Reflections on leadership in government and private practice.

Author:Wagner, Benjamin B.
Position:2017 Stanford Law Review Symposium; Raising the Bar: Lawyers and Leadership

Most lawyers in the United States practice in law firms or serve in government, and quite a few, like myself, have crossed between those spheres at least once. Many have been successful leaders in both government and private practice by demonstrating qualities associated with leadership generally--substantive expertise, high ethical standards, a commitment to hard work and the advancement of the larger organization, and respect for colleagues and their opinions. The meaning and means of leadership in each environment are different, however, and success as a leader in one role does not necessarily guarantee success in the other. The qualities that characterize effective leadership in public and private law offices tend to reflect different institutional structures and orientations. What follows are some thoughts about distinctions and commonalities between leadership in government and leadership in large law firms.

I have had the opportunity to observe leadership in large legal organizations from several vantage points. For nearly six years I served as an associate in a large New York firm, where I had a worm s-eye view of leadership. At the time I was there, it was a firm of about seventy partners and over two hundred associates, almost all of them at a single location in lower Manhattan. My next legal job was in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)--sometimes described as the world's largest law firm, with about 10,000 lawyers (1)--although my career there was at one of its many components, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California. I started as a line prosecutor, later served for nearly nine years as a supervisor of a unit of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs), and was then appointed by President Obama to serve as the U.S. Attorney for that district. In six and a half years as U.S. Attorney, I both managed an office of nearly one hundred lawyers and participated in the leadership of the DOJ nationally through my role on the Attorney General's Advisory Committee, a sort of board of directors for the U.S. Attorney community. (2) Recently returned to private practice, I am now a partner at a 1200-lawyer global law firm with offices in twenty cities around the world. (3)

Leadership in large legal organizations is challenging. It might be compared to John Boehner's description of his role as Speaker of the Housekeeping a couple hundred frogs in the wheelbarrow long enough to get something done. (4) Lawyers are not easily led, and they may be more committed to their own clients or cases than to the organization. They may have their own views on the appropriate mission or values of the organization. But leadership makes all the difference between a successful organization that attracts and retains motivated and committed people and one in which people merely show up to earn a paycheck.

Defining Leadership

One thing I have learned from my own journey and from observing the journeys of others is that leaders are not born; they emerge. Leadership is not a title, personality type, or skill that can be mastered through repetition like a good backhand. It is a process of navigating group dynamics in a way that fosters a sense of commitment to a shared endeavor. Those who appreciate and respond to the needs of individuals in the organization and subordinate their own egos and objectives to further the common interest can succeed as leaders. Leadership includes elements of personality and strategy, but it is largely shaped by how individuals respond to the purpose of the group and the relevant constituencies.

For law firms, the primary objective of leadership is essentially...

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