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Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jack Rives shares “Leadership Thoughts for Lawyers”

Lawyers as leaders is an increasingly popular topic in contemporary America, so we’re especially fortunate to have retired Air Force lieutenant general Jack Rives with us today to share his thoughts on this vitally important issue.

With Lt Gen Rives in 2007

General Rives is no ordinary lawyer-leader as you can tell from his bio below.  Before becoming the Executive Director of the American Bar Association – “the largest voluntary professional organization in the world” – he led the Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.

With more than 4,600 military and civilian lawyers, paralegals, and support staff, it is one of the world’s largest ‘law firms.’  (I had the honor of working as his deputy from 2006 to 2010.)

The period during which he led the JAG Corps was a fraught one, not just for military, but for the entire nation.  Wars were being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and complex and unprecedented legal and policy challenges arose.  Yet Rives rose to the challenge.  Here’s what I wrote in a previous post:

As Charlie Savage memorialized in his book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, Rives was among the first of the uniformed lawyers to oppose torture and other excesses in the early years after 9/11 by penning a series of what Savage calls “vehemently argued memos.”  That would be chic today, but in 2003 it was perilously iconoclastic and decidedly unpopular in many quarters.

That’s real leadership. So as you read through the thoughts he is sharing, know that you are hearing from someone who has proven himself in some of the toughest leadership situations any lawyer could face.

Here’s General Rives:

Leadership Thoughts for Lawyers

Jack L. Rives

Lieutenant General, USAF (Ret.)

Executive Director, American Bar Association

Art may well be in the eye of the beholder, but whether a person is an effective leader tends to be evident.  Lawyers are often viewed as leaders, and many serve in leadership positions.  Few receive formal leadership training.

This article offers some personal perspectives on lawyers as leaders.  It does not provide a detailed or comprehensive listing of leadership skills; rather, it focuses on some attributes I believe are essential for an attorney to be an effective leader.

I was privileged to serve as a judge advocate (military attorney) for 33 years.  I retired from active duty as The Judge Advocate General of the United States Air Force on March 1, 2010.  I wanted to follow that with a job that was both meaningful and challenging.

On Law Day, May 1, 2010, I began serving as the Executive Director of the American Bar Association (ABA).  In my early years at the ABA, I was often asked about the distinctions perceived with leading two large but very different groups of legal professionals.  In fact, the transition was surprisingly easy, as the management and leadership skills I developed and refined in the military readily adapted to the ABA.

Not every attorney has leadership responsibilities

Attorneys need not be effective leaders to be viewed as “successful.”  They can achieve good results working in self-contained silos that do not require leading others or collective efforts.  Achieving positive results on legal matters, though, should not be confused with effective leadership.

We manage things and we lead people.  A good lawyer-manager can successfully oversee offices and caseloads and budgets.  Expertise in specialized areas of the law — be it contracts, tax, or courtroom advocacy — can be the foundation of a successful legal practice.  But skills in those areas do not alone equate to effective leadership.

Lawyers tend to be quick learners and able to understand multiple sides of issues.  Those are also good traits for leaders.  Lawyers are strong advocates, they typically hate to lose, and they are often reluctant to compromise until very late in negotiations.

Lawyers who are successful leaders understand the need to be perceived as open-minded, acknowledge other views, and be willing to compromise, often at an early stage of discussions.  Leaders achieve broad and substantial results with collaboration and teamwork.

Leaders lead!

A position or title doesn’t make a person a leader.  Leadership is much more than being the person designated in charge.  Leaders take charge.  “Lead” is a verb.  To lead, you must be active.  You must set the example and help bring out the best in others.

While there are no “born leaders,” positive leadership attributes may be learned and enhanced as time goes on.  Lawyers have innate capabilities, augmented by specialized training, that can be developed to make them excellent leaders.  Different leadership styles can be successful, but all leaders share qualities that include integrity, professionalism, preparation, and a positive spirit.

