Leadership and Beyond: Board Service as a Catalyst for Lawyer Development

6 Min Read By: Lana J. Manganiello

The legal profession is undergoing a significant transformation. Traditionally, lawyers honed their skills and built their careers within the confines of a single office, surrounded by colleagues and mentors. Today, the landscape is markedly different. Law firms are increasingly global, with attorneys collaborating across multiple offices and often working in hybrid environments. This shift necessitates a new approach to professional development, one that extends beyond the traditional office setting.

Board service provides a unique avenue for lawyers to expand their professional horizons. Through roles that demand strategic decision-making, leadership, and governance, lawyers acquire skills that enhance their legal practice. Participation in board activities fosters improved team leadership and conflict resolution capabilities, which are crucial for managing legal teams and client relationships. Board leadership opens doors to greater visibility and extensive networking opportunities, essential for both career advancement and business growth. By aligning with corporations or organizations that reflect their personal values, lawyers can enhance their reputations as committed and thoughtful leaders. This involvement not only polishes their professional image but also imbues a sense of personal fulfillment, allowing them to contribute positively to societal causes and enrich their professional lives.

Professional Development Benefits of Board Service

Serving on a board offers lawyers a wealth of professional development opportunities that are difficult to replicate in a traditional legal setting. Attorneys on boards are often involved in high-level planning processes that require a long-term perspective. This experience sharpens their ability to foresee potential challenges and opportunities, a skill that is directly transferable to their legal practice.

Exposure to different organizational structures is another key benefit of board service. Lawyers gain firsthand experience with nonprofit and corporate governance, enriching their understanding of diverse operational models and strategies. By understanding how different organizations operate in practice, lawyers can offer more informed and strategic advice in their work.

Decision-making is another critical skill honed through board service. Lawyers are accustomed to making decisions based on legal precedents and statutes, but board roles often require a more nuanced approach. Decisions must balance legal considerations with business, ethical, and community factors. By navigating complex board decisions, attorneys become adept at weighing various factors and making informed choices that benefit their clients and their practice.

Team leadership is also significantly enhanced through board participation. Working with a diverse group of board members, each with their own expertise and viewpoints, in the effort of steering an organization involves collective leadership and strategic collaboration. This team environment fosters a dynamic approach to governance and decision-making. Additionally, board membership usually offers opportunities to lead committees and task forces, providing even more avenues for developing leadership capabilities. Lawyers learn to motivate and manage teams effectively, fostering collaboration and resolving conflicts. These leadership skills are invaluable when managing legal teams and coordinating with clients.

Deborah Dixon, managing partner at The Dixon Firm, shared her experience:

My board experience has been instrumental in my development, and I am sure in ways I may not fully recognize. I now feel a sense of confidence that I understand how board meetings should be run, the rules that generally apply to board meetings (e.g., Robert’s Rules of Order), [and] how to properly prepare agendas, call for votes, and use bylaws or policies as guidance for decisions.

Career and Business Development Advantages of Board Service

Board service offers substantial career and business development advantages for lawyers. One of the most immediate benefits is increased visibility within the professional community. Serving on a board places lawyers in the spotlight, showcasing their leadership and strategic capabilities to a broader audience. This visibility can lead to new opportunities, such as speaking engagements, media features, and invitations to join other prestigious boards.

Alejandro Moreno, San Diego office managing partner at Sheppard Mullin, noted, “Legal periodicals are always looking for stories of lawyers doing ‘good.’ Board service is a good platform to promote stories about the board and your own service to the community, which can increase a lawyer’s visibility and profile in the community.”

Networking opportunities are another significant advantage of board service. Lawyers on boards interact with a diverse group of professionals, including business leaders, other attorneys, and community advocates. These interactions can lead to valuable connections that might not occur within the confines of a traditional legal practice.

Moreno emphasized the importance of these relationships:

One of the best features of professional board service is that it brings together many different types of lawyers. Our board includes everything from consumer advocates to corporate defense counsel. Having these various cross-sections of the legal community sit on the same board promotes good relationships between counsel and civility.

These connections can result in referrals, collaborations, and new client relationships, enhancing a lawyer’s professional network and reputation.

Aligning with an organization whose mission resonates personally is crucial for successful board service. Lawyers should choose to serve organizations that align with their values and passions, fostering genuine commitment and effectiveness. When attorneys serve on boards of organizations they care about, their contributions have a greater impact, and the experience is more fulfilling.

Lawyers can select board roles that highlight their existing expertise, allowing them to share unique skills and demonstrate their professional capabilities. This visibility enables more professionals to see what it is like to work with these attorneys. Additionally, they can choose roles to develop new skills, such as finance or marketing, broadening their knowledge and enhancing their business acumen.

Personal Growth and Broader Perspective from Board Service

Board service also offers lawyers a broader perspective and significant personal growth. Engaging with people from various industries and backgrounds exposes practitioners to new viewpoints and problem-solving approaches. This diversity of thought enhances their empathy and cultural competence.

Brian Condon, senior counsel at Arnold & Porter, shared, “Serving on the board of a nonprofit providing pro bono legal services allows me to understand the unmet legal needs in our community, and what resources there are to provide representation.”

This exposure to societal issues is both eye-opening and rewarding, providing lawyers with a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by a range of communities.

Additionally, serving on boards facilitates connections with like-minded professionals who often become mentors, mentees, and friends. These relationships are invaluable, providing personal and professional support, fostering collaboration, and enhancing the sense of community within the profession. The friendships formed through board service add a layer of fulfillment and camaraderie that enriches the professional journey of a lawyer.

Conclusion: The Importance of Board Service for Lawyers

Board service is a powerful tool for attorneys seeking to enhance their professional and personal development. It offers a unique platform to develop strategic thinking, decision-making, and leadership skills, all of which are directly transferable to legal practice. Lawyers gain increased visibility and networking opportunities, which can lead to new career and business prospects. By aligning with organizations whose missions resonate with their personal values, lawyers can not only enhance their professional image but also find personal fulfillment in contributing to meaningful causes.

Board service can also enhance lawyers’ commitment to equity and access to legal services for underserved communities. Michael Geibelson, California managing partner at Robins Kaplan, LLP, underscored this point: “As professionals, we have a duty to ensure access to legal services for those who cannot afford them. As a complement to pro bono work on individual cases, board work for legal service organizations is a powerful way to fulfill that duty.”

By supporting board service, law firms can foster a culture of leadership and community engagement, ultimately benefiting their clients and the broader community. Encouraging board participation is an investment not just in individual lawyers but also in the firm’s long-term success and the societal contribution of its attorneys.

By: Lana J. Manganiello


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