In Crisis, What Makes Lawyers Leaders?

4 Min Read By: Werner Boel

Lawyers within corporations and other large organizations tend to play the role of safe harbor. When storms appear and circumstances become uncertain or stressful, sooner or later lawyers—in particular, the general counsel—find a way to calm things down.

Lawyers are also crisis managers. It is no surprise, then, that a lot of organizations are turning to lawyers to take on broader leadership and strategic roles. We are weathering a sustained crisis unlike any we have seen, and some issues can only be resolved after being considered through a legal lens.

Consider the healthcare industry. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when states and municipalities began to issue workforce stay-at-home orders, it became clear that such orders could not meaningfully apply to hospital workers—how could an entire nursing staff, for example, work from home? It was lawyers who stepped in to help healthcare organizations communicate with lawmakers and navigate the uncertainty around regulatory demands. Across industries, lawyers have helped make sense of the business impact of the pandemic on day-to-day operations.

Another area where lawyers have stepped in to lend expertise is around matters related to social unrest and the push for greater diversity, equity and inclusion across society. Lawyers are skilled at working with seemingly opposing viewpoints to achieve consensus and progress. They know the legal framework within which change can happen. Thus, many organizations' initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion are being supported if not spearheaded by their legal counsel. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on lawyers as leaders. It has made organizations realize that greater responsibilities and authority should be placed on the shoulders of their top legal experts.

Born to Lead?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, lawyers were being tapped to lead an increasing number and variety of organizations. Take colleges and universities, for example. The number of lawyers in the role of president in higher education has more than doubled in each of the past three decades according to Patricia Salkin, provost of the graduate and professional divisions of Touro College in New York and a lawyer herself. Today's colleges are big businesses, and the task of leading them has become much more complex, she notes. She adds that stakeholders in academia—as with most industries—are increasingly litigious in regard to issues concerning the First Amendment, privacy and intellectual property, Title IX and more. It makes sense, then, that lawyers are coming to the fore in academia.

What traits do lawyers have that help them lead well amid great uncertainty? For one thing, during these polarized times, lawyers (as if dealing with opposing counsel) have a knack for navigating situations with widely divergent opinions. They are pragmatic, logical thinkers who can view complicated matters from different angles and find resolutions. This is what has always made them good politicians.

In addition, lawyers—the good ones, at least—tend to have deep empathy and emotional intelligence. In an era that cherishes data and bean-counting to a fault, the human component needed to overcome challenges can be lost. Rather than being data-driven, lawyers bring a more philosophical, holistic approach to leadership.

Not all lawyers were born to lead, of course. Individuals who are fiercely independent thinkers, as lawyers often are, can find it challenging to manage teams and develop staff. Those who join the executive ranks often lack fundamental business and managerial skills that top executives need, such as budgeting, financial management and organizational behavior—the type of skills taught in business school.

 An Emerging Trend

Researcher M. Todd Henderson at the University of Chicago Law School asked the question of whether lawyers make better CEOs than MBAs. In his research, he found was that firms run by lawyer CEOs experienced much less corporate litigation than their MBA counterparts, the thinking being that CEOs with legal expertise tend to know how to manage litigation risk and thus pursue more risk-averse strategies. Henderson states, therefore, that CEOs with legal backgrounds often create higher firm value.

This may be just another reason that lawyers are increasingly found in high-profile leadership roles above and beyond the legal department. As an executive recruiter, I expect this trend to continue. There are so many critical leadership roles today that require both legal acumen and the innate ability to lead that many lawyers have.

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