Leadership is a team sport

Leadership is about other people, not the leader.  Leading requires a person to understand the value and unique abilities of those on their team.  Leaders have responsibility for the careers and professional lives of others.

Training subordinates to do their jobs is critical.  The leader is responsible if someone fails because they had not been properly trained.  Poor results by subordinates can serve as teachable moments.

Successful leaders know how to counsel and guide subordinates to achieve team goals.  It’s also very important to hold poor performers accountable.

Leaders understand that credit for accomplishments belong to the team.  Judge advocates take pride in the accomplishments of their colleagues from around the world.  They learn from successful programs.

Similarly, the ABA staff and volunteer leaders understand that accomplishments most often result from teamwork.  Good works by coworkers are widely recognized and applauded.

As a leader’s scope of responsibilities grow, so does the need to delegate effectively.  In that regard, leaders will often assume supervisory responsibilities over functional experts.

The leader need not have a depth of knowledge in a specialty area to be effective.  You don’t have to know a lot to show you care; a good leader listens attentively and asks relevant questions of such experts.

Effective Communications

Communication is an especially critical skill.  Leaders are mentors, and they must impart their vision clearly.  Repetition is essential to effective communications.

Good leaders are responsive; following up is always important, whether it’s to calls, emails, or periodic updates on long-term taskings.

Colin Powell noted that “a positive attitude is a force multiplier.”  A leader’s mood is infectious, for good or bad.  All of us have days when things aren’t going well in our personal or professional lives.

Leaders compartmentalize the negative things and display a positive approach.  Others will look to you as their example; the leader is by definition a role model.

Leaders know when to be bold

Leaders thrive under difficult circumstances.  Preparation and a positive approach can turn a Perfect Storm into a Perfect Sunrise.

When I served as the senior Air Force judge advocate (“JAG”), the Service faced a reduced budget and cuts to personnel.  My staff developed a bold and comprehensive plan, which we labeled “JAG Corps 21.”  We decided not to move in small steps or try a piecemeal approach and sought approval of the entire package at once.

The Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force embraced the proposal completely.  The net result was an extreme reorganization of the Air Force JAG Corps, including substantial changes to how we performed a broad range of services.

Claims processing, for example, was consolidated from over 100 local offices to a single site.  Over 200 manpower positions were eliminated, millions of dollars were saved, and claims were handled more effectively and efficiently than before.

The ABA has also undertaken bold plans to overcome years of diminishing dues revenues and dues-paying members.  Following extensive study, comprehensive plans for a new membership model were launched in fiscal year 2020.  The new approach features more sensible dues rates, enhanced member benefits, intelligent marketing and analytics, and greater data insights.

Even though the pandemic hit halfway into the first year of the program, the early returns are very positive.  For example, while the pandemic caused a slow-down in our recruitment and retention efforts, in 2020 the rate of losses of dues-paying members was reduced by 90% from the trend of the prior decade.

JAG Corps 21 and the ABA’s new value proposition are comprehensive sets of solutions.  They both chart substantial new paths.  Understanding that patience is a virtue, and planning is essential … when the time is right, bold action can make all the difference.

Timidity in the face of challenges can be disastrous.  Serious challenges sometime call for daring solutions.

Leaders are decisive.  Leaders understand the time comes when decisions must be made.

Of course, a good leader carefully gathers information before making important decisions.  Failure to act leads to missed opportunities and decisions by default.

It is also critical to evaluate actions taken and to be willing to change courses as circumstances warrant.  While not every rule is made to be broken, leaders also know when extraordinary circumstances justify exceptions to general guidance.

Leaders are professionals

Leaders hold themselves to the highest standards, and they do the right things, always.  Professionalism is a core aspect of leadership.

Lawyers demonstrate their professionalism with their conduct and actions every day.  Being a positive example is an essential aspect of leading others.

Professionalism also means embracing diversity and respecting differences.  The legal profession has no place for demeaning comments or any harassment of others because of the way they look, where they come from, what their religion is, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation, or any other personal characteristic.

