Peter Kalis | Lawyers as Leaders


Peter J. Kalis, Esq.

Peter Kalis is one of the top leaders in the American legal profession. He is the chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates. Mr. Kalis provides strategic advice to many of the nation’s largest corporations. He is also a sought-after commentator on legal affairs.

His educational attainments are notable. Mr. Kalis is a Rhodes Scholar who received a doctorate at Oxford. At Yale Law School, he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal. Subsequently Mr. Kalis served as law clerk to the late J. Skelly Wright, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and for the late Associate Justice Byron R. White of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a recent interview, Mr. Kalis eloquently advanced the notion that lawyers add great value as leaders in America today.

Among his insights:

Lawyers as Leaders. Contrary to what some might think, lawyers are often effective leaders. Nearly half of President Obama’s cabinet are lawyers, for example. So, too, are the President and Vice President. As I speak, his two leading Republican challengers are lawyers as well.  Lawyers compose the largest and leading leadership pool in America.

It’s Nothing New That Lawyers Are A Target of Criticism. Everything in life, including criticism of lawyers, is magnified by the Internet and global, instantaneous communications. I do think, however, that there’s not enough of lawyers and others standing up to some of the unfair or misplaced criticism of the profession. There’s an extraordinary tradition of citizen-lawyers without which we would be an inferior society. It’s alive at every level today, from international to national to local. And by no means is it limited to the United States. For example, Pakistani lawyers  protested in the streets against authoritarian rule. This lawyerly tradition is a great strength of western democracy and of societies in which citizens benefit from the rule of law.

There is a great global challenge to our profession arising from societies where the rule of law is not honored. Lawyers there could become an extension of the state, of raw power. We have to stand for more as a profession, and in advanced societies we do, whether or not we’re recognized or honored for the effort.

In Our Globalized World, Leaders Must Be Able to Look Across Borders of All Kinds. Lawyers often exhibit a key attribute of leaders today, to be able to look across borders, to stand across from others and comprehend their point of view. Although it’s not often thought of in this manner, the American legal curriculum is grounded in comparative law, because the common law comprises fifty state systems, an overlay of federal law, and a smattering of federal common law. There are always majority/minority approaches. You’re always looking through different people’s eyes onto the same set of facts and circumstances. This is an intellectually inclusive exercise. It breeds into the lawyer a sense of humility. One learns that there’s not just one way to do or look at things.

It’s also clear in the global marketplace that the common law has won, and the English language has won. The framework and narrative of global commerce are largely  based on common law concepts and language. The tradition of the common law is thus more valuable than ever. So, too, is the realization that the law, at least in part, is a language art, and the language is English.

Law School Can be Good Preparation for Leadership. Legal education can be excellent vocational training but also much more. Through the case method it explores stories about society, particularly where things break down. The case reports are full of the pathological breakdowns of society. With three years’ immersion,  the case method can equip you with an intuitive understanding of the texture of life – by studying the pathological you acquire an understanding of the permutations of  “normal”.

In addition, law school can provide great preparation to become a good manager. There is nothing in an MBA curriculum that matches the experience of a group of very young people getting eight issues of a law review out on the street. What’s more, it’s done in an academic discipline with no tradition of peer review. The students are tasked to perform QAQC [quality assurance/quality control] on their professors, and professorial egos are not always up to the task! So, too, working on a law review yields great lessons about diplomacy, goal-setting, collaboration, team orientation, problem solving and grace under pressure.  You either get that magazine on the street or you don’t.

Indeed, law school itself offers lessons in collaboration. We’ve all heard the old saw that people who go through law school alone are either geniuses or fools. It’s an extraordinary social and team experience. The curriculum, moreover, fosters debate.

Lawyers Can Develop Leadership Throughout Their Careers. There is nothing like Jack Welch’s leadership institute for lawyers of which I’m aware. There is, though, no shortage of leadership; there are many good leaders in our profession. Part of the reason is that as one becomes more successful as a lawyer, the market rewards you with more complex engagements that require large teams to address. Instead of being a cog in one’s early career, one becomes the wheel. If a lawyer is not capable of growing as a leader, you’re not likely to ascend that far. If you do ascend, then you’ve been trained as a leader in your career, or you brought such skills to the table from the get-go.

Social Media and the Legal Profession. Law firms as institutions have some problems with Facebook, Linked-In etc. Lawyers are constrained by ethical requirements. They also have reputational interests to safeguard, their own and others’. There is danger in putting something into the public domain which could be repackaged by other in unprofessional or unscrupulous ways.

At the same time, we recognize that social media have become primary means of relating to people these days. K&L Gates has included, for 2012, a position to manage this side of life for the firm. Stakeholders now expect this.

Peter Kalis | Lawyers as Leaders