To Serve and To Lead

Effective teamwork is more important than ever in the modern law firm, and it’s the almost oxymoronically named “servant leaders” who make it happen. Here’s a primer.

Three people leaving a conference room
J. Henry Walker IV

J. Henry Walker IV

November 2, 2022 04:00 PM

The ability to work well as part of a team is an essential aspect of effective lawyering, whether within a firm; between firm, client and in-house counsel; or in situations that involve multiple firms. Indeed, the effectiveness of the team and its ability to function are often the key components in obtaining a successful result for the client. Often, the lawyers recognized in this publication are the leaders of legal teams. Promoting team synergy while encouraging the best from each member of the group—which is at the heart of “servant leadership”—is how lawyers pave the way to success for clients and colleagues alike.

The concept of servant leadership originated with ancient Eastern sages, while the term itself was popularized a half-century ago by Robert K. Greenleaf, an AT&T executive who became a management consultant and author. His work on servant leadership ignited a cultural transformation for many corporations and institutions.

Greenleaf insisted that the impulse to serve others must necessarily precede the ambition to lead them. The key test of authentic servant leadership, he said, is this: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Clearly, the servant leader has a tall task.

Mentoring, which occupies a time-honored place in legal practice, is different. Traditional lawyer mentoring focuses on personal excellence, not how to collaborate with a diverse peer group. More than in most professions, lawyers have a built-in urge to compete. It starts with law-school class rankings, extends to the partnership track, sometimes involves battles over clients and can be reinforced by law firm and corporate compensation systems. Channeled properly, the desire to compete can be beneficial—but to the extent it focuses on individual success and not team success, it can be a liability.

As the legal matters of our clients become increasingly multifaceted and multi-discipline, and as firms expand in size and geographic range, effective teamwork is imperative—and strong servant leaders make it happen.

For lawyers, the role of servant leader has a unique aspect not usually found in other settings: the need to promote positivity within the team. That might seem like a natural job for any leader, but research shows that lawyer attitudes typically lean toward the negative. After all, it’s inherent in the job to watch for tripwires and potholes before they damage clients, and we’re conditioned to expect them. This is helpful in certain practice dimensions, but it can be an obstacle to building and leading an optimistic, forward-looking team.

Bravura soloists will always be a fixture on the legal stage—but typically as key contributors rather than leaders."

The elements of a great team in sports or business have been written about in hundreds, probably thousands, of books. Much of that applies to teams of lawyers. As best I can tell, though, there’s a dearth of information on what makes an effective lawyer team in the context of servant leadership principles. Experienced lawyers, however, know that having a highly functional team dramatically increases your chance of success and can be a truly beautiful thing. A dysfunctional team makes for long days and no fun.

How does a servant leader lawyer create a positive atmosphere that yields great teamwork for a client?

  • First, the team needs clarity of mission and role, with a positive vision of what success looks like. Sometimes you might be the leader; other times you might be playing a specialized role in the overall mission. In a positive, encouraging manner, making sure the right people are in the right places at the right times is a critical servant leadership skill. That way, team members can bring sharp focus to their responsibilities while having confidence that others are doing the same in adjacent roles, leaving no gaps in the line.
  • As a complement to establishing clear roles, the servant leader must be sure there is strong integration among all the players. Everyone knows whom to turn to with a given question, while respecting lane boundaries. Avoiding the micromanaging so common to lawyering is critical to the morale and endurance of a functional team.
  • Establishing regular communication is critical, from big-picture strategy to those tripwire-type details. One of the trade-offs of greater autonomy is the obligation to communicate and keep people informed about your work. The servant leader listens well and hears what a team member is saying, without preconceived notions or jumping to a sudden judgment that might be egregiously wrong.
  • It’s also likely that team members will disagree, and the team will face adversity at some point. It’s in those moments that the servant leader must step up. Promptly addressing challenges and communicating from a well-earned position of trust, the servant leader knows which parts of the team’s work are on track and is quick to address any that aren’t. Equally important, if not more so, sincerely recognizing and celebrating success and hard work powers the team to more success in the future.

None of this is to say that every great lawyer must be a great team leader or that firms should not value the brilliant singular specialist. Bravura soloists will always be a fixture on the legal stage—but typically as key contributors rather than leaders.

Law firms and corporate legal departments should work to cultivate servant leader qualities from early in individuals’ careers. Such development must be oriented toward managing complexity across sophisticated teams of high achievers. It starts from the fundamental premise that you try to get the people you work with to be in a better place because of their association with you. It assumes the need to build trust and camaraderie among strong personalities from varied practice areas, including specialties beyond the leader’s own expertise.

If all these challenges sound immense, the rewards are even more so. What could be more satisfying, after all, than encouraging others to be “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous [and] more likely themselves to be servant leaders”?

Henry Walker serves as the Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, an international law firm with over 600 lawyers in 20 offices. In this role, he oversees the strategic direction and growth of the firm. Mr. Walker leads the firm’s Executive Committee working closely with them to define and execute the firm’s strategic objectives. Prior to his election as the Chair, he served as the firm’s managing partner. Mr. Walker has been recognized in The Best Lawyers in America® for 11 consecutive years in Commercial Litigation, and in 2017 and 2023 he was named Atlanta Technology Law “Lawyer of the Year.” In 2019, the Atlanta Business Chronicle named Mr. Walker one of Atlanta’s Most Admired CEOs.

