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Teaching Lawyers, And Others, To Be Leaders

Publication Date: 
November 01, 2013
Justia - Verdict
John Dean

Verdict reviews Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode's book Lawyers as Leaders, finding that "everyone will gain" from its insights. 

It was the tease headline on the cover of The Economist magazine (October 19–25 issue) that got my attention (dead tree edition only): “Washington’s Lawyer Surplus.” I thought it would be an article on the hard times that have befallen many Washington law firms, but it was not. Rather, the article itself was titled “Lawyers, beware lawyers: The dangers of taking a legalistic approach to America’s budget wars.”

Having written my last two columns on that subject, I decided to give it a read, only to discover that it really was not so much about the budget war either. In fact, the core of the column—written by the unidentified “Lexington” columnist—was about lawyers as leaders, with a passing mention of a new book on the subject by Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode.


Ms. Rhode notes that many of “our nation’s most revered and most reviled public figures have been attorneys: Abraham Lincoln and Thurgood Marshall; Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.” And she adds that the legal profession is “well-represented at all levels of leadership, as governors, state legislators, judges, prosecutors, general counsel, law firm managing partners, and heads of corporate, government, and non-profit organizations.”


It is in this broad context of attorneys’ frequently becoming leaders that Ms. Rhode states her case: “My central claim is that the legal profession attracts a large number of individuals with the ambition and analytic capabilities to be leaders, but frequently fails to develop other qualities that are essential to effectiveness.” Allow me to rephrase what she is saying: Lawyers are often drawn to leadership positions, but they are not very good at leading. To the contrary, with rare exceptions, she found that legal training and practice do not prepare attorneys to lead.


In short, research shows that those who learn well can become excellent leaders, a point that Rhode outlines under heading like, “The Learning Process,” “Obstacles to Learning,” “Learning Strategies,” “Organizational Learning,” and her material regarding the paths followed by leaders, such as “Self-Awareness,” “Family Commitments and Cultural Biases,” “The Role of Chance,” and “Mentoring and Advice.”

Rhode explains that while effective leadership must vary by context and situations, “certain competencies are central” to most all leadership positions. She focuses on five such core capabilities: (1) individual and group decisionmaking, (2) influence (i.e., strategies that motivate followers), (3) fostering innovation and managing change, (4) conflict management (how to negotiate, mediate, and resolve disputes), and (5) communication skills.


Noting that “everyone agrees about the need for ethical leadership,” Rhode finds that the problems arise “over what is require[d] and how it can be achieved.” She is not particularly interested in the “perfunctory or platitudinous” approach that broadly calls for “integrity, honesty, fairness, and compassion,” which typically fails to recognize complexities and problems with all-purpose standards that may ignore reality. There is a lot of this in the popular literature and she notes that these approaches—calls for “moral courage,” or “moral excellence,” or the overused “moral compass”—seldom provide “any real insights about how to balance competing concerns,” usually offering examples that “are generally dumbed-down, gussied-up morality plays in which virtue is its own reward.”


To my surprise, Rhode drives home her analysis by providing a perfect case study: Watergate—a subject about which I know a great deal. But I did not know that she was drawing on my testimony and writings about it until I started reading her book. Rhode writes, “The Watergate scandal offers a particularly illuminating case history of how the good go bad, in part because of the sheer number of lawyers involved.” She quotes from my testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee where I explained why I had placed asterisks by the names of people I had found involved because I had been struck by my own reaction: “How in God’s name could so many lawyers get involved in something like this?”


Every lawyer and law student in America should read this book and then get busy learning the skills and acquiring the outlook that Deborah Rhode has outlined and explained in Lawyers as Leaders. Not only will all readers benefit, but everyone will gain. Needless to say, we can never have too many potential leaders.