Tag Archives: leadership

The discipline of listening

Three baby scops owls

“To see the way forward you have to listen deeply. You have to listen to people you don’t want to hear from, and you have to hear what you don’t want to know.”

Jane Fernandes, President of Guilford College.

“The discipline of listening deeply — which is central to the disciplines of self-awareness, reflection, trustworthiness, expanded consciousness, fearless engagement and leadership — is so crucial to transformation.”

Charlotte Roberts & Martha Summerville, Guilford College trustees and authors of the recent article at strategy + business, “The Mindful Board” as well as a forthcoming book of the same name.

The people who know how to listen are the ones most worth listening to.

Legal profession: Sickness unto death? Or, a return to enduring value? 10 Challenges Facing the Profession.

OWL named gailBrooks Pierce’s exceptional Director of Recruiting and Professional Development, Gail Cutter, has one mighty dyspeptic view of the challenges currently facing the legal profession. Yet, she is a true believer in the enduring value of a legal education and the nobility of the profession.

Gail is a remarkable (and not ignoble) professional herself. Her thoughts are valuable and they are set out below, in her words and with her permission. They merit attention.

(By the way, MidLaw has a different take on many of these same issues. That is, MidLaw agrees with many of Gail’s premises, but has a much rosier perspective. We are a good team.)

10 Challenges Facing the Legal Profession

1. The regard in which lawyers and the legal profession are held has declined precipitously over the past century, particularly since the 1970s (Watergate, general distrust of institutions). Once considered pillars of the community, statesman and leaders in all walks of life (business, government, the non-profit sector, academia), lawyers are now roundly disliked and distrusted and famously serve as the butt of jokes.

2. The Cautious/Covetous Generation: The profession is now being run and shaped largely by people who entered the profession for all the wrong reasons. (I say this as a 1987 law graduate myself.) Starting in the 1980s, as salaries climbed steeply and the media, aghast, spread the news, more and more college grads pursued JDs for the wrong reasons. Too many applicants were drawn by (a) the lure of high-paying jobs, and/or (b)their risk-averse natures, seeking stability and safety. A JD was the safe, acceptable, well-paid ‘default option’ for the unfocused college grad. (B-school applicants at least had to commit to two years in the real world.) This trend was exaggerated in the 1990s, as law firms boosted salaries repeatedly to compete with the largesse of dot-coms. The obsession with data in general and the U.S. News rankings in particular appealed to applicants driven by the bottom line. Only the hardcore public interest-minded souls still purported to be motivated by the idealism that once brought many to the law (even those bound for the private sector).

3. Legal Education, the Cash Cow: Many legal educators have lost the plot. The notion of legal academia as a bastion of high values, idealism and service has deteriorated as pressure has mounted for law schools to function as university profit centers. The rise in the cost of higher education has far outstripped the cost of living, of course. Law schools, relatively efficient operations with large classes and low overhead, are handy to fill university coffers and fund medical schools and science centers. Law school deans are under pressure to spend more and more of their valuable time fundraising. LLM programs and JD transfer programs have proliferated to feed the drive for FTE. As law schools have been run increasingly like corporations, the culture has turned. (I make this observation as a veteran of 15 fulfilling years in law school administration.)

4. A Million Unhappy Lawyers: The perfect storm has raged over the past 30 years: Law firms have grown exponentially in size and complexity. As the deals got bigger and bigger (see the M&A boom of the 1980s and beyond), the work became more specialized, technical and rote. Ditto Big Litigation. Law firm merger mania (once big news, now just a fact of life) has diluted firm culture and history, creating firms that are essentially multi-national corporations with brands created on Madison Avenue. Add high hours, massive, unwieldy and mind-numbing cases and deals: It was inevitable that associate dissatisfaction would follow. (Particularly when lawyers were entering the profession for the wrong reasons, without a clear notion of any career path—and the legal career-ball kept moving.)

