5 Essential Skills for Leaders in the Legal Field Today

By Jamy J. Sullivan, J.D.


New challenges call for new kinds of leadership. We’ve seen this in previous decades as legal managers adapted to digitization and judicial reforms. Now, the global pandemic and efforts to rebuild organizations require leaders who are straightforward about new realities, more flexible than ever and empathetic to employees’ changed needs. 


Whether you’re a legal manager grooming staff for promotion or a legal professional honing your skills and capabilities to achieve your own career growth opportunities, here are five essential skills you’ll need. 


1. Adaptability

Change is the only constant right now, making the ideal leader someone who is not thrown off course by it.  

If you’re a current leader, think back. Who on your team was quickest to identify certain pandemic-related legal trends, whether it was an uptick in the divorce rate or a slowdown in mergers and acquisitions? These are people worth grooming for leadership roles.  


For those looking to move up the ladder, embrace new working practices and technologies, seeing them as opportunities to work smarter. Prove by your actions that you can take disruption in your stride. 


2. Communication 

Good communication is a particularly important leadership skill in times of rapid change. Remote working has necessitated a variety of tools for connecting virtually, including teleconferencing, videotelephony and legal document management platforms. Leaders need to know how to deliver clear, consistent messages on every available channel. 


3. Collaboration 

Teamwork is essential in today’s disjointed business environment. Senior management will be watching to see how you empower and inspire those around you to work effectively together. They also want to know that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves when the team needs your help. 


In addition to the online communication tools described above, law offices also have access to sophisticated collaboration tools. Leaders must understand the power of these tools, which allow professionals to update case statuses, communicate with clients and review documents from a single software interface. Don’t forget, however, that some in the legal field may have concerns about these tools. Support staff, for example, may be unnerved by the rise of Virtual Legal Assistants (VLAs), or “lawbots” that can triage legal requests received internally or from clients. A strong leader will take the time to listen to such concerns and point out how artificial intelligence tools will allow legal staff to focus on higher-value activities and recommend retraining courses if required. 


4. Ethics 

We live in a more watchful world than ever where ethical transgressions can go viral on social media in a matter of minutes. But it’s also easier to inadvertently commit those transgressions, especially when you have remote access to sensitive data.  


Leaders must hold the highest ethical standards so they can lead by example. They also need to verse their teams on potential ethics breaches so they are less likely to accidentally break the rules.  


If you’re still honing your leadership skills, start learning the industry’s ethical standards. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct is the ideal place to start, and legal professionals should regularly refresh their memory of this document. You can also top off your knowledge with a free CLE course. 


5. Diversity awareness 

Awareness and practice of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and how they work together are critical for leaders wanting to build and retain successful teams. Remember, too, that clients want to work with legal partners who understand and uphold these ideals. Starting in 2021, the Fortune® 500 list will include a DEI ranking for each company listed. Leaders’ hiring approach should include a strong commitment to building a more representative workforce.  


The legal workplace of the future may well be shaped by people whose qualities emerged during the pandemic and business recovery. Whether you’re a rising star yourself or in a position to promote one, seize this opportunity to find out what new leadership has to offer.