The legal profession doesn’t have a leadership problem—it has a character problem
Charles P. Edwards.
The legal profession is full of leaders. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyers in leadership positions. They are interviewed in legal publications and featured on law firm websites where they are asked questions like: “What made you so successful?” or “What makes you such a great leader?”
They are experts on leadership (as the old joke goes, just ask them). They know what works and what doesn’t. They have seen the future, and it is whatever they are doing. They promote all sorts of laudable things, like diversity and innovation and wellness. They have ideas and programs and initiatives. They have answers.
I’m one of these leaders. I lead a practice group and have a leadership position in my law firm’s litigation department. I have ideas and opinions, just like everyone else. Just ask me: I’ll give you plenty of ideas and opinions.
Leadership Doesn’t Guarantee Results
But, as John Doerr writes in his book Measure What Matters, “Ideas are easy, execution is everything.” Ask legal leaders how their ideas about increasing diversity or the percentage of female partners or innovation or wellness are translating into results and they get a little quieter or offer excuses. Ask for data and they go silent or change the subject because the data isn’t good.
The National Association for Law Placement’s April 2019 bulletin on the representation of women and minority equity partners in law firms reports that in 2018, about 20% of equity partners were women and 6.6% were racial or ethnic minorities. According to NALP’s data, white men made up “almost 71%” of law firm partners in 2018 (equity and nonequity combined).
These results continue to hold despite decades of increased law school enrollment by women and minorities (female law school enrollment has exceeded male enrollment for the past three years) and consistent representation by women and minorities in the associate ranks of about 45% and about 20% on average, respectively, over the last decade, according to NALP’s February 2018 bulletin.
Lawyer mental health results are no better. The ABA formed its Commission on Impaired Attorneys in 1988, more than 30 years ago. In 1996, its mission was expanded to include broader mental health issues, and it was renamed the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.
Since then, lawyer mental health has deteriorated. A 2016 study conducted by the ABA’s CoLAP and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28% of lawyers experience depression, and 19% have anxiety symptoms. Younger lawyers in the first 10 years of practice have the highest incidence of these problems, the study found.
Law firm leaders have at least claimed to be focused on these issues for years. Gains have been made, but the overall picture has improved very little, and it has even worsened across some of these metrics. We have a results problem, but it isn’t because of a lack of leadership around these issues.
It isn’t enough for leaders to have ideas or to implement programs or to say that things should or must improve, even if those pronouncements are sincere. What the legal profession needs is people—not just leaders—with the character to make the choices that create the results they say they want.
Character isn’t who you are; it is what you do. If you want to increase the ranks of female partners, here is what you do: Make women partners. That also involves making the choice to give them the skills and opportunities they need early in their careers, so that they are still around and prepared for you to make them partners.
The same is true for minorities. Similarly, if you want to improve the mental health of lawyers who work for you, here is what you do: Show that you actually care about them.
Many of the mental health problems in the legal profession and elsewhere can be traced to unmet expectations, lost connections, and feelings of hopelessness. Those things didn’t just happen, as if the hand of some god came down and reshuffled the deck. They were caused by a change in our character.
At best, we’ve become the “excellent sheep” identified by William Deresiewicz in his book by the same title. People whose only real skill, in Deresiewicz’s words, is that they can “climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.” Or, maybe we are all Peter Gibbons in the 1999 movie Office Space, whose only real concern is not being hassled by his eight bosses.
At worst, we’ve become self-important takers who favored me over you, more over less, and shiny objects over personal connections. As Anand Giridharadas points out in his book Winners Take All, there are few, if any, “win-win” choices. If you choose more, others get less.
Whatever the reason, benign or malignant, we have a character problem.
Character Requires Action
In the movies, there is a device called the “slow clap,” where a character gives an impassioned speech about the importance of something. After a long pause, someone starts a slow clap, and eventually the scene erupts in applause. It is all very inspiring, but it’s just noise.
What matters are the choices those people make when they leave that scene. Do they go back to business as usual, or do they make different choices? The movies don’t tell us that. Their job is to inspire and entertain—not to do the hard work required for actual change.
The applause has sounded around diversity, fairness, wellness and other issues. But for too long there has been only applause. It is time to end the movie, leave the set and get to work. That does not require leadership; it requires character—the character to do what one thinks is right and to stand up for that feeling, regardless of whether one is in a position of leadership. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for his children, we all should be judged by the content of our character.
Character can be built, but it takes desire, courage and commitment. If you want to build character, here is one technique, borrowed from the Stoics: The next time you are in a meeting or discussion with a colleague and the topic of what “we” should do comes up, ask yourself what you can do that is within your control.
Keep a journal of your answers to this question, and hold yourself accountable to it. Grade yourself from time to time; this grade is your character score.
Don’t give yourself points for ideas. Those, if you recall, are easy. Also, not all actions have the same value. Like the difference between smoke and fire or signals and noise, some actions lead to results, while others do not.
Caring about diversity or fairness or wellness is worth zero points toward your character score. Marketing schemes—zero. Programs without follow-up and accountability—zero. Only give yourself points for actually doing something that advances the goal.
A recent example of a move that should earn points is the October open letter from Mayer Brown partner Chris Arnold to lawyer ranking firm Chambers and Partners asking for his name to be removed from Chambers’ rankings until more female derivatives lawyers are ranked.
While the move has earned Brown a fair amount of positive press, his request appears to have been driven by character. The Stoics did not avoid popularity (Marcus Aurelius, after all, was a Roman emperor); they just did not think we should be motivated by it or strive for it.
Solutions Require Character-Driven Action
Leaders have responsibilities to others and to their organizations, but whether they meet those responsibilities is not within your control. You can try to influence their behavior, or vote against them in the next management elections, or quit your job and go to work for some other group of leaders. But you cannot make them act differently.
The only actions you can control are your own actions. If enough people increase their character score, results will follow. Some new leaders may come out of it, too.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Barnes & Thornburg.
Charles P. Edwards has been practicing law for more than 25 years. He is a partner at Barnes & Thornburg in its Indianapolis office, where he has had various leadership positions. His legal writings can be found on the firm’s insurance blog at btpolicyholderprotection.com, and his personal musings can be found on his personal blog at cpereflections.wordpress.com.
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