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Key skills needed to transition from lawyer to leader

HESTA’s head of member services and operations and former general counsel discusses the essential skills needed for lawyers to make the transition from lawyer to leader.

user iconJess Feyder 09 May 2023 Big Law
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Jorden Lam, head of member services and operations and previous general counsel at HESTA Super Fund, spoke at the Legal Innovation & Tech Fest on Monday (1 May) about how lawyers can transform themselves into leaders. 

The tremendous knowledge, analytical and problem-solving capabilities possessed by lawyers, primes them for being great leaders, maintained Ms Lam. 

The first step along the path to becoming a leader is to share one’s goals and aspirations with their manager.


“It’s your manager’s job to empower and uplift you and give you opportunities to meet the goals you have,” she said, “but it’s your responsibility to drive that — to discover where you want to get and vocalise it”.

“Rally all the support you can get,” she added.

Important skills and mindsets need to be embraced in order to transform lawyers into leaders, Ms Lam continued. 

She outlined the foundational skills and mindsets needed to be an impactful leader.

“First crucial skill is adaptability,” she said. “How does one become more adaptive?”

“When there’s a situation that poses a problem that you don’t know how to solve, step one is to take a moment to deeply reflect and be self-aware that you are in a situation that is new and uncomfortable for you.

“Step two is exercising deep calm by challenging yourself to apply a different approach to the situation — one that you’ve never tried before,” Ms Lam explained.

“It’s psychologically counterintuitive.

“When in an anxious state, it’s hard to think clearly, and often it’s easiest to default back to applying a solution one already knows.”

“Think about alternative solutions to approaching the problem — that’s how you build your adaptability muscle,” she highlighted. 

“The second key skill is about reframing our concept of success.”

“We need to talk more about failure,” she added. 

Ms Lam gave the example of a new up-and-coming NBA basketballer who was interviewed after his team was knocked out in the first round of the season. 

He was asked in a press conference if he felt like a failure, to which he responded: “There is no failure in sports, only progress. 

“Michael Jordan played 15 years of basketball; he won six championships. Are you going to say he was a failure for those other nine years he didn’t win?” 

Ms Lam pointed out: “That is the mindset we need to adopt.”

“Lawyers have a very specific framing of what success looks like,” she continued. “We define success as encompassing two key things: getting stuff done and getting stuff right.”

“There’s not much success in being a lawyer if you get your legal advice wrong,” she noted.

“However, when you’re making the transition from lawyers to leaders, there needs to be a shift in mindset.” 

“You need to be OK with letting things go wrong,” she highlighted.

“Sometimes, you see a train wreck coming, and you’ll move mountains to stop it, and you’ll probably collapse and lose all sanity to do it, but then there’s another train wreck, and another.

“You need to recognise when you need to let the train wreck happen.

“Obviously, with guiding and supporting your team and people around you.”

“When you let it happen, you will allow someone to be accountable for their actions and you allow the people around you to learn,” Ms Lam explained. 

The third skill is to be a herder of people, she said, building connections, relationships, and trust with those in your team, across your organisation as well as those external to the organisation.

Key to enabling this is the concept of equanimity, Ms Lam explained.

“To bring equanimity to your leadership is to treat people, whether they are the CEO of a multinational or the cleaner on the street, with the same level of decency, respect, and kindness,” she said.

“If that embodies how you influence and how you become a leader, it will take you a very long way.”

“Support sits behind every leader,” she continued, “and many people along the way help the leader to get where they are”.

“As you embark on that journey, make sure you value respect and remember those people that helped you on your path so you open doors for those who come behind you.” 

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