5. Attrition and Massive Institutional Instability: The pyramid structure that defines the modern law firm’s economic model builds in mass attrition and razor-thin partnership chances. Partners have little incentive to invest in training and mentoring junior associates; the odds are slim that those associates will stick around. Clients thus cannot count on having lawyers with a deep understanding of their business, challenges and goals. The “Trusted Advisor” – a core identity of the Happy Lawyer of the Glorious Past—does not work in this setting. Without stable law firm teams, fleeting client loyalty should come as no surprise. Further, as GCs face unrelenting economic pressure, law firms are squeezed on price and must hold a ‘dog and pony show’ for most every deal or case. For fancy law firms, this can feel unseemly and humiliating (or at least it did at first). Law is no longer fun or fancy.

6. Law as a Business: The Personality Disconnect: The bottom-line reality that faces every private practitioner of a firm large or small has created a huge disconnect from the Respected Professional/Trusted Advisor model. In addition to market forces which drew bottom-line oriented, risk-averse applicants to the law, instead of Atticus Finches and Clarence Darrows, there is now a massive personality disconnect. The senior cohort currently running major law firms, in many cases, is ill-suited to the current shape of the business of law. One must be a whiz CEO-investment banker-glad-handing salesperson to survive, succeed and enjoy law firm management. The archetypical intellectual, bookish tax-lawyer type is the polar opposite of the schmoozer/businessman who thrives most readily in modern private practice. Or a firm can have tremendously successful lawyers in “production,” but they are not matched by the experts in “sales” and management needed to lead firms into the future. Most lawyers famously lack the soft skills, sales skills and management abilities now needed to succeed in the law. Law schools are not equipped to teach them.

7. The Talent Pool is Diluted: Greed, risk-aversion and lack of sales skills are bad enough among our professional community. We could always count on attracting the best and the brightest. No more. Thanks to the financial collapse of 2008, the bottom dropped out of the large law firm market.  It is not predicted to return to that high-water mark. financial collapse of 2008, the bottom dropped out of the large law firm market. It is not predicted to return to that high-water mark. Thanks to data transparency, social media and the ubiquity of the Internet, vague (and just plain inaccurate) law school employment and salary statistics were found out. The inaccuracy and inadequacy of the U.S. News rankings were laid bare, and the ABA was forced to step in and require better consumer data. Now, college students at the top of the academic food chain are turning away from the law. (Given the negative popular perception of our profession, it is deeply disappointing but not surprising.) Based upon the precipitous drop in LSAT scores and GPAs of law school applicants, future lawyers seem to be getting dumber—um, less intellectually gifted. The alarming drop in the bar passage rates make a convincing case that this is true.

8. The Talent Pool is Shrinking: If the future lawyers are getting dumber, at least there are fewer of them. (The food is bad, but the portions are small.) In our cherished profession, which has been the wellspring of so much progress throughout history and good works to this day, it is not laughing matter. Until leaders of the profession can wrest back the reins and rebrand the legal profession, we will not be able to win back the best, brightest, most innovative and ambitious. Universities have created countless joint-degree programs and have aggressively fought for and won the students who would have in the past pursued JDs. Educators in public policy, international affairs, public affairs, business—even medicine—have been far more strategic and creative in designing programs and pursuing the best candidates.

9. The Haves and Have Nots: While leading law firms fret about the shrinking pie of high-priced work, the vast majority of Americans have no access to legal services. The salary disparity between entry-level associates at large firms and legal services lawyers and public defenders is shocking. The vast majority of lawyers in private practice make a fraction of what large firm lawyers do, rendering ‘median’ salary numbers useless. (No wonder potential law school applicants cannot make sense of the data.) This is a significant systemic problem in our profession—and it certainly extends beyond to the economy at large. Our profession once saw itself as a cohesive whole; lawyers from various cities, regions, specialties and settings could find common ground and connect—often being more comfortable with each other than with non-lawyers. The vast chasms that divide us now, from top law schools to the rest, BigLaw to the vast majority of firms—this adds to the difficulty of coming together to reimagine ourselves and reinvent our profession.

10. Do We Have the Will? I see the profession as increasingly splintered, with little to bring us together. Even the leaders of the bar coalesce around topics, issues, affinity groups, specialty areas. This has enabled us to make great strides and to exercise leadership in a world that is increasingly splintered and complex. However, it makes it more difficult to imagine a ‘movement’ to bring the profession back to the glorious days of yore.

