Essex Richards Law firm attorneys North Carolina Heather Culp

13 Best Practices I Learned at the 2017 ABA Bar Leadership Institute

By Heather Culp

In March, I attended the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago, representing the Mecklenburg County Bar as its President-Elect. Bar presidents and presidents-elect from (large) metro bars, state bars, and national specialty bars gathered to learn about and share best leadership practices.  While the content presented was focused on the legal industry, much of what was shared is useful to leaders of any organization. Here are my favorite tips and takeaways, but all of the handouts for all of the sessions are available to you here.

Prioritizing and leading the work of the organization:

  1. When making decisions, ask yourself: does this decision align with the strategic plan or goals of the group? Do we have the funds for this, and is this a good use of those funds? Do we have sufficient time and people allotted for this, and is this a good use of our time? And is the timetable for getting it done correct?
  2. Good boards lead on high-level issues, and leave implementation to the staff.
  3. Nimble governance requires guidance from a strategic plan, good communication, and caution to avoid insider thinking (what I hear described as an “echo chamber”).
  4. Good leaders must have personal courage. The examples discussed were to get boards back on track and ruffle feathers when necessary.
  5. Narrow your focus. Pick 3-6 things your organization or office can do better than anyone, and devote your resources to this.

Marketing and Communicating

  1. “Strategy” and “brand” are what we do; “culture” is how we do it.
  2. A lot of attention is being paid to the “millennial” generation, but don’t lose sight of engaging Generation Xers: those ages 33-52.
  3. Celebrate successes! (Let me suggest cupcakes. Who doesn’t love a cupcake?) Thank your members/staff/colleagues for what they do, and when possible, thank them publicly.
  4. Tech tips: uses artificial intelligence to schedule meetings for you ($30/month); Simply File uses artificial intelligence to file e-mails in Outlook; Wunderlist is task software that makes multiple lists for you (free); Wordrake is software that cleans your writing, making it more direct and concise; iStock by Getty Images offers royalty-free stock photographs and art that can be used for your website and other marketing purposes.
  5. “This is a great idea; send me more info to share with the board/organization/office/leadership” is a better response than an outright no, or making a promise you can’t keep.
  6. Give your clients a heads up about your new leadership role, and ask for their buy-in: their support, patience, and (when possible), flexibility. Tell your co-workers that you’re available for work and projects (you can’t stop working for an entire year or two), but that you may be keeping odd hours.
  7. Become skilled at telling the story of your organization. Toastmasters is a great provider of this type of training (public speaking, messaging, etc.).
  8. Provide clear and multiple paths for your members to get involved.

I challenge you to implement at least one of these ideas into your daily practice over the next six months. Together we can build a better community of leaders.

Heather Culp is an attorney at Essex Richards, P.A., a law firm in Charlotte, N.C., celebrating its 40th anniversary.  Learn more about her and Essex Richards at She is President-Elect of the Mecklenburg County Bar, an association of more than 5400 attorneys headquartered in Charlotte.  Learn more about the Mecklenburg County Bar at