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Do lawyers make good leaders?

If legal professionals are interested in positioning themselves for executive leadership roles in the future, there are certain steps they must take, writes Andrew Mckenzie.

user iconAndrew Mckenzie 09 May 2023 Corporate Counsel
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When Andrew Dillon was named as the new AFL chief executive this month, he was continuing the long tradition of former lawyers rising to the top of the leadership ladder. He started his career at Corrs Chambers Westgarth before moving to in-house legal roles and then climbed the ranks of the AFL after starting as GM legal in 2000.

The list of world leaders who were once lawyers is impressive. World-changing leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and even Vladimir Putin all came from a legal background. Indeed, in Australia, former lawyers currently make up over 13 per cent of our current Federal Parliament and almost 20 per cent of the last one.

However, former lawyers are often valued for a particular leadership style. For example, Dillon’s appointment was greeted as a safe but unexciting decision, likely to be a “steady as she goes” style leader, managing risk but not likely to grab opportunities.


A recent study by Harvard Business School examined the question of whether former lawyer CEOs were better than MBA-trained CEOs. It found that lawyer CEOs did best in highly litigious industries, where their penchant for process and risk management bore fruit, but that elsewhere, that tendency could hold them back from necessary change and opportunity.

Some aspects of legal training, such as ethics, advocacy, logic and business structure, can be great preparation for leadership. On the other side of the ledger, risk aversion, small-picture detail preference, and limited communication skills can often come with a legal background.

None of this is surprising as the most talented technical lawyers are paid to identify risk, understand detail, and largely communicate in esoteric technical language. Those wanting to take the leap into leadership outside the law would do well to recognise that a high-status profession such as law will help, but it is not enough. 

So, if you are a mid-level or junior lawyer who might like to start the journey towards being a CEO, how do you go about it?

Get educated

As challenging as a law degree and the practice of law is, it is mostly designed to train legal minds, not leadership. It is essential to have at least a passing knowledge of finance, marketing, and human resources if you are to take the big office. It may not require an MBA, but it will need a growth mindset and likely some formal education.

Practice in your community

Like anything, leadership improves with practice, and the not-for-profit and community sectors are often desperate for help. What might start as pro bono legal help can develop into a true leadership role, which will build your reputation as more than a lawyer.  

Find a sector or industry

Whether it is sport, insurance, mining or manufacturing, you need to be passionate about a sector and seek opportunities to build your experience and CV in an industry you may jump to.

Step outside your comfort zone

Some lawyers only mix with other lawyers, and while this can benefit your legal career, broader leadership will need a different approach. Seek opportunities to speak at non-lawyer conferences and gatherings. Learn how traditional and social media work and gain a non-lawyer following. Seek feedback from non-lawyers, and don’t be defensive.

Consider a leadership coach and create a plan

When you are working in a law firm, it can be difficult to find a path to leadership outside the law. Lawyers are increasingly taking on coaches to help them address their weaknesses as leaders and create a path to where they want to be. Some are commercial, others are recruiters who might get a payday when the change happens. It can be an investment worth considering.

Andrew Mckenzie is principal of Crackle Communications.

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