Denver Bar Association
December 2009
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Good lawyers. Good leaders. Are they mutually exclusive?

by Janet Ellen Raasch

The characteristics that traditionally make a good practicing lawyer are quite different from the characteristics that make a good leader — or a good follower.

But with training and attention, law firms can have the leadership they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive business environment.

Mark Breese

"Lawyers as a group are highly skeptical, autonomous, introverted, resistant to new ideas, urgent and easily discouraged by set-backs," said Mark Beese, president of Denver-based Leadership for Lawyers. "Leaders, on the other hand, tend to be trusting, team-oriented, social, open to new ideas, strategic and resilient. Business development or sales, in particular, requires a high degree of resiliency."

Beese recently spoke at the monthly educational luncheon for the Legal Marketing Association’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. He previously was chief marketing officer at Holland & Hart, and helped get the firm’s client profiles advertised with Frontier Airlines in-flight programming.

What kind of culture encourages leadership? According to the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, leaders are adaptable. They build and mend relationships. They build effective teams, facilitate change, coach, collaborate, drive innovation and leverage differences to achieve positive results. They are credible, decisive and influential.

A lot can be learned about a firm’s culture by it’s conversations — at the water cooler, in meetings, in e-mails — or in the actions, or inactions, taken by firm management, he said.

"Are most of your firm’s conversations regressive, negative, backward-looking and problem-based? If so, your culture needs to be revised before the next generation of leaders can evolve," Beese said. "Leadership can thrive only when conversations — throughout the firm — are constructive, positive, forward-looking and solution-based."

One doesn’t have to be the person at the top to be a leader. It’s possible to be an effective leader within a certain area of influence — and help create a culture of leadership. Individuals must self-identify as leaders within a culture.

"You might not be managing partner of your law firm, but you can exert leadership in more subtle ways," said Beese "You can run a task force studying the use of social networks to market a new practice area. You can coach a brusque lawyer in gentler ways of working with staff. You can organize a bike team to participate in a race for the cure of an illness suffered by a fellow lawyer or staff person."

Leadership does not operate in a vacuum. Effective leaders know that they cannot do everything themselves — that they must engage and empower others and foster collaboration. Leaders must rally others behind a shared vision — one that is clear, challenging and compelling. Enlisting others can look a lot like negotiation — something lawyers are familiar with.

"Point out and build on an alignment of interests," said Beese. "After years of experience, I firmly believe that this alignment is done best in one-on-one conversations rather than a group setting."

Most lawyers are, by nature, resistant to new ideas. However, innovation is important in a changing world. Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience, said Beese.

The successful operation of a law firm is based on trusting relationships between leaders and group members. It’s easier to lead others when you know them, said Beese. The successful practice of law is based on good relationships between lawyers and their clients. The same holds true within a firm.

"Trust is built from credibility, being good at what you do; reliability, or doing what you say you will do; and intimacy, knowing the other person," said Beese. "It is weakened by self-interest. Trust is never complete; it must be constantly maintained. If you want others to trust you, you must model trust in others."

Beese’s website is

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer, ghostwriter and blogger ( who helps professional services providers achieve name recognition and new business through publication of keyword-rich content for Web and social media sites, as well as articles and books for print.

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