April 2017

Everybody is a Star — Unlocking Your Leadership Skills

By Jeffrey Chinn

Director of Career Services, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

“Leadership is unlocking people's potential to become better.” — Bill Bradley 1 

Just like some contract clauses, “leadership” can be interpreted in many ways and appear very daunting, but taking on a leadership role is easier than you think. I recently attended a panel featuring leaders of local bar associations.2 Each one spoke of their decision to take a leadership role, the benefits, and the challenges. They all ranged in experience and background (e.g., private law firms, public sector, solo practice, recent graduates, and experienced attorneys). However, there was consensus among all that leadership comes in many shapes and sizes, thus forming the basis of this article.  

For me, my first significant leadership role was during my 2L year when somehow I became President of the Asian Pacific Law Students Association. At first, I thought, “I have no clue what I’m doing,” which became “I think I know what I’m doing,” which became “maybe it’s not so hard after all.” Years later, I still appreciate that experience in developing the skills and confidence to take on more significant roles later on in my legal career. Throughout, my intent has always reflected Bill Bradley’s quote – to use my skills to benefit others and create positive outcomes.  

Why Take a Leadership Role? 

Your work product is your brand and reputation. Take the time to build your brand, social capital, and credibility throughout your firm and the legal community. Taking a visible role working with others will increase your value internally and lead to valuable external connections. And it’s easy – San Diego, as we know, is a relatively small legal community.  Taking a role means you will see other community leaders on a regular basis, allowing you to form solid business and social (it’s not all about work!) relationships.

The results will always be positive, especially with peer recognition. Other attorneys will say to themselves, “I recognize that person as being a leader in the community, so I will work with them.” You may encounter other attorneys as opposing counsel, so prior relations or reputation counts. Also, employers appreciate the positive spotlight on their employees doing good things. Your role can also lead to other attorneys seeking you out for advice or to refer cases. Leadership roles also give you the opportunity to get to become better acquainted with prominent attorneys in the community or at your firm. Next thing you know, you are being nominated for an award or a “Best of” list.

But I’m Not a Born Leader or a Good Networker

Very few of us are “born leaders” but “become leaders.” It’s different from networking because you are putting work into a project rather than just exchanging business cards.  Leadership roles can take many different forms, but you always want to find roles that help you develop different skill sets. One drawback is that the more complex or highly visible projects will also require some sacrifice on your part. But it will be worth it in the end.  

Taking a Leadership Role — Find Your Comfort Zone, Not Your Danger Zone

It’s OK to start with a minor role and work your way up. Fit your talent to the project, rather than signing up for something outside your skill set or comfort zone. Do not over-promise then under-deliver. For example, do not volunteer to be chair of a charity golf or dodgeball tournament if you have no experience organizing a similar large-scale event. I once tried to organize a charity rock concert and learning on the fly was no fun.  

I suggest you start by volunteering and then keep expanding your duties/comfort zone with each project. Challenge yourself and don’t always take the easiest assignment. But don’t feel the need to accept the hardest assignment either. For example, it is not necessary to become a board member or board president, or take on a complex pro bono appeal to the 9th Circuit. Start with an event committee or giving pro bono advice to someone in small claims court. In time, you will be approached for increasingly significant roles in more high profile projects or events. In fact, SDCBA committees are a great and easy way to take a leadership role, including the Forum for Emerging Lawyers which aims to give leadership opportunities to new attorneys.

Any Concerns I Should Think About Before Taking That Leap of Faith?

Of course! Obviously, you shouldn’t volunteer for a position if you have cases that require you to travel or have a series of trials coming up. Does the project fit with your work/life balance or priorities in life? Do you have other existing commitments (family or otherwise) that could prevent you from being a productive leader and devoting the proper time and attention? Will there be conflicts with your clients?

From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)3

Hopefully, you’ve seen how simple leadership roles can fit into your work and personal life. Don’t be intimidated and keep adjusting and expanding the boundaries of your comfort zone. You will get from volunteer to team leader in a very short time. Remember to demonstrate who you are and “[n]ot the one you feel you need to be.”4


1 Former U.S. Senator and New York Knick.  http://www.inc.com/lolly-daskal/the-100-best-leadership-quotes-of-all-time.html 

2 Thanks to panelists Catherine Asuncion (FALSD), Judy Bae (PALSD), Peter Kang (KABA), Kris Mukherji (SABA), and Fanny Yu (NAPIPA) for their insightful thoughts and words of advice.

3 The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003)

4 “Everybody is a Star” – Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits (1970).