June 16, 2024


The Legal System

Leading While Leaving – Leading As Lawyers

Leading While Leaving – Leading As Lawyers

We should all treat our positions of leadership as if today is the last day.

Beth Ford

Director, Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee

I have a half-completed Leadership Institute blog post on my computer that I began about a month into the pandemic.  I naively thought that I would have dozens of helpful ideas to share about navigating the leadership of an office at the conclusion of the pandemic, which was surely going to last a few weeks at most.  A year and a half into having moved everyone in our 50+ federal defender organization to remote work, I was struggling to come up with one helpful idea, let alone a dozen.  I was deliriously happy when I was able to stomp out a few fires and keep the work of the office moving.

Fast forward two and a half years.  My organization has returned, mostly, to its brick-and-mortar offices, but we continue to be affected by the pandemic.  There is a mixture of possibly permanent changes sprinkled in with the constants of our work. Like others, I found that the pandemic gave me time to engage in heavy-duty self-reflection.  I decided that it was time to retire from being the community defender and try to identify new challenges.

The thoughts I share here are not about how I came to the retirement decision after having been in the office for thirty years, however.  Instead, they are about the experience of leadership during the process of transitioning away from a leadership role.  I found myself thinking about the unique challenges of continuing to lead while knowing that one’s tenure has an end date.  My pondering then took yet another turn.   No matter a person’s age, aren’t most of us leading while leaving?

The questions with which I am grappling are several.  When should you think about an exit or succession plan?  What does an that kind of plan look like?  These thoughts may be useful even if you have no immediate plans to undertake big professional changes.

After a couple of drafts, more coffee, and a bit of indecision, I have decided that it is never too early to think about leaving.  As a criminal defense attorney, I always started thinking about the potential sentencing of my client the day we first meet.  Although I never wanted any of my clients to be sentenced, decisions made at the beginning of the case often have affected a sentence that was imposed months later.  As CEO or executive director or managing partner of a law firm of any size, we should begin to think about leaving as soon as we step into the role of leadership.

About 15 years ago, I looked around and thought “Oh, my goodness, everyone here is going to hit retirement age at the same time.”  Obviously, that would not be very good for any office.  My first step toward leaving happened long before the word “retirement” had formed in my mind.  I completely changed my attitude toward hiring and expanded my notion of what a qualified candidate might look like.  There are many types of diversity, and it is important not to overlook age diversity (while, of course, being mindful not to engage in age discrimination).  Hiring people of different ages, of course, avoids the mass exodus that occurs when everyone hits Social Security age at the same time.  It also brings in new ideas and different attitudes about work and work values. 

Younger lawyers and paralegals have different priorities, and baby boomers need to listen and incorporate those new attitudes into the workplace culture.  In our office, the new ideas shared by those just beginning their careers have led to us making changes that ultimately help our clients because they help the defense team.  The most glaring example is telework.  Before the pandemic, my telework policy was that we do not telework.  After the pandemic, I was convinced (mostly by the younger folks in the office) that telework with some restrictions was good for morale, which trickles down to being good for clients. 

My second moment of temporary clarity occurred about five years ago when I realized that no one else really knew what I did, and no one inside the organization would be qualified to become the community defender if I were to be hit by a bus.  (We call this the “Mown by a Bus Principle” in our office.)  When I was patting myself on the back because I was superwoman doing it all, I was really putting the organization at risk by not sharing opportunities to lead.  This was also evidence of a paternalistic attitude that presupposed I knew more about the individuals in the office than I did.  

At one time, I thought that I was helping remove barriers to my colleagues doing the important work of representing clients.  However, I have discovered that most people want to know how an office works and that they become happier with more transparency.  Many would like to have job duties outside of the traditional lawyer work.  We moved toward having a true leadership team in which I delegate, do more listening, and communicate more often. 

In my position, I do not get to do the kind of succession planning through which I pick my successor.  However, I have had the authority to ensure that several people in the organization could step in if the board of directors were to choose them to be the community defender.  (I digress, but do not forget that, as a lawyer, you need to be thinking about succession planning and your clients.  The KBA has a resource for that process.  See www.kbar.org)

Coffee and contemplation have led me to a happier place in my own leadership transition process and to clearer ideas about the inherent, pervasive role of leadership changes in the practice of leadership.  We should all treat our positions of leadership as if today is the last day.  Thinking ahead, even decades ahead, is a good practice.