The Honorable Jeffrey M. Winik has served as Boston Housing Court Judge since 1995 and has held the position of First Justice since 2004. Amid concern for unrepresented litigants to have meaningful access to justice, he has dedicated himself to advancing the Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Program. Judge Winik chairs the Housing Court’s Education and Time Standards Committees. He sits on the Boston Homelessness Prevention Center Steering Committee and the Boston Tenancy Preservation Program Advisory Board. He is a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Real Estate Pro Bono Committee. He is an Adjunct Professor at Boston University’s School of Law.
1. How do you define leadership in the legal profession? What could be done to encourage it?
Leadership in the legal profession melds vision, character, creativity, and enthusiasm to inspire lawyers (and non-lawyers) to work cooperatively towards a common purpose. The key to effective leadership involves more than the ability to formulate a goal and apply practical management skills to a given task; it involves encouraging others to be creative, innovative, and to work together collaboratively. An effective leader is more interested in reaching the shared goal than in receiving credit for it, and must be willing to mentor others and encourage them to assume responsibility and eventually leadership roles.
A leader has to be passionate about each project. That passion can enable a leader to maintain focus during periods of slow organization, inactivity, or general indifference from other parties. If the drive is there, people will eventually catch up. However, passion must be tempered with maturity and wisdom so that it does not overwhelm people, but rather helps bring people into the project. Everyone comes to the table with different personalities and talents; good leaders must recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. Leadership can be learned; there is, however, no substitute for experience.
There is a significant pool of talented leaders (and future leaders) in Boston’s legal community. Being a small legal community, most of its members know one another, or know of one another, and can readily identify those with innate leadership talent. The Boston legal community through the Boston Bar Association has demonstrated a willingness and ability to organize with efficiency and effectiveness around a broad range of important issues –from expanding legal services for our neediest citizens to protecting judicial independence. Boston is the home of a vibrant academic community; there are always fresh ideas percolating.
The Boston Bar Association is uniquely positioned to marshal its members to address important issues under the direction of a core of leaders. It can get the proverbial boots on the ground. One important leadership skill is developing new leaders. The BBA has provided opportunities for its members to rise through its ranks to positions of authority and responsibility. To do this successfully with an ongoing project requires focus on the immediate, but the ability to have a vision of what may emerge over the horizon. The BBA was instrumental in creating and maintaining the Lawyer for the Day programs, and I have watched as a generation of new leaders has emerged from the BBA to manage and expand these programs. The programs have continued to thrive with each leadership change.
2. What advice do you have for new lawyers fresh out of law school and searching for scarce work?
The past three or four years have been challenging for new lawyers. I teach at Boston University School of Law, and every year I tell my students that while it will take time and patience to land their first job; land it they will, and once they have that first job, everything else will fall into place. From that point on, their professional development and career opportunities will flow from their performance as lawyers. Part of landing that first job involves being in the right place at the right time. Because of that, I encourage law students and young lawyers to participate in bar-related programs like Lawyer for the Day. It gives them the opportunity to gain experience by working with clients on interesting cases, and the opportunity to interact with experienced lawyers who appear in that court regularly. The experienced lawyers, especially those from smaller firms and government agencies, may want to hire young associates on relatively short notice, as they often don’t know their hiring needs far in advance. These kinds of interactions can lead to that first job.
There is an added benefit to volunteer participation: I know that many judges are very supportive of new lawyers who volunteer to provide legal assistance in their courtrooms. For example, in a manner consistent with their obligation to be fair and impartial, these judges will take the time to explain procedural rules and common practices, sharpen the new lawyer’s legal analysis, explain evidentiary rulings, and suggest how to lay proper foundations and how to formulate proper questions. If young lawyers are willing to volunteer their time in court, the judges will try to make the experience valuable and rewarding.
I believe that networking is an important part of a new lawyer’s job search. In addition, I recommend that a new lawyer follow up meetings or encounters with a personalized handwritten note, not an e-mail. Lawyers and prospective employers remember the personal touch. And above all, rather than sitting at home, I suggest that a new lawyer get involved in law-related projects. It enhances the prospect of meeