Lawyers as Leaders

Community engagement and leadership benefit all

By Leah Witcher Jackson Teague

Trio of Professionals

Lawyers are less than one-half of 1 percent of the population, yet their influence is significant and their impact on decisions made every day is important.1 No other profession accounts for more leaders in every aspect of society.2 Throughout our history, lawyers such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln led our country at critical junctures. Today’s lawyers advocate for causes, counsel businesses, and serve nonprofits. Their effective leadership, through their many roles and responsibilities, advances these causes and enhances these enterprises.

Lawyers put themselves in a position to lead by strategizing, persuading, and ultimately commanding the room, whether it be a boardroom, courtroom, or arena of public opinion. These are foundational leadership skills. Teaming with professionals from different disciplines to craft innovative solutions to problems in all sectors of our economy affords lawyers a broader perspective of societal issues. Every aspect of what lawyers are called upon to do in the representation of clients is practiced leadership—influencing others to accomplish an identified need and, hopefully, the greater good. Utilizing the skills and influence of a small but powerful band of lawyers can have a tremendous impact on society.3

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the 1830s that the special training of lawyers as problem solvers and advocates and the role of lawyers as keepers of the rule of law ensured for them “a separate station in society” (in his words, the “American aristocracy” with the duty to protect our democracy).4 In the modern era, the public appears to have forgotten lawyers’ contributions to American society. While lawyers still serve as heads of government, business, and nonprofit organizations, our influence appears to be declining.

One representative snapshot is the percentage of the members of Congress who are lawyers. In the mid-19th century almost 80 percent of members were lawyers. By the 1960s under 60 percent were lawyers.5 Today it is approximately 40 percent.6 This decline in congressional leadership positions may simply be emblematic of the disappearing role of lawyers in serving and advocating for ordinary citizens. Does having fewer leaders trained and experienced in strategic planning, advocacy, and negotiation make a difference?

Might there be a connection between the declining role of lawyers serving as leaders and the attack on the profession for its high cost and the “access to justice” gap? Respect for our courts and our justice system is at an all-time low. Reports tell us the vast majority of Americans either cannot afford legal assistance,7 do not believe they can afford a lawyer,8 want a “less expensive alternative,”9 or “do not recognize that their problems have a legal dimension.”10 Funding for those who cannot afford assistance is woefully insufficient and threatened.11 We should be alarmed that in the past 30 years litigants in some categories of civil matters have gone from almost 100 percent lawyer-represented to the majority being self-represented.12

In this age of instant access to information and impatience for any delayed gratification, our cumbersome, expensive system frustrates ordinary citizens. Assurances that due process and fair administration of justice take time fall on deaf ears. This access to justice gap leaves the majority of our citizens without legal representation and advice.

When the public lacks confidence in our legal system, the foundation of our democracy is endangered. When most citizens believe the services of lawyers are unobtainable, unaffordable, or over-priced, the rights and interests of citizens and organizations go unprotected, our communities are vulnerable, and our quality of life is at risk. We must find creative solutions to address these challenges. Otherwise, how can we expect the public to look to lawyers as leaders for guiding and forging the future of our communities?

The role of lawyers traditionally has been threefold— “technical expert, wise counselor, and effective leader.”13 Without significant attention to all three, the legal profession is in danger of losing its special status that has helped shape and guide our country since its inception. The implications to the legal profession and our nation are profound.

Law schools can and should help but legal education has its own challenges. Law schools compete for fewer applicants who are already burdened with significant undergraduate debt and worried the cost of obtaining a law degree and the risk of underemployment are too high. Today’s college graduates want to make a positive difference in this world but fewer view law school as the desired path for their success and significance. With fewer lawyers serving in prominent roles in public leadership positions, law schools are even less likely to attract the best and the brightest students seeking to make a difference.

Leadership is mentioned in the mission statements of many law schools. Law schools expect their graduates to actively engage in a variety of leadership capacities. Yet, intentional leadership training has not been part of the traditional law school experience. Change is occurring. A movement has begun in legal education to incorporate programs to emphasize lawyers’ professional identities in society and develop leadership skills to better equip graduates for service and leadership.14 Such programming should be part of bar programs and CLEs as well.

In the midst of changes occurring in the legal profession, opportunity exists to reshape the role lawyers play in our ever-increasingly complex society. Lawyers, the profession, and society in general benefit when lawyers engage in community service and leadership. Service is the first step to leadership. Five reasons to get involved are offered:

Texas lawyers are obligated to serve the public.
A law license is a privilege held by less than one-half of 1 percent of the population.15 Privilege comes with obligation. The first lines of the preamble to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct proclaim, “A lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice. Lawyers, as guardians of the law, play a vital role in the preservation of society.”16 The Texas Lawyer’s Creed adds, “As members of a learned art we pursue a common calling in the spirit of public service.”17

Legal and professional skills can be developed and honed through volunteer work.
Pro bono and other volunteer work allow lawyers to perform tasks that are not available through their firms. For example, lawyers take on pro bono matters to gain experience and work toward specialization certifications.

