5 Must-Have Skills for Emerging Legal Leaders

By Jamy J. Sullivan, J.D.,
Robert Half 


An uncertain business environment like we’re living through today demands that managers in the legal field continuously adapt and refine their leadership skills to keep employees engaged and motivated. That realization is likely what prompted 42% of legal leaders in a recent Robert Half survey to say they’re willing to offer higher salaries to candidates with leadership and management experience. 

If you are new to a management role or expect to be soon, what kinds of skills should you be honing? In other words, which skills do legal hiring managers consider critical for emerging leaders and potential employees?

Here’s a look at some capabilities and attributes that help legal leaders excel today. 

1. Mastering the art of communication

Good communication is a particularly important leadership skill in times of uncertainty and change. In fact, many would label it No. 1. Remote working has necessitated various tools for connecting virtually, including teleconferencing, video meetings and legal document management platforms. Leaders must know how to deliver clear, consistent messages on every channel — as well as, of course, in person.

But remember, communication isn't just about talking. On a recent episode of Robert Half Legal Report podcast, professional development coach PJ Dunn emphasizes the importance of active, or empathetic, listening. "To listen empathetically to someone, first, you need to observe," he says. "That means I don't choose to evaluate and judge you; I'm just going to let you say what you're saying." Implementing this listening style can help you make better-informed decisions, drawing from a broader range of perspectives and insights.

2. Champion creative thinking

Dunn also encourages leaders to continually question established routines and adapt them to meet the evolving needs of the organization and its clients.

Leaders known for fostering creative thinking are not necessarily the most creative themselves, PJ says; what they excel at is channeling team creativity. New managers need the skills to create a culture of innovation, a culture that says it’s okay to have an open mind and creatively think as things change. It sets the stage for you to be able to encourage your team to share their unique perspectives and solve complex challenges collaboratively.

3. Championing DEI

Clients increasingly prefer to work with legal partners committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). However, many leaders are still working to prioritize DEI and implement new initiatives, as well as learn how to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds and experiences and help all employees grow. 

Dunn advises, "Bring it back to the basics: competency, character and potential. What would be the best attributes of someone [no matter what their cultural background] sitting at that desk over there trying to do this particular job?” This mindset not only diversifies your team but also sets each member up for success.

4. Embracing innovation

You don’t have to be a digital native to be a good leader, but you do need to be curious and enthusiastic about adopting new technology, whether it’s e-discovery software or contract automation tools. Learn how to assess the regulatory and compliance challenges of incorporating new technologies like artificial intelligence. To stay on the cutting edge, routinely monitor industry regulations and attend technology-focused webinars and encourage your team to do the same.

5. Encourage well-being

Heavy workloads and high-stakes situations can take their toll on legal professionals. As a leader, prioritizing your team's well-being and work-life balance is crucial.

Dunn recommends moving away from the notion that a great legal professional has to "burn the midnight oil." If that is your only criterion for solid performance for your team, your employees will be reluctant to take vacations or ask for help during a family crisis. 

Instead, encourage them to fully unplug during their time off and feel free to take short breaks throughout the day. Your willingness to prioritize well-being sends a strong message to your team, making them more likely to seek support from you when they need it. The ability to create that kind of comfort level is a key skill of a great leader.

Today’s legal leaders need more than just a sharp legal mind. If you build a multifaceted set of skills that allow you to really inspire a team to move forward confidently even when the road ahead isn’t clear, you set the stage for both their personal growth and that of the organization. 

Jamy J. Sullivan is executive director of the legal practice at Robert Half, the world’s first and largest specialized talent solutions firm. Robert Half offers contract, temporary and permanent placement solutions, and is the parent company of Protiviti®, a global consulting firm. Visit RobertHalf.com.