many lawyers today strikes me as the opposite of this quality. Rather than think bold and big, they think small and mundane. They don’t challenge anyone to live their dreams, they challenge everyone to stay far inside the guardrails. It is as if everyone must walk on the centerline. Lawyers must pay attention to details, but they must also think of the big picture, clients’ goals and clients’ needs. Lawyers must align themselves with their clients’ interests, and then perform those functions lawyers do best, such as help clients manage risk. If the breadth of our vision is restricted to billing another six minutes or catching another misplaced comma, we will have defined ourselves as not worthy of leadership.
2. Lead & Execute
“Tomorrow’s top leaders avoid what quite often causes today’s experienced and successful business leaders to arrive at utterly wrong conclusions, since the latter lack comprehension of how to live by two of today’s most relevant business and leadership principles. First, they are not VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity] leaders. Second, they have not been able to grasp the concept of DyBoPe [dynamic, bold, people-focused] leadership. These are two crucial concepts for future leaders.”
Let’s start with the obvious: I’ll bet not 1 out of 100 lawyers know what VUCA or DyBoPe stand for. That lawyers, and here I’m focusing on lawyers who represent corporate clients, don’t keep up with the latest thinking in the business world reflects their focus on themselves rather than their clients. How can you be a leader if you don’t know what concerns those you want to lead? Put in the vernacular of lawyers, how can you be a trusted adviser when you know little about those you want to advise? The legal industry itself is filled with VUCA. Lawyers prefer unchanging, reticent, and document-focused leadership (UnReDo, for those who like acronyms). I am not suggesting lawyers become podium-pounding screamers, but I am suggesting they need to change their leadership style if they want to remain relevant to those they want to lead. (And, I’m certainly not endorsing the latest fad acronyms. But, if your clients know them, so should you.)
“Tomorrow’s top leaders have a strong passion to learn, to question, to dive deep, and to be misunderstood. Relentlessly.”
“Don’t challenge the status quo.” Many lawyers live by this mantra. Stable is good, because stable things raise less risk. Stable leads to knowing what tomorrow will bring. But, when clients are using new business models each year, changing technology to keep up, going global, and moving fast to avoid obsolescence, stable is the end. Lawyers must be inquisitive. Lawyers must know their clients better than clients know themselves. They must question and dive deep learning where those clients will be in the future, what concerns them, and what the lawyers can do to solve problems clients haven’t imagined. One thing that turned me off as a general counsel was law firm lawyers tuning out because we were discussing my company’s business and industry. It happened all the time (and no, it wasn’t because I was less than entertaining). Those lawyers got short-listed for “no more assignments.” Lawyers must want to understand all aspects of their clients to make the A Team.
“Tomorrow’s top leaders believe that you will [be] what you want and that there are no limits to personal growth. They are what I call ‘Realistic Optimists,’ i.e. being both optimistic and realistic. As such, they combine the two into one behavioral style that creates a unique sense of open-mindedness, attention, and focus. This high level of awareness and focus allows them to see things many of us do not notice while we’re too busy with problems and ourselves.”
Characterizing lawyers today, I would say they have an obsessive fascination with their professional problems and themselves. Or, as I hear it expressed, “what’s in it for me?” This inward focus, among many other things, is unattractive when viewed from the client perspective. As professional skeptics, lawyers exclude optimism from their vocabularies.
Look at the qualities “open-mindedness, attention, and focus.” Clients want leaders who say we can get there. Realism helps us articulate to clients how and what it will take to get there. As one of my colleagues was fond of saying, “be a warrior for the business.” Corporate clients are sophisticated and know that not every path is permissible or will lead to success. They want lawyers who don’t dwell on the impermissible, but focus on what can be done and how to achieve it. Those lawyers are the leaders clients want to follow.
“Tomorrow’s top leaders enjoy developing and coaching others. They invest a lot of energy and time in building and maintaining personal relationships founded on trust. Trust is a core belief and value of these leaders which they work hard to earn and keep, e.g. by walking their talk, by communicating frequently and openly, by taking a stand (even if it’s not a popular one), by empowering others, and by following high ethical standards.”
Trust. It is something missing in the relationship today between in-house and outside counsel. Clients trust in-house lawyers because they feel their interests are aligned. In-house lawyers work hard to earn and keep that trust. They earn the trust of their business colleagues by coaching them rather than lecturing them. When lawyers work with business clients who have not had much exposure to lawyers, or when they are working in areas unfamiliar to clients, coaching goes a long way. Business clients don’t want to do the wrong thing. If a lawyer helps by coaching his clients past obstacles so they succeed, clients want to work with that lawyer more often. This is sometimes a hard, but valuable, lesson for lawyers to learn when they move from outside counsel to in-house counsel.
Clients want to work for companies and with individuals who have high ethical standards. Even so, some business people want to go past the edge. If money is on the line, competition gets intense. Pushing back against senior executives who wanted me to bless conduct that wasn’t ethical gave me difficult moments in my career. However, I found that others in the organization trusted my judgment when I spoke “truth to power.”
7. Improve & Innovate
“Tomorrow’s top leaders are data-driven, process-focused, and permanently in a disruptive mindset. First and foremost, they are paranoid about the fact that speed matters more than ever in a quickly changing world. … Secondly, they apply new business metrics. … Thirdly, they know that in hyper-competitive times, competition is not just on brand and technological innovation, but also—and foremost—on the business model.”
I love the opening line—top leaders are “data-driven, process focused.” It has become a cliché to talk about data and process. But it is true that both are mandatory for the next decade. Lawyers don’t seem to recognize that their clients have been on the process improvement and productivity road for a long time. Process has become embedded in companies to the point where it is just assumed. By being so indifferent to process improvement, lawyers are opening the door wide for other vendors to come in and snatch work away. In-house lawyers take note: you are not immune. Just like knowledge workers in other departments have been replaced by computers, you too can suffer that fate.
Lawyers’ ignorance of data also creates a weakness. It is hard to be seen as arguing from a position of strength when your position depends on “because I said so” or “in my experience.” Data drives decisions for clients and vendors who provide that data will become the authoritative voices on which clients rely.
“Tomorrow’s top leaders want to support others, to give, to make an impact, and to do good. They care about the well-being of their employees and about broader environmental and social topics. They are aware of the fact that you have to give before you receive. They have integrated values like gratitude and appreciation into their lives and linked them with positive and people-focused thinking and acting to achieve a fulfilled life.”
Finally, we find a quality lawyers have claimed over the years. Because many of us have viewed ourselves as part of a profession, we have tried to act like professionals. We think about our communities, about the broader issues of the day, and perhaps do pro bono work. While it typically isn’t the personality type of lawyers to integrate “gratitude and appreciation” into their lives, the sense that there is something beyond the immediate business outcome still exists in some nooks and crannies of the legal industry. Assuming education and early training in the law doesn’t squeeze it out of them, up-and-coming lawyers also may share these qualities.
Not all lawyers will want to be top lawyers. And, of course, we aren’t really sure what that means anyway. For most lawyers, being a good lawyer and helping others solve their problems will suffice. We need those lawyers and, given the appalling statistics about access to civil justice in the United States, we need them now more than ever. But, as we look at what training to be a lawyer should involve now and over the next decade, understanding what our clients and communities will want to find in leaders is a worthwhile exercise. Unless times change, many lawyers will become our leaders of tomorrow.
 James F. Simon, Independent Journey: The Life of William O. Douglas, Harper & Row, 1980, pp.79-82.