Community engagement increases our networks and can help build a practice.
For those who are slaves to six-minute increments and cannot imagine squeezing in even one more non-billable hour a week, community engagement can be an investment in meeting prospective clients and developing professional relationships.

Volunteering can make us happier and healthier.
Aristotle opined that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.” Research shows that “serving others might also be the essence of good health.”18 Volunteers have longer life spans, reduced stress, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression.19 In The Halo Effect, author John Raynolds argues that we are happier, more confident, and energized at work when we find purpose and meaning through heartfelt volunteering.20

Our country needs us.
Our noble profession can be the change agent our communities need. Our legal training gives us skills to serve. Community engagement allows lawyers to use our knowledge and skills to communicate, counsel, and persuade. Effective leadership begins with a person’s values, purposes, and identity and leads to the influencing and empowering of others to act and accomplish more together than separately. Being more intentional about pursuing a path of significance means we can live more impactful lives in the law.

The legal profession and our country need lawyers to reclaim our role in society as a small assembly of skilled professionals who accept as our calling a special duty to protect our democracy and serve the public. TBJ


1. Deborah L. Rhode, Lawyers as Leaders 1 (2013).

2. Id.

3. Joseph Jaworski, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership 80 (2nd ed. 2011).

4. 1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 302-309 (Henry Reeve trans., Pa. State U. 2002) (1835), Tocqueville-Democracy-in-America.pdf.

5. Nick Robinson, The Decline of the Lawyer-Politician, 65 Buff. L. Rev. 657, 671 (2017).

6. See Jennifer E. Manning, Congressional Research Service, Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile 3-4 (2017), (Out of 540 members of Congress, including nonvoting delegates from the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, 218, or 40.3 percent, reported “law” as their occupation. A total of 222 members, or 41.1 percent, reported having law degrees).

7. Am. Bar Ass’n, Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States 8, 12 (2016), FNL_WEB.pdf. (hereinafter ABA Report).

8. Rebecca L. Sandefur, What We Know and Need to Know About the Legal Needs of the Public, 67 S.C. L. Rev. 443, 450 (2016).

9. ABA Report, supra note 7, at 8.

10. Id.

11. Id. Nearly 5.3 million Texans qualify for legal aid. Only approximately 178,000 Texas families are assisted by legal aid organizations. Access to Justice Facts, Tex. Access to Justice Found. (last visited Dec. 12, 2017).

12. Jessica K. Steinberg, Demand Side Reform in the Poor People’s Court, 47 Conn. L. Rev. 741, 749 (2015).

13. Ben W. Heineman Jr., William F. Lee & David B. Wilkins, Lawyers as Professionals and as Citizens: Key Roles and Responsibilities in the 21st Century 9 (2014),

14. Deborah L. Rhode, Leadership in Law, 69 Stan. L. Rev. 1603 (2017). The American Association of Law Schools just approved a new section for Leadership. See Section on Leadership, Ass’n of Am. Law Schs., #directory (click “Leadership” link) (last visited Dec. 12, 2017). By way of example, Baylor Law School has established a leadership development program. See Leadership Development Program, Baylor L. Sch., index.php?id=933501 (last visited Dec. 12, 2017).

15. As of 2016 the State Bar of Texas has 98,671 active members, including 87,957 practicing in-state. State Bar of Texas Membership: Attorney Statistical Profile (2015-2016), Trends&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=32670. The 2016 population of Texas was 27.86 million people. QuickFacts Texas, U.S. Census Bureau, (last visited Dec. 12, 2017).

16. Tex. Disciplinary Rules Prof’l Conduct preamble ¶ 1, reprinted in Tex. Gov’t Code Ann., tit. 2, subtit. G, app. A (West 2013).

17. The Texas Lawyer’s Creed—A Mandate for Professionalism (2017), as reprinted in Texas Rules of Court : Volume I—State 723 (Thomson Reuters 2017). 18. Stephanie Watson, Volunteering may be good for body and mind, Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Health Blog (updated Oct. 29, 2015, 8:32 PM), 201306266428.

19. Corp. for Nat’l & Comm. Serv., The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research 1 (2007),

20. Kathy Gottberg, Volunteering — 7 Big Reasons Why Serving Others Serves Us, HuffPost: The Blog (Dec. 22, 2014, 10:02 AM), volunteering7-reasons-why_b_6302770.html. Volunteering out of obligation or harboring resentment “will erase the benefits that we might otherwise receive in both our emotions and our physiology.” Id.

After graduating with honors from Baylor University with a B.B.A. in accounting and a J.D., Teague practiced law for several years before joining the Baylor Law faculty. As one of the longest-serving associate deans for an American law school, she also teaches Leadership Engagement and Development (LEAD). She writes and speaks on tax, nonprofit, and leadership topics. Teague has always been involved in serving her community and her profession, and the list of service and leadership positions is long.

{Back to top}

We use cookies to analyze our traffic and enhance functionality. More Information agree