Lawyers as Leaders
Community engagement and leadership benefit all
By Leah Witcher Jackson Teague
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?
CHALLENGES FACING THE LEGAL PROFESSION
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?
NEED FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT
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.
REASONS TO ENGAGE, SERVE, AND LEAD
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
who accept as our calling a special duty to protect
our democracy and serve the public. TBJ
LEAH WITCHER JACKSON TEAGUE
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.