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.

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