The Pragmatic and Transformational Impacts of Leadership Development in the Legal Profession

Clare, a white law student with shoulder-length brown hair, wears a grey button-down shirt, black jacket and pearl earrings.

Clare Magee

Benjamin, a white man with a brown beard, wears a white shirt, gold tie and black jacket. He stands with a brick building behind him.

Benjamin Rigney

By Clare Magee and Benjamin Rigney

Lawyers are facing increasingly difficult questions about what it means to be part of the legal profession in the twenty-first century. How can lawyers navigate shifting generational dynamics in the workplace? What can lawyers do to adapt to the advent of legal tech and artificial intelligence? How should lawyers advise clients in an environment of rapidly evolving jurisprudence in a number of practice areas?

According to Benjamin Rigney, Assistant Director for Leadership and Character in the Law School at Wake Forest School of Law, lawyers can begin to answer some of these questions by cultivating character-based leadership practices within the legal profession.

Many lawyers view themselves as specialists and technicians – masters of black letter rules and standard forms whose contributions to the legal profession are defined by what they can do rather than who they are. Certainly, knowledge of the law is foundational to the profession. But Rigney suggests that leadership is an equally important component of lawyering: “Lawyers are influencers in the sense that so much of a lawyer’s work involves guiding people towards making a decision. People come to lawyers because they want advice – we are counselors at law.”

Why is it, then, that lawyers may not self-identify as leaders and thus prioritize leadership development? One reason may be the lack of leadership education in law schools, and the absence of lawyers being recognized within the profession and society more generally for their leadership abilities rather than technical prowess. Rigney points out that business schools have excelled at teaching leadership since the 1980s, and case studies on “heroes” of business – Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, Katharine Graham – are more commonplace than in the law. Another reason might be the misconception that leadership requires positional authority, like being a judge or practice group manager. But Rigney suggests a definition of leadership that is equally applicable to first-year associates and managing partners: “Leadership is a relationship of intentional influence towards a shared purpose.”

Dissecting this definition with the analytical precision characteristic of a lawyer, Rigney first notes that the definition involves a relationship because “a leader without followers is just a person.” Next, “intentionality is required because leadership doesn’t happen by accident.” The definition includes a “focus on influence because leadership is not about positionality, it’s not about the qualities you’re born with – influence is something anyone can execute.” And finally, leadership requires movement towards a shared purpose because “influence without a purpose isn’t really influence – you have to be motivating people to accomplish something.”

Rigney believes this definition of leadership is highly applicable to lawyers and posits a further distinction: not only is there effective leadership and ineffective leadership, there is also good leadership and bad leadership. The difference between good and bad leaders, according to Rigney and the empirical research of scholars like Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, is that good leaders practice character-informed transformational leadership. Transformational leaders employ character traits such as resilience, empathy, intellectual humility, and kindness to the benefit of the people around them. They prioritize the whole person to ensure that followers feel valued, cared for, and part of the mission and vision of the organization. And before the skeptics stop reading for fear that these are normative, subjective concepts entirely irrelevant to the practice of law, Rigney points to the extremely pragmatic impacts transformational leadership can have on legal organizations.

First, transformational leadership can create stronger, more efficient teams. Citing the rapid lateral hiring market that peaked in 2021, Rigney argues that “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” When lawyers begin implementing transformational leadership practices within their organizations, “other lawyers will stick around because common sense dictates that people will choose their future based on where they feel they can belong and contribute.” Posner and Kouzes’ research at the Leadership Challenge Institute indicates the same – leaders engaged in transformational leadership get more out of their teams.

Second, developing transformational leadership skills has practical benefits for lawyers at every stage of their career. Early-career lawyers are establishing themselves and their reputations and should focus on developing the skills they will need to be part of efficient, healthy teams as they rise within their organizations. Mid-career lawyers are already in positional leadership roles or are assuming more responsibility with clients and should ensure they’re actively honing their abilities and developing their character for career longevity. Late-career lawyers should cultivate their own leadership practices in the name of succession planning – the best way to preserve a legacy is to identify, cultivate, and train future generations of lawyers to be the kinds of leaders that the organization needs to flourish for years to come.

While Rigney’s work primarily focuses on integrating leadership education and training into the law school experience, he proposes a few simple ideas that a lawyer at any stage of his or her career can explore to start integrating leadership development into their practice. For those who like to read: check out The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, or The Right Call by Sally Jenkins. For those who like to listen: try Simon Sinek’s eighteen-minute TEDTalk, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” And for those who like to reflect: ask, who is the best leader you’ve ever seen in pop culture, and what makes them a good leader? Who is the best leader you’ve ever followed? What made them worth following? How can you adopt and transform their behaviors and qualities into your professional life as a lawyer?

Clare Magee is a 3L at Wake Forest University School of Law. Benjamin Rigney is the Assistant Director for Leadership and Character in the Law School at Wake Forest School of Law. He earned a Ph.D. in leadership studies, holds a J.D. and seminary degree, and is a licensed attorney.