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Feature Article

April 2016 Issue

Four Leadership Skills for Moving up the Legal Career Ladder

by Charles Volkert, Esq.

When identifying candidates for legal jobs and promotions, many employers list the competencies requirement, “leadership skills.” But what exactly does that mean? And how do you call out these skills on your application and in the job interview, particularly if you’re not yet in a supervisory role?

A Robert Half Legal survey asked attorneys from major companies and law firms in the United States and Canada to identify the qualities a law firm or corporate legal department leader should possess. Here are the four leadership attributes they identified as most important, plus our suggestions for developing these particular soft skills and giving your leadership potential some extra shine:

1. Good judgment
The ability to apply good judgment and make sound decisions was ranked first among nearly half of the 350 lawyers we interviewed. Good leadership requires making decisions effectively, alone or in collaboration with others.

Whether you’re in a supervisory role or not, lawyers and paralegals have to make difficult decisions every day, after carefully weighing the facts, benefits and consequences. Most of the time there are no negative repercussions, but one rash choice can upset a case or a client — and even undermine your legal career objective to move into a leadership position.

  • Good judgment requires exercising your best problem-solving abilities. The bigger the potential risk, the more important it is that you take your time and weigh the options.
  • As you develop this skill, it’s critical to seek the input of more experienced legal professionals. Talk to your boss or mentor about your choices and how you arrived at your decision, and ask them for feedback.

Pro Tip: Cite examples of how you’ve exercised good judgment in your legal jobs on your resume and in your job interview.

2. Collaboration skills
As you advance in your legal career, you will find yourself working on larger teams juggling increasingly complex projects and cases. Collaboration is essential if you are to succeed working with colleagues and clients of diverse styles, education and experience levels.

  • It begins with communication, an essential component of any successful team project. Try this: at the beginning of your next meeting, if given the chance to take a leadership role, brainstorm various approaches for tackling the case and make sure everyone knows their tasks.
  • Then, during follow-ups, speak up about your own progress and challenges, and listen to others’ stories and pitch in where you can to help your colleagues overcome obstacles. Lone wolves may be able to go fast, unencumbered by the pack, but a team can go further and get more done.

Pro Tip: In your cover letter and in conversations with prospective employers, highlight projects for which you’ve exercised collaboration and the result it led to.

3. High ethical standards
Enjoying a long and successful legal career depends on your ability to demonstrate ethical behavior. Failing to adhere to ethical standards could compromise a legal professional’s ability to gain the trust of his or her colleagues and clients, and a lawyer could be disciplined and disbarred for lying or damaging the integrity of the client-lawyer relationship.

Your personal moral standards may not be tested that often if your firm or legal department adheres to a strong ethical framework and provides robust oversight. However, it does not pay to be lax. Avoid mistakes and be very familiar with best practices.

  • The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct is an essential resource detailing a lawyer’s responsibilities.
  • Discuss ethical decisions with your manager and team as they arise, ensure that you and your legal colleagues adhere to best practices and take additional training when possible, such as free CLE courses.

Pro Tip: In your job application and interview, cite projects for which you’ve demonstrated high ethical standards in past roles, and the outcome.

4. Diplomacy
Another leadership attribute necessary for moving up in your legal career is diplomacy. By diplomacy, we mean tact, discretion, civility and thoughtfulness in managing professional relationships. Diplomacy requires careful handling of clients and projecting a professional image when dealing with third parties, as well as being respectful of colleagues.

  • A diplomatic approach isn’t something that develops overnight. It’s a lifelong learning process. And not every lawyer has the knack for it. Just read the daily newspaper for stories of tact turned on its head.
  • In law practice, diplomacy means managing differences, disagreements and conflicts. It’s the fine-tuned art of working as part of a team, as well as demonstrating compassion, patience and integrity.
  • In all your legal jobs and interactions, strive for a win-win situation. Be polite and friendly, and keep your cool under pressure.

Pro Tip: Choose professional job references who will champion your diplomatic skills.

To move up in your legal career, you need more than book smarts and technical abilities; you should also possess the key traits of a leader. You’ve heard about dressing for the legal jobs you want. To make it to the top of your profession, perform like the leader you aspire to become.

Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.

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Question & Answer


As an entry-level legal professional in a law firm, I would really like to be paired up with an in-house mentor, someone who could give me advice as I move up in my career. But how do I go about actually finding a good mentor, and how should I approach him or her?


Mentors are invaluable for professionals in almost all legal jobs. Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of lawyers interviewed for a recent Robert Half Legal survey said mentors were their single best source of legal career advice. These experienced guides can help you navigate everything from fitting in with the office culture to feeling confident in the courtroom. Here are a few steps for finding a mentor.

1. Identify your weaknesses and any obstacles to your goals. Your ideal mentor’s strengths should align with your specific needs. For example, if your analytical and logical reasoning skills are strong but your legal research techniques need honing, you will want to seek out an experienced law professional who is also a technology whiz and keeps up with the latest trends in eDiscovery case law.

2. Get involved in a mentorship program. In-house mentors are optimal, as they understand the quirks and challenges of working in your particular firm and have legal career advice that can help you move up. If your firm doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, ask around for suggestions about who could serve as your mentor. Keep in mind that it’s not the best idea to recruit your direct supervisor as a mentor, as there are things you’ll want to discuss with your mentor that you wouldn’t want to talk about with your boss — for example, exploring and applying for other legal jobs.

3. Make a clear and humble overture. After you have one or more potential mentors in mind, approach them in person or by email. Briefly but clearly state your career goals, explain why you think the two of you would be a good match, and share some of your goals for your mentor-mentee relationship. Give the person some time to think about the idea, and suggest that the two of you meet over coffee or lunch to discuss it further.

Mentors are a vital source of legal career advice. They’ve been there and done that, and they can help you avoid making mistakes as you move up in the firm or seek other legal jobs. Good luck finding your Yoda.

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Submit a career-related question to Charles A. Volkert, Esq., executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Charles will answer one question each month!

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