In spite of my dire “Top 10” list, I am a proud JD and a true believer in the enduring value of legal education. Private practice will remain relevant (and profitable) by bringing innovative thinking and creative problems-solving to serve clients in new and unimaginable businesses, industries and technologies. In these posts, Ed Winslow has argued convincingly for Liberal Arts education as the best preparation for this future world, inculcating flexibility, nimble thinking and innovation. For my money, the JD is the ultimate professional Liberal Arts degree.

Grady Barnhill: premier lawyer, from Whitakers in a unique line of great lawyers

Grady Barnhill died last weekGrady Barnhill Jr. He was among North Carolina’s premier lawyers and, one surmises, the greatest litigator Whitakers has ever produced, although he made his career in Winston-Salem.

I knew Grady from about the time I began to practice in Greensboro. Early on, I learned that he grew up in Whitakers, which is just a few miles from Leggett where my mother was from, and even closer to Gethsemane where my father farmed. To my regret, I never divined whether Grady lived on the Edgecombe County side of town, or on the Nash County side. (For our international readers, these are North Carolina places whose significance is profound although not readily explained.)

Grady was a partner and leader of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the great Winston-Salem law firm. He was the archetype of a litigator.

He was determined, tenacious, and tough as a root – and he was realistic, client-focused and (at least in my experience) totally devoid of nonsense. He was about resolving cases favorably for clients, not playing lawyer games. I admired him. Our profession was much the better for him.

Grady’s death calls to mind something I wonder about from time to time. How is it that so many exceptional lawyers have come from the small towns along Edgecombe County’s western border? Whitakers, Battleboro, Enfield. Originally, all three towns were part of Edgecombe. Enfield was peeled off when Halifax County was formed. Whitakers and Battleboro, like Rocky Mount, sit directly on the county line, which was established in the 19th Century by pushing Nash County’s boundary to the east (said to have been done in order to dilute the African American vote). The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad had been routed up that path when the builders of the railroad agreed to move their tracks east in order to attract funding from Tarboro and Edgecombe investors. The county line was later moved to the railroad.

Anyway, what remarkable lawyers came down that line:

  • from Battleboro: William Horn Battle, legislator, Supreme Court reporter, judge, justice, North Carolina’s first revisor of statutes, and founder of the UNC law school;
  • from Enfield: James Edward O’Hara, North Carolina’s first African-American lawyer and second African-American Congressman, together with three chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court (Joseph Branch, M. Victor Barnhill, and R. Hunt Parker); and
  • from Whitakers: Grady Barnhill, exceptional trial lawyer, exemplary professional, and key builder of a great and enduring North Carolina law firm.

Epic Principles

Epic Systems is the hugely successful and interesting digital health records company based in Madison, Wisconsin.Principles

It is guided by twelve principles which are published throughout the company’s campus.

Those principles are interesting in themselves. They are also interesting to me because Epic is a software company, which is to say it is a kind of knowledge organization and professional services firm. I hold that priests were the first knowledge workers and lawyers were second. Computer programmers came later, but they have gotten to be where the action is — at least in the thinking that has been given in recent times to their management. So, I am interested.

Epic’s 12 principles are: 

  1. Do not go public.
  2. Do not be acquired.
  3. Expectations = reality.
  4. Keep commitments.
  5. Be frugal.
  6. Have standards. Don’t do deals.
  7. Create innovative and helpful products.
  8. Have fun with customers.
  9. Follow processes. Find root causes. Fix processes.
  10. Don’t take on debt, no matter how good the deal.
  11. Focus on competency. Do not tolerate mediocrity.
  12. Teach philosophy and culture.

Is it just me, or is there a certain crispness in the air?

Arthur Rimbaud and the Core of Professional Development

Downtown Greensboro has a new independent bookstore.  Scuppernong Books1378253_303375146467500_528342990_n

The store is an engaging space. The book collection is civilized, sophisticated, appealing. It beckons from a higher brow.

Patronize this store.

