Holloran Center

for Ethical Leadership in the Professions

Minnesota Lawyer Publication

Who are the ethical leaders in your firm?
By Prof. Neil W. Hamilton | January 29, 2001

We know that organizational culture plays a critical role in both the way a lawyer practices and the fulfillment a lawyer derives from the practice. For example, a 1997 survey of nearly 1,200 lateral partners by the Major, Hagen and Africa attorney search firm found that lateral partners, when choosing a new firm, attach the greatest importance to a firm's culture and reputation.

David Maister in "True Professionalism" observes that a critical challenge for any law firm is finding the means to develop a collective will in areas of performance that will in fact produce sustained excellence and quality of work life. Collective will is more than just technical competence and revenue production. Collective will also means sustaining a collegial and life-giving organizational culture, building and leveraging intellectual capital, sustaining excellence in client service and developing creative marketing approaches.

Do you have lawyers in your firm or department who play a significant role in defining a collective will that produces quality of work life and sustained excellence? In a peer collegium like a law firm or a law faculty, these ethical leaders are not necessarily those holding the named positions of authority, although they may take their turn at such roles. Maister notes that leadership in a law firm is substantially a matter of personal influence, rather than an exercise of power and decision-making authority assigned to a given position. Leading other professionals in a peer collegium, Maister believes, is a process of winning the agreement of others to be influenced. It is an informal process of building trust and influence through earning credibility by personal performance, and through relationship building and dialogue.

Maryland University School of Law Dean Michael Kelly said of the law firms that he observed: "Leaders are people whose judgment about integrating or arranging or working out the competing values of law practice is respected by the other lawyers. ... A leader makes intelligible the connections between the actual and the possible by having (on the one hand) a deep understanding of the traditions, character, and inclinations of the members of the practice and (on the other) a sense of, or imagination for, alternative futures or appropriate goals for the practice."

Faculties are also peer collegia like law firms. Writing about his survey and analysis of the leadership of 20 university presidents, Prof. Robert Birnbaum observes that, leadership is ultimately a moral act, because it involves what an institution should do. Effective presidents act with a moral foundation that permits them to retain their equilibrium even as they are being buffeted by events. Good leaders do not try to create new values, but recognize that since organizations and their values can decay, one of their most important tasks is to reinforce or develop processes that constantly work to regenerate an institution's values.

Birnbaum found that only five of the 20 presidents in his survey provided successful leadership for a peer collegium. In peer collegium, leaders engender confidence through presenting a vision, but the vision is not something created out of whole cloth. The vision must be an articulation of the college-that-might-be that reflects the interests - manifest or latent - of constituents. An acceptable vision does not say, "Here is where I want us to be," but rather, "Here is where you have told me you really want to go." The leader's vision is more a symbol of having listened to and respected the visions of others than an expression of the leader's goals.

A shared vision tells constituents, not necessarily that the institution will be different, but that it will be better. A vision that creates a common sense of reality selects from among an institution's existing goals those to which special prominence should be given. The leader, through an understanding of the institution's culture, is able to present this new emphasis as consistent with the core institutional values and traditions. Once articulated, the vision presents a sense-making lens through which the leader's substantive ideas can be assessed and understood.

Birnbaum, while focusing his research principally on university presidents, emphasizes also that in a peer collegium, leadership comes from both formal and informal leaders. The etymology of a "collegium" suggests we are linked together for a common purpose with each member having approximately equal power. One of us may serve in the formal positions of executive partner today, and another of us will serve at some future time. Collegia need both formal and informal leaders to create a vision and foster commitment to the vision - to entice, to excite, to cajole, to arouse, and to push colleagues toward the achievement of the highest professional ideals together.
These skill sets can be taught to some degree in a mentor relationship. At Harvard Business School, Sam Hill and Glenn Rifkin note that each new faculty member is assigned three different mentors: one for teaching, one for research, and one on the culture of the faculty. A law firm could intentionally team the most effective senior partners providing leadership in governance with new members. Many of the virtues and skill sets of a leader within a collegium can be nurtured. The ethical leaders of my generation of lawyers must step forward to be mentors for the next generation.

Neil Hamilton is Trustees professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.