How to Get Leadership Positions to Build Your Practice

Ask most experienced attorneys how they built their practice and they’ll tell you they “got involved” in the community or professional organizations. Maybe this advice doesn’t always use the term “leadership” but that’s what it means. If you really want to “get involved” and build your reputation, you need to do some real work rather than just paying a membership fee and adding your name to a list. This may be a little scary for young attorneys, since it is easy to think that you haven’t paid your dues long enough to qualify as a leader. It may be easy to think you don’t deserve to have others think of you as a leader.  While these thoughts are human nature, the sooner you get rid of them the better.

I’ve been fortunate to get the chance to lead several initiatives and organizations in the first 10 years of my career. Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually pretty simple to get leadership opportunities, provided you are willing to be a little bit brave and do the work. If you want to take on leadership roles as a way to serve your community, increase your personal happiness, and build your practice, here are 5 tips to help you get started:

1.   SHOW UP! For young professionals, this means identifying and joining organizations you want to support. It also means, however, that you need to attend and participate in meetings and events. If you do this, you'll make contacts and people will get to know you. As time goes on and you build confidence, "showing up" may also mean raising your hand when volunteers are sought. My experience is that there is more work in most professional organizations than there are willing volunteers to do it. If you show up consistently, it's only a matter of time before opportunities come your way.

2.   SHOW PASSION! Our culture tells us to be rational and encourages us to hide emotions in professional settings. Obviously, most young attorneys have to learn how to balance and monitor emotions. But if you want to be a leader you need people to trust you enough to follow you. That means you have to show them that you care. You can show you care about the work in several ways, including advocating for a project, sharing your ideas, and telling your team why the project excites you. Early on in my career I was nominated to help lead a community project I really cared about because it excited me and I advocated for it. To this day, that leadership role was one of the best experiences of my professional life. While showing passion for a project may present some risk and must be done appropriately, it is a risk worth taking. In short, if you have passion for a project, show it and you may end up leading it.

3.   NO JOB TOO SMALL! When you are young or new to an organization, it is likely that you are going to start with a small task or maybe a task nobody else wants. That might seem boring or bad, but it's really an opportunity. If you do that job and knock it out of the park, it is likely that people will notice and think of you for bigger tasks. Even better, if you take a job nobody else wants and find a creative way to do it, people will see you not just as effective at completing tasks but also as a thought leader. While it is important to be judicious about the roles you sign up to take, don't always shy away from grunt work or challenging tasks because they may give you the chance to show traits that every good leader needs, such as reliability, problem-solving skills, communication, and teamwork. In short, for a good leader, there is no job too small.

4.   STAND OUT! From the time we are in grade school, many of us only want to “fit in.” We know that it can be lonely to be different and so we often try to avoid it at all costs. If you want to be a leader, however, you need to make friends with the feelings of discomfort that come with being different. In many cases, organizations needing new leadership WANT people who can lead the organization in a new way. They may need fresh ideas to address problems. They may want new energy to revitalize the group. You can show that you are the person who fits this bill if you engage in thought leadership by being brave enough to share your unique ideas, perspective, or plan with your organization. In short, if there is something different about you or something that you makes you stand out, don’t hide it! It’s your leadership superpower! Use it and let it take you to the top.  

5.   FEED YOUR FIRE! I've told you to SHOW UP, SHOW PASSION, DO THE JOB No Matter How Small, and to BE DIFFERENT. All of this takes energy, time and persistence. Though energy is not inexhaustible, it is renewable. If you want others to see you as a leader, you must learn how to renew yourself, stoke your creativity, and rest so you can do the work. In other words, read good books, do creative things (cooking, gardening, crafting, etc.), spend time with friends and family, move whenever you can, and by all means get some sleep. These are not merely healthy activities, they are also the best ways to generate energy, restore passion, learn the value of small things, and build up courage. Take care of yourself first and you will be in a position to lead others.   

In short, if you see yourself as a leader, the only next step is to start acting like one. Jump in, act like you care, do the work, don’t be afraid to be who you are, and take care of yourself. If you do this consistently and over time, you’ll get the roles you want and what’s more you’ll have a body of good community work to go along with your law practice. So, my advice to all of you young attorneys out there is that you are already leaders, you just need to start showing everyone else.

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