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3 Things Flying Helicopters Taught Me About Leading Lawyers

It's been a long time since I've been at the controls of a helicopter, but my professional life started as a Blackhawk pilot in the U.S. Army. And more than that, my first real 'job' was as a platoon leader in South Korea, responsible for about 20 officers and soldiers and making sure our assigned missions were completed "to standard." "To standard" really means "safely and on time." When it comes to flight operations -- and particularly operations that involve non-crew passengers -- safety is everything. Sure, lots of other things go into getting it right, but safety is paramount. There are lots of other ways things can get complicated, but I want to start with the simple things.

At the most basic level, there are three takeaways from my flight experience that are applicable to the work I did later in my career as a lawyer and what I currently work with lawyer clients on as they take on new partnership responsibilities or otherwise step into new positions of responsibility.

  1. You might be at the controls, but you can't get it all done yourself.

  2. You may be the senior person, but you don't always know the most.

  3. Trust and communication are both necessary to avoid catastrophe.

For starters, a Blackhawk crew includes two pilots and a crewchief. Only one of those pilots is actually controlling the helicopter at any given time, but it takes all three to do it safely. With one pilot focused on controlling the helicopter (i.e. making sure it's headed in the right direction, at the right altitude and speed, avoiding obstacles, etc.), the other is focused on the gauges, radios, navigation, and other functions. The crewchief is often focused on the passengers and cargo, monitoring (and addressing) maintenance issues, and providing another set of eyes to see obstacles the pilots might miss. (Perspective is everything sometimes, and where you sit -- literally -- can give you dangerous blind spots.) No one person can do everything necessary to get from A to B safely. The same is true for lawyers leading a trial team, complicated deposition, important client engagement, or any number of other responsibilities that we're often just expected to know how to do or learn through simple exposure.

Being the trial lead and working with co-counsel, paralegals, investigators, and experts means you have to rely on others' contributions. That can be a scary place to be, but to get the work done well -- i.e., with detail, precision, and aligned with the client's goals -- you have to practice the art of letting go. Delegation, oversight, and feedback are all parts of efficient letting go as a leader, and these are skills that lawyers are not often taught or provided a mechanism to practice.

One of the most memorable lessons I learned as a young pilot was that being the senior person didn't mean I had the most knowledge or experience. And even though I might have had the most formal authority, I didn't always have the most effective voice in my organization. As a pilot, this played out both in the cockpit and out of it. I managed and led pilots with tons more flight experience than I had. With them it was important to recognize that and lead with humility and draw on their experience whenever possible to make sure the mission was completed safely and to continue growing and learning myself. But sometime even more important was recognizing the deep and different knowledge base and experience my non-pilots contributed. The administrative, logistical, and mechanical expertise they brought to the table was often instrumental in turning an unexpected challenge into an opportunity for the platoon to shine.

The same is true in your law firm. You may join or be responsible for a team on which others have significantly more trial experience or experience in a certain practice area. Their experience isn't a threat, it is an opportunity to increase the value of the ultimate product you're producing for the client. And if you haven't already learned that your paralegals and non-attorney staff are the real keys to success, we need to have a talk. It's easy to overlook their contributions because they aren't part of the legal analysis and advice we provide to our clients. But how you present your work, how you manage your materials for trial, how you document your preparations all rely on support from others. Even more important, when it's crunch time and something unexpected has happened, it's much easier to trust and rely on a team to whom you have routinely shown respect and appreciation than to hope the paralegal you typically ignore starts jumping through hoops because you finally learned their name in your hour of need.

While the trust that is developed over time is important, it cannot just be one-way trust. You cannot just place your trust in your team and be done with it. As a pilot, I know the training and experience my flight crew had and it was easy for me to trust them, to rely on them to do their part of keeping us safely in flight. But they had to trust me, too. And we had to communicate. I learned this very early in my flight career.

During flight school, my instructor pilot and I were practicing some very basic maneuvers at the airfield. Takeoffs, landings, maneuvering the helicopter close to the ground. I was brand new and he was slowly giving me control of the aircraft. (It's a complicated process to fly a helicopter, requiring a cyclic (the stick) to control the attitude or tilt of the helicopter; a collective to control power and altitude; and pedals to control the side-to-side twist or yaw. This is a bit over-simplified, but you get it....) First the cyclic, then the collective, then the pedals. This is really the only time two people will ever be jointly controlling a helicopter and it requires extreme care, attention, and communication. It was going well (I thought) until the helicopter started spinning around the rotor's axis. We were both confused, and I heard later that my flight partner in the back was terrified. Denny Rowe (my flight instructor) took over, yelling, "I have the controls." As things settled, he said, "I thought you had the pedals." I said, "I thought you had the pedals." We weren't communicating clearly.

In my legal practice, I've seen this too, when trial teams aren't communicating clearly about roles and expectations. And sometimes a high level of trust in someone's competence can actually reduce the likelihood of necessary communications taking place. It's important to know our team's level of competence and trust that they will perform up to that level, but we cannot treat them like mind readers and assume they will intuit what we need from them. Communication is key to effectively leverage trust.

In my work now, I incorporate these lessons into conversations with my clients. For new partners feeling overwhelmed by new responsibilities, and other lawyers stepping into new roles, focusing on the nuts and bolts of leadership -- delegation, conflict management, team development -- can reduce the sense of stress, imposter syndrome, and confusion about how to get from A to B. If you want to talk about where your legal leadership journey is taking you and get a couple practical tips you can use today, let's talk. Set up a strategy session with me and we'll talk about where you are and whether working together is the right call. Either way, I'll make sure you've got at least one new leadership tactic you can implement right away. Find a time here that works for you.



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