Everyone must be treated fairly.  It’s the law, and it’s the right thing to do.  It’s not enough for you personally not to act improperly; you must not tolerate such actions from others.  You need to be alert for potential problems in this area and address them promptly and effectively.

Lawyers in leadership positions must act with the knowledge they are members of a profession.  Professionals respect others, and that means everyone.  They practice the basic courtesies they learned as children — saying “Please” and “Thank you,” and especially “I’m sorry.”

Reactions tend to be positive when leaders acknowledge errors.  No one is perfect; accepting responsibility and apologizing can be big steps to overcome regrettable actions and events.

Integrity first, integrity always

Dwight Eisenhower observed:  “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.  Without it, no real success is possible.”  Leadership begins and ends with integrity.

Everyone understands it is not a compliment to say:  “She’s honest most of the time,” or “He’s reasonably truthful.”  There are no degrees of honesty.  Albert Einstein noted:  “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

John McCain had been a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam.  He and his fellow POWs were tortured, terribly.  Some died from the abuse.  His captors told McCain that if he would make a statement against his country and the cause for which he was fighting, his suffering could end.  “No one is going to know,” he was told.  McCain responded with three words: “I will know.”

Think about that when you have decisions to make.  You may believe no one will learn if you act improperly, but those three words should resonate:  You will know.

Preparation is absolutely essential

Hard work and perseverance lead to success.  Calvin Coolidge noted: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

No one can predict the future with certainty, but a leader prepares.  Benjamin Franklin remarked that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  You cannot over-prepare, and you will achieve optimal results when you are properly prepared.

When I served as a prosecutor or defense counsel in a court-martial, hard work and practice always led to the best outcomes.  I practiced.  And practiced.  And practiced some more.  When I received unexpectedly positive results in a case, it was often because the other side was not as prepared as I was.

Preparation has also been essential in my current job as Executive Director of the ABA, especially at this time.  As the coronavirus pandemic spread globally, society scrambled to address the crisis.

While many governments, businesses, and organizations were ill-prepared to deal with the massive disruption to operations, the ABA was ready to act.  For years, we had been developing the right tools to quickly implement measures and assure business continuity in the event of a crisis.

We had plans in place covering over 20 types of disaster scenarios, including a pandemic.  We regularly updated and tested our plans.  Thanks to that comprehensive preparation, the ABA staff adapted quickly when the pandemic hit and seamlessly continued effective operations.

Always remember

The legal profession has special obligations.  An oath is a sacred commitment.  Lawyers are sworn in before they can practice law.

Tommy Wells, a past President of the ABA, often spoke of lawyers being “called to the bar.”  Engineers are not “called” to engineering; accountants are not “called” to accountancy; and dentists are not “called” to dentistry.  But lawyers are called to the bar, which means we have an obligation not only to our clients, but also to the public, like the clergy.

Leaders are accountable for what they do, much more so than for what they say or write.  Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the concept eloquently:  “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Leaders with integrity act in accordance with their words.

Leadership can be extremely fulfilling.  Lawyers possess many of the qualities needed by a leader.  Lawyers must understand their actions are observed and remembered by others, and when they are in leadership positions, they must set the right examples.

I recommend leaders follow three basic rules:  They should always do their best, always do what’s right, and always treat everyone with dignity and respect.

About the author:

Jack Rives received both his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and law degrees from the University of Georgia. Following graduation from law school, he began a 33-year career in the United States Air Force as a military attorney, or judge advocate (JAG).

He served as The Judge Advocate General of the United States Air Force, the senior U.S. Air Force attorney, and he was the first military attorney to attain the three-star rank of lieutenant general. He led a JAG Corps comprised of 4,600 legal professionals worldwide.

On May 1, 2010, Jack began his service as the Executive Director of the American Bar Association (ABA).  The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.   Jack oversees a staff of more than 900 and a consolidated budget of over $200 million.

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