Leadership Lessons

Florida Bar members learn ways to pitch in for common good

It’s a phenomenon Renee Thompson (JD 99) describes as the silo effect.

Lawyers get entrenched in their own practices, and the ones who want to branch out into leadership in the legal profession or the community often aren’t aware of the network available to them.

To bridge that gap and connect the statewide legal community, The Florida Bar this year launched the William Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy. This unprecedented bar leadership training program aims to teach “soft skills” and inspire community service and grassroots projects.

This academy built for leadership was itself largely built by Gator lawyers — from the chairwoman to the writer of its curriculum to the founder. The academy is even named after W. Reece Smith Jr. (JD 49), one of the most distinguished graduates in the history of UF Law.

The inaugural 2013-2014 class had 39 members, and the second class kicks off in June at the bar’s annual convention. Participants devote one weekend every other month, rotating through select cities around the state.

Thompson, the Leadership Academy chair and former Florida Bar Young Lawyers president, said community service is a major component of the program. Participants collaborated to identify legal service projects they wanted to be involved in, and they worked to implement their ideas on a practical level.

Thompson said one group came up with the idea of simple legal forms they want to translate into different languages to aid people who can’t afford legal help.

The academy’s namesake Smith was renowned as a socially conscious lawyer who strived to help the less fortunate. In view of that vision, the academy is helping carry on the legacy by inspiring networking and grassroots projects.

“The goal is to help them meet personal career goals with regard to leadership,” Thompson said. “Maybe they want to head their local bar association, or maybe they want to get out into the community more. Some of them are already taking that next step.”

Linda Calvert Hanson (JD 86), director of The Florida Bar’s Center for Professionalism, said the academy curriculum includes topics such as how to motivate others and delegate, how to build consensus, how to get stakeholders involved and how to launch an action plan — skills that are important to organizing associations and leading community grassroots initiatives.

“Most lawyers aren’t taught this in law school because, of course, there is so much legal curriculum to get through,” Hanson said.

She said it’s designed to help lawyers mobilize people on the local level.

“You’re taught to litigate in court, but you’re not necessarily taught how to go address your local bar association,” Hanson said.

The curriculum was designed to be adaptable. Local speakers, many of whom are established bar leaders, are given the modules, which include PowerPoint presentations and supplemental materials, and add their personalized touches when they deliver the sessions.

The curriculum also includes teaching on strategic planning, which means setting plans, goals and benchmarks for an organization. With a strategic plan in place, leadership will have continuity to carry on with a common vision — regardless of who is at the helm.

“No matter who is in office, they know what their vision is,” Thompson said. “Some organizations don’t necessarily take the time to do it. It’s exciting to see some of the skills they’re learning turn into real life.”

Rob Birrenkott (JD 05), a fellow in the academy’s inaugural class and UF Law’s assistant dean for career development, recalled the opening ceremony in which Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis (JD 85), spoke to the group. It seemed to Birrenkott that the leadership academy’s founder displayed “this deep look of contentment and satisfaction.”

“You can just tell that when he looks out on all the fellows, he’s seeing his vision start to become a reality. That was one of the most inspirational moments for me,” Birrenkott said. “It makes you say, ‘Hey, I want to accomplish something like that, too.’”

And Birrenkott said the academy is enabling bar members to do just that. “When we work collaboratively and cooperatively, we’re at our best,” he said.

For more information about the William Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, go to www.floridabar.org/leadershipacademy.