Among the titles on the half-price shelf, I found Rimbaud, The Double Life of A Rebel, by Edmund White. In it, I learned that a letter Rimbaud wrote to a friend in the early 1870’s, “The Seer’s Letter,”  is one of the foundations of modern poetry. Rimbaud said,

Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud

I am present at the explosion of my thought. I watch and I listen to it. I wave the baton; the symphony murmurs from its depths or comes leaping onto the stage.

I link Rimbaud to the professional development practices of Jim Williams and the earlier post here.

In the act of introspection, “we objectify the self”. That is the core of professional development.

Jim Williams, Arthur Rimbaud.

More on Professional Models

Professional models walk the walk

Professional models walk the walk

Two earlier posts here have commented on the key role of models in law firms. Models – members of the firm who walk the walk – are exceptionally effective transferors of standards and values.

They demonstrate how things are done and inspire doing things that way. (“I want to be like her.”) This eliminates both the need for dry hours of training and for cumbrous stacks of hierarchy.

  • So, models are efficient and inspiring.
  • Where do you get them?

The earlier posts commented on “organic” models – the ones that grow up naturally.  Every lawyer (young or old) should identify and emulate the finest members of his or her firm and profession. The best certainly do that. For that reason, firms should hold up their models. And that is also one of the roles of professional associations. (I have the sense that the business of giving awards in bar organizations has gone awry, but that is another discussion.)

The natural inclination is to look to older, prominent professionals and leaders as models; and, to think of models as other people. Some time ago though, I realized with a jolt that not only should I be identifying my models, but I might be one myself – and that I should give some attention to what kind of model I am. This is not just about how old I am or how prominent, but about how my example contributes to my firm’s culture.

  • So, models are not limited to other people. You are one.
  • But, not just you. Every member models the firm’s values and standards.

When not-older and not-prominent members can be acknowledged and celebrated as models, they should be – in formal and informal ways. But recognition may be the least of it. How do you engender a sense among everyone that they are models for everyone else?

This is easier to achieve in smaller organizations than in larger ones.

Sources of Professional “Inspiration”

For a Bar Association program in 2003, I was asked to answer this question: “What do you find inspires your colleagues most?” (NOTE: The date on my file says “2003,” but I find that hard to believe.)

My answer, in part, was:inspiration-290x273

I think that there are two main things that guide us at our firm when we are at our best. The first is the models provided by older lawyers whom the younger ones want to emulate. I have now witnessed this working over 2 or 3 generations and I think that there is more power in the example of an admired professional than in all the vision and mission statements and ethics codes in the world.

Second, is membership in a mutually supportive community of people – a partnership – who like, respect and enjoy each other. We’re never as good as we ought to be in our firm, but sometimes we are very good and I guess that collegiality and community really are sources of “inspiration and dedication”.

The things that inspire my colleagues most, I think, are the examples of admired colleagues and the sense of community and shared purpose.

Over the (apparently, many) years since then, I have become more convinced of my answer. And, in these sources of “inspiration” (that was my interlocutor’s term, not mine) can be found the foundations and future role and functions of law firms. In the 21st Century, law firms won’t be needed as much as they were in the 20th Century, for shared infrastructures and practice support resources. They won’t be needed for scale or efficiencies.

But, they will be needed to develop and form true professionals. Always, the profession has been shaped by its models. In the 19th Century, the bar itself was a cohesive community and a ready source of models. In the 20th Century, those roles shifted to firms. In the 21st Century, as local, state and national boundaries count for less and less; compelling models of professionalism will be needed more and more — especially as collaborating and contesting lawyers seek to connect over greater and greater distances.

There is a lot of talk just now about mentors. Yes. But do not confuse mentors with models.

A Fable of Women in the Law

Tabitha Ann Holton’s story should be a movie. The only problem would be restraint. It’s the Zero Dark Thirty and Argo problem. Should factual accuracy stand in the way of fabulism?

Tabitha Ann Holton

Tabitha Ann Holton

The South’s first woman lawyer, Tabitha Holton, was the child of religious dissenters who settled in central North Carolina. Her father was “read out” of his Quaker meeting. He was educated as a lawyer but became a Methodist Protestant minister. Ultimately, he was too outspoken even for that anti-hierarchical and anti-slavery denomination and he led in forming an even more radical one.

