Law is a profession. But it’s also a business.
You simply can’t be successful at one without being successful at the other. You may have the courtroom skills to match the greatest lawyers to ever stand before a judge, but if you haven’t built a book of business, you won’t be using those skills on behalf of anyone. You may have earned a hefty fee for the work you did on a case, but if you can’t manage your firm’s revenues and expenses, those dollars will be gone before you know it. You may know the law, but if you don’t have a solid understanding of how business works, you will serve neither your clients nor yourself well.
Notwithstanding how business and law are so inextricably linked, many in our profession struggle to transition into business leadership roles. Often, it is because of outdated and incorrect stereotypes in the business world about the skill set and approach that lawyers bring to the table:
- “Lawyers don’t understand business.”
- “Lawyers are too risk averse to make effective business leaders. They’ll be a roadblock.”
- “Lawyers communicate in legalese.”
As a general proposition, this is nonsense. The reality is that most lawyers have the skills, training, and experience that make them well positioned for business leadership roles. You may not even recognize these qualities in yourself, but if you have built a solid practice as a lawyer, you no doubt have them.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, c-suite business consultant and author Justin Menkes conducted an in-depth analysis of 200 candidates being assessed for the CEO role at major U.S. corporations and identified three core traits that all successful CEOs had in common. Think about how your current professional path as a lawyer has imbued you with these characteristics:
1. Realistic optimism.
Menkes found that leaders “pursue audacious goals… while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.”
When a client comes to you with a difficult legal problem, wants to pursue a claim, is being sued, or has been charged with a crime, you’ll work tirelessly to develop and implement the strategy that will give your client the best chance of a positive outcome, no matter how much the deck may be stacked against you. In order to do so, however, you have to recognize the weaknesses in your own position, assess the likelihood of success, and advise your client of the risks and costs that they may be facing. That’s realistic optimism.
2. Subservience to purpose.
“Leaders with this ability see their professional goal as so profound in importance that their lives become measured in value by how much they contribute to furthering that goal,” Menkes wrote.
Think about the last trial you had or the last deal that had to close on a tight deadline. Where was your head at? Every day that a big professional project came closer to game time, you could feel everything in your life that was unrelated to the goal of winning or closing fall by the wayside, albeit temporarily. When you accomplish your goal with a victory or a done deal, the sense of pride and satisfaction you feel flows from having made the all-in commitment – the “subservience to purpose” – that breeds success.
3. Finding order in chaos.
Leaders with this trait have the “ability to bring clarity to quandaries that baffle others,” according to Menkes. Honestly, is there a better summary of what we as lawyers do for our clients than that?
If you are considering transitioning from the courtroom to the boardroom, don’t ever doubt that your experience as a lawyer has provided you with key skills and traits you need to be a successful corporate leader.