Headline Image: istock/aldomurillo

Related Articles

Best Law Firms® Research Has Begun

by Best Lawyers

Best Law Firms® rankings are annually produced awards recognizing the top law firms across the United States. We are here to offer insight into the submission process for all eligible firms.

Black background with colorful squares and faces

Best Lawyers Voting Is Now Open

by Best Lawyers

Voting has begun in several countries across the globe, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Below we offer dates, details and answers to voting-related questions to assist with the voting process.

Hands holding smartphone with five stars above phone

Best Lawyers’ Purely Pure Voting: Authenticity and Trust Through Decades of Tradition

by Best Lawyers

Larry A. Campagna of Chamberlain Hrdlicka met with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to discuss how trust and peer-review feedback are pivotal to building authentic relationships with colleagues in the legal industry.

Hands shaking with silhouette of professionals

Honoring the Integrity of Best Lawyers’ Purely Peer Review Voting Process

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer sat down with attorney J. Keith Hyde of Provost Umphrey to discuss how peer review plays a role in building relationships and establishing accountability in the legal industry.

Five gold stars with a magnifying glass hovering over the right star

The Evolving Reproductive Landscape

by Justin Smulison

The Supreme Court’s thunderclap Dobbs decision sent abortion policy nationwide into utterly unfamiliar terrain. The ruling also has a colossal effect on surrogates, intended parents and anyone involved in family planning given the patchwork of state laws likely to emerge. What’s a family law attorney to do?

Couple attends surrogate ultrasound

Estate Plan Implications in Divorce

by April Will and James Vedder

It’s essential that family law practitioners consult with estate planning attorneys as they guide their clients through a marital breakup. Here’s what to what to consider when there is a trust, but the parties do not trust each other.

Two figures shaking hands

The Quarter-Century Childhood

by Joseph Trotti

In recent years, proposed and enacted laws have significantly expanded parental obligation for child support, receiving little attention. Even if well-meaning, they have their flaws, beginning with reduced parental rights.

Child helping individual plant flowers

Clients with Appeal

by Michele M. Jochner

It’s frustrating to lose a case you’ve worked hard on. When considering whether to take an appeal of that ruling, here’s what to keep in mind—and how to enable your client to make that decision.

Client faces stacks of legal papers

Mike Morse Law Firm’s 90-Day Digital Transformation Disrupts Status Quo

by John Georgatos

Mike Morse Law Firm's Chief Information Officer is shedding light on the firm's 90-day digital transformation.

Up close image of a multicolored eye

2023 Best Lawyers Mexican Awards

by Best Lawyers

Announcing Mexico's 2023 recognized lawyers and firms.

Green, white and red stripes with symbol in center

New York City To Clarify Employer Artificial Intelligence Laws

by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyer weighs in on New York City's current legislative battle to clarify the extent of artificial intelligence laws in an employment setting.

AI worker stands in front of line of people


Embedded Advantage: The Value in Partnering with Appellate Counsel

by Justin Smulison

Most litigants should expect the non-prevailing party in their case to challenge the trial court’s final judgment in post-judgment motions and/or on appeal. Robert A. Mandel discusses how aligning with a seasoned appellate lawyer can make all the difference in securing a favorable resolution.

Headshot of male lawyer with brown hair in dark suit

A New Spin on Continuing Legal Education

by Sara Collin

Attorney Humira Noorestani is launching a program for continuing legal education, one that she’s dubbed the “Netflix of CLE,” allowing lawyers in the U.S. to explore legal knowledge from prominent lawyers around the world.

Hands emerging from computer and cellphone screens

South Florida’s Legal Renaissance

by Gregory Sirico

What was once only thought of as a destination for vacation may now be the top legal market in the country, attracting talent from around the world.

Blue and orange block sections with gavels and busts

Thirteen Years of Excellence

by Best Lawyers

For the 13th consecutive year, “Best Law Firms” has awarded the most elite and talented law firms across the country through a thorough and trusted data review process.

Red, white and blue pipes and writing on black background

Cyber Coverage Pitfalls

by Robert W. Wilkins

Institutional data breaches are, unfortunately, more common (and more costly) than ever. Cybersecurity insurance can help—but is your firm’s policy really as ironclad as you think?

Digital lock shatters into pieces

Trending Articles

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag

Could Reign Supreme End with the Queen?

by Sara Collin

Canada is revisiting the notion of abolishing the monarchy after Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, but many Canadians and lawmakers are questioning if Canada could, should and would follow through.

Teacup on saucer over image of Queen's eye


2022: Another Banner Year

by John Fields

Block O’Toole & Murphy continues to secure some of New York’s highest results for personal injury matters.

Three men in business suits standing in office

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some

by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Thirteen Years of Excellence

by Best Lawyers

For the 13th consecutive year, “Best Law Firms” has awarded the most elite and talented law firms across the country through a thorough and trusted data review process.

Red, white and blue pipes and writing on black background

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect

by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Caffeine Overload and DUI Tests

by Daniel Taylor

While it might come as a surprise, the over-consumption of caffeine could trigger a false positive on a breathalyzer test.

Can Caffeine Cause You to Fail DUI Test?

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Australia.

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Germany™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Germany.

Black, red and yellow stripes