Tabitha was educated at Greensboro Academy. She watched as her brothers studied law and then, in January 1878, she applied for a license herself, alongside her brother Samuel. But, the relevant North Carolina statute limited the practice of law to “persons” and so there was a controversy about whether that term included women.

At the time, only six states had admitted women to practice law, and roughly a dozen women had been licensed in the entire country. None in North Carolina; none in the South.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court asked for oral argument. The newspapers took up the issue. Iconic figures aligned on each side: William Horn Battle  for tradition vs. Albion Tourgée for Tabitha.

Battle was the archetypical Southern CONSERVATIVE; Tourgée, the RADICAL. Tradition vs. change. What price progress?

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

Battle was a Confederate planter raised in Edgecombe County in the East. He had been a judge and Supreme Court justice, a cotton mill owner, banker, high church Episcopalian, scholar and founder of the UNC law school. He was a mighty defender of common law pleading.

Tourgée was a Yankee and former Union Army officer who had moved south after the war to Guilford County in the Piedmont. He was reviled as a carpetbagger and had recently relocated from Greensboro to Raleigh in order to escape the rancor of Greensboro’s white community. He was a failed manufacturer and nurseryman, a respected legal scholar, a founder of the North Carolina Republican Party, a popular author, a judge, the principal draftsman of North Carolina’s Constitution of 1868 and a crusader for racial justice – the originator of the phrase “color blind justice” and plaintiff’s counsel in Plessy v. Ferguson. He championed Code pleading.

Battle blasted: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

The Greensboro Patriot rejoined: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

Albion Tourgee

Albion Tourgee

In the end, Tourgée mounted a compelling argument in which he cited persuasive points and authorities, including Battle’s own legal treatise.

At the center of the swirling controversy was a demure but determined Quaker/Methodist maid – one who knew the law cold. Bar exams at that time were conducted orally by Supreme Court justices. Tabitha aced hers.

The Court ruled on the spot that she should be licensed. Tabitha marched home to Guilford County, then off in triumph to private practice in partnership with her brother in Dobson. The sun set slowly over the hills of western Surry County.

But wait. There is an epilogue. Tabitha practiced law only for eight years before she succumbed to tuberculosis at age 33.  After her death, a handbill was distributed in Dobson. In part, it read:

Tabitha A. Holton, noble daughter,

Rest thou in thy immortal triumph. The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose. Thy genius stripped DEATH of all terror.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood. Death has crowned thy works; but a short space of time did eternity allot for thy mortality.

Tabitha was returned to Guilford County and laid to rest with her family in the cemetery at Springfield Meeting House. Her headstone reads, “Granted license in practicing law by the Supreme Court of N.C., January Term 1878, Died June 14, 1886.”

* * * *

Almost every detail set out above is factually accurate. The principal variance is that while William Horn Battle is acknowledged to have opposed Tabitha’s admission and made the statement quoted above, there is no confirmation that he was present at Tourgée’s argument before the Supreme Court. (See the Kelley Harris paper, Tabitha Anne Holton: First in North Carolina, First in the South  for  what can be confirmed.)

But this is after all, a fable – of tradition, change, and the role and status of women.

And, there is a broader point to be made: that, burdened by the weight of centuries of tradition and beset by towering cultural archetypes, Tabitha was a hero; and the legal profession provided the characters, the instruments and the path for her quest.

Major social change was achieved by moving from a general principle to its application in new circumstances. The way forward was guided by relevant points and authorities; and, ultimately, the victory was won by Tabitha’s unquestioned qualifications on the merits of her particular case.

A fable, I say. And a movie.

Skills from the Past, for the Future — Lawyers and People

A while back, Pat Bassett, surveyed the current thinking among educators about “the skills and values that will be necessary for students to succeed and prosper in [the] turbulent and ever-changing times” of the 21st Century.

