When I think of models for leadership, I don’t often think of lawyers. Too much second-guessing, too much timidity, too often a lemming-like mentality and a horrible fear to do anything new or that goes against conventional wisdom. However, in these tumultuous times, I actually think lawyers have a lot to offer in terms of helping us out of this political and financial mess.
The pitiful political display in Washington over the debt ceiling debate and the subsequent downgrading by those geniuses at Standard & Poor’s and the predictable anxiety-driven stock market sell-off that followed have laid bare a lack of leadership, calm and ideas as well as an inability to compromise in our national leaders. And yes, I mean both parties.
When studying leadership, I’ve always looked to the military and sports. But folks too often focus only on the toughness and discipline from those ranks, and not the more telling detail that those leaders often have a nuanced understanding of individuals and the complex relationships in even the most successful units. I don’t know that our political leaders need to be more “tough” or aggressive these days.
I certainly wouldn’t look to the business community. They appear to be even more lemming-like than lawyers, and a lot of what they come up with, like mortgage-backed securities, seems like a big hustle. I’ve heard and seen enough from the MBA crowd in recent years that I’ve started to wonder if the degree stands for “Mostly Bullshit Actually.”
So why lawyers? Because the best ones I’ve encountered know how to keep their cool under even the most trying circumstances, they know how to focus on the end result, and they understand the necessity of compromise.
Being a leader sometimes means having to sit across the table from someone you despise and forge an agreement on how to solve a problem.
Does anyone think that’s a widely held belief in Washington these days?
When nonlawyers think of attorneys, they often focus on the fiery rhetoric. And sure, that’s there at times. But my own experience over the years of having covered the legal profession has been that the best lawyers keep their cool, are dispassionate, and understand that sometimes, in order to solve a problem or resolve a conflict, you need to give a little.
The best lawyers I’ve seen have been able to always stay focused on the end goal, rather than any side arguments.
Take the example of a child custody case. The focus of the parties should be what’s best for the child. That doesn’t always happen. Divorcing parents often feel justified in their anger toward their spouse. Without even realizing it, they sometimes use custody battles to settle scores. It doesn’t help the kids. Good lawyers know how to get their clients focused on doing what’s best for the children and getting custody resolved without having to resort to a scorched earth policy.
Think of the rest of the country as the kids. We need lawyers to get the angry spouses to think about what’s best for us.
Some might ask: What good can lawyers do? Aren’t there already a lot of lawyers involved in politics?
There’s some truth to that. But what if the lawyers in government divorced themselves a bit from the politics and focused more on resolving conflicts? What if they applied more of what they’ve been taught, like logic and reason, rather than emotion and rhetoric?
Lawyers permeate politics. They’re elected officials, staffers, committee counsel, advisers, lobbyists, fundraisers. Their efforts and money get a lot of politicians elected and influence a great amount of policy and legislation. Collectively, lawyers have considerable clout in Washington. If they all started trying to redirect the political conversation so that the goal is “solve” instead of “win,” I think we would all be better off.
That might be a little bit simple and naive, but I’d always rather focus on what America can do, rather than what it cannot.
The Plight of Lawyers
Yet, for all the money, power and influence that some lawyers have, it’s always easy to forget that the vast majority of attorneys are only trying to make a simple living. Quite a number of lawyers found themselves either jobless or underemployed as a result of the Great Recession. We hear stories all the time of lawyers, of every possible demographic and practice area, looking for work.
And while we have written numerous articles the past few years examining the macro trends affecting the business of law, we haven’t as a newspaper focused on the plights of individual attorneys. When we held a pair of focus groups a few weeks ago, that was something a number of the participants pointed out, and it struck a chord with me.
After those focus groups, we decided as an editorial team that we want to reach out and find those lawyers who have been negatively affected by the economy and tell their stories. Our attitude is that we are the newspaper for the Pennsylvania legal community and it’s our job to tell those stories.
So in a few weeks we’re hoping to start a series that examines the human side of the Great Recession’s impact on the Pennsylvania legal community. We want to highlight individuals and give them a chance to tell their stories. I would encourage any lawyer who is unemployed or underemployed to reach out to us. We want to talk to you.
Just as lawyers can be a strong voice to get us beyond the discord of the past few weeks, we can try to use this newspaper to give out-of-work lawyers a voice.
Our hope is that the exposure will create opportunities for those individuals. Sometimes people aren’t motivated by issues, but they are motivated by faces.