Insight

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

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

IN PARTNERSHIP

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

Strength in Numbers: When Partnering Up May Be Best in Whistleblower Litigation


by Justin Smulison

Whistleblower claims make headlines when they result in multimillion-dollar settlements. But the journey to the courtroom is characterized by complexity and requires time and resources. Bienert Katzman Littrell Williams partner and The Best Lawyers in America awardee Michael R. Williams discusses when and why partnerships between counsel will strengthen whistleblower litigation.

A Blue Person in the Middle of White People

California Appeals Court Reverses Workplace Arbitration Decision


by Greg Sirico

Labor Code 432.6, a newly proposed set of legislation in California, was recently met with a successful ruling, but state officials are now reversing that decision.

Two people signing documents

Florida Amends Statewide Cybersecurity and Ransomware Act


by Gregory Sirico

A closer look at a Florida act's amendments to strengthen cybersecurity and ransomware requirements across the state.

Blue human figure holding computer with abstract background

New Non-Compete Restrictions To Take Effect in D.C.


by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers investigates the Non-Compete Clarification Act of 2022 passed in the District of Columbia.

Woman in black dress pushing a glowing puzzle piece

Navigating Rough Waters


by Roberto Ovalle and Sergio Díez

Chile has a solid foundation to welcome and protect foreign investment even in turbulent times. Its strong network of international treaties helps provide stability beyond the political contingency.

Boat weathers rough waters in bottle

ESG and Stakeholder Capitalism as Tools for Energy Transition


by Javier Cremades

The recent rise of “stakeholder capitalism” shows the way forward to solving today’s energy crisis and working toward a carbon-free future. Are companies and governments up to the challenge?

Trees fill two silhouettes shaking hands

Caveat Sanctions and Export Controls


by Carsten Bormann and Stephan Müller

Increasingly strict global sanctions and export-control regulations add a new layer of potential peril to M&A deals. A guide to expanding due diligence to ensure that malfeasance, whether intentional or accidental, doesn’t end up scuttling the agreement.

School of fish attack shark

The Write Stuff


by Michele M. Jochner

A series of pointers for making your legal writing clear, concise and—crucially—persuasive.

Closed laptop with woman holding pencil

Punishment and Deterrents


by David A. Yeagley

Facing a jury instruction on punitive damages? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you secure the best possible outcome for the defendant you represent.

Seated man wearing glasses and looking down

Freedom to Compete


by Alyson M. St. Pierre and Ashley C. Pack

Recent movement at the federal level regarding management-labor relations mean changes to enforcement of noncompete agreements and other covenants could be imminent.

Woman in front of open blue door

Trending Articles

The Best Lawyers in Spain™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

Announcing Spain's recognized lawyers for 2023.

Flag of Spain

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

The Best Lawyers in Chile™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms in Chile.

White star in blue box beside white box with red box on bottom

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

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

South African flag

The 2023 Best Lawyers in Portugal™


by Best Lawyers

Announcing the elite group of lawyers recognized in Portugal for 2023.

Green and red Portuguese flag

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Peru™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

Honoring our awarded lawyers for 2023 in Peru.

Red and white stripes with green leaf symbol

The Best Lawyers in Spain™ 2022


by Best Lawyers

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

The Best Lawyers in Spain™ 2022

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

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

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?

IN PARTNERSHIP

Rewriting 𝙃𝙀𝙍𝙨𝙩𝙤𝙧𝙮 One Verdict at a Time


by Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers was formed only a year ago by several prestigious lawyers seeking justice for their clients, and together they are making history.

Six female lawyers sitting in office

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

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?

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

Announcing the 2022 "Best Law Firms" Rankings


by Best Lawyers

The 2022 “Best Law Firms” publication includes all “Law Firm of the Year” recipients, national and metro Tier 1 ranked firms and editorial from thought leaders in the legal industry.

The 2022 Best Law Firms Awards

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in South Africa™


by Best Lawyers

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

Announcing 2022 Best Lawyers in South Africa