He concluded at the time that there was remarkable agreement that those skills are

  • character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage);
  • creativity and entrepreneurial spirit;                                                                                 collaboration
  • real-world problem-solving (filtering, analysis, and synthesis);
  • public speaking/communications;
  • teaming; and
  • leadership.

In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner identifies “seven survival skills” for the 21st Century.They are:

  1. critical thinking and problem-solving;
  2. collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
  3. agility and adaptability;
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism;
  5. effective oral and written communication;
  6. access and analyzing information;
  7. curiosity and imagination.

When I was reminded of these sources recently and looked back at them (there’s a Howard Gardner book as well, with the terrific title “Five Minds for the Future”), I was struck by how often these same skills are coming up now in discussions about law practice. The recent spate of commentary by Richard Susskind, Bruce MacEwen and Jordan Furlong covers much the same ground.

Most recently – in fact, hot off the presses – is the paper I wrote for UNC Festival of Legal Learning. In that paper, I looked at North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century; drew conclusions about attributes they shared; and observed that the “turbulent and ever-changing times” of the 19th Century serve as a “distant mirror” for the turbulent and changing times of the 21st Century. Then (in that paper), I used the attributes of those 19th Century lawyers as the basis for suggesting management principles applicable to 21st Century lawyers and law firms.

Mirabile dictu, the same basic set of skills came up yet again (in an only slightly different form).

(The Winslow paper is A Distant Mirror: How 19th Century Lawyers from Guilford and Edgecombe Counties Are Models for the Next Generation of Lawyers & Firms Worldwide.)


Lawyers Connect Separated Communities — George White & James City NC Controversy

James City is across the river from New Bern (North Carolina). It came into being during the Civil War, when Union soldiers settled runaway slaves on the land.


James City, NC, across river just south of New

Over time, the area developed into an African American enclave with its own school, churches and police station. “Few whites, and no Democrats, dared set foot in the town without an invitation.” In some part, George White established his law practice and reputation on representing residents of James City in claims against the James City Ferry Company, in which he bested an array of better known white lawyers.

Following the war, a complicated real estate dispute developed. The original owner of the land underlying James City transferred his interest to a New Bern purchaser. The Supreme Court confirmed the transferee’s title. Over time though, the black settlers had built residences and other improvements on the land. They paid no rents.

James City residents

James City residents

In 1893, things came to a head. The residents offered to purchase the land. The owner refused to sell, proposing leases instead, which the residents rejected. The Craven County sheriff was dispatched to evict the residents. The residents threatened to “fight to the death.”

The residents appealed to the Governor, and then New Bern’s mayor asked him to send in the Militia, which he did. The Governor himself came to New Bern with the troops, accompanied by journalists and a group of concerned black leaders.

George White, by then maintaining residences in New Bern and Tarboro and serving as District Solicitor for the Second Judicial District, was one of three African American leaders who intervened to mediate the dispute. (The others were former Enfield and then New Bern lawyer and former congressman, James O’Hara; and Dr. Ezra E. Smith, a Goldsboro resident, former head of the normal school in Fayetteville for blacks and former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.)

Ultimately, with the assistance of these mediators, James City’s residents were persuaded to accept terms proposed for leases and rentals.

White’s biographer observes

It was a difficult moment for George White, who knew the settlers well and probably sympathized with their plight. As a prosecutor, however, he was sworn to uphold the decision of the courts, and as a leader of his race, he was determined to prevent bloodshed at all costs. His proven skills as a legislative leader and mediator were instrumental in accomplishing both tasks. That he was asked to assist at all was a sure sign of his growing stature among fearful white leaders, and the peaceful settlement of the dispute only strengthened his reputation for effectiveness under pressure.

No longer just a good lawyer who happened to be black, George White was now a good man to depend on in almost any situation. He was a seasoned accomplished politician, a veteran public servant. And his dreams were no longer bound by the cautious limits of his youth; at forty-one, he had come of age, and his political future seemed boundless.

[Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001) pages 148-150.]

To pound the point home: This is a vivid  instance of a lawyer spanning the boundaries between different communities. Forging connections. You can spin out the elements of it for yourself and you can take it as a model or not, but here is the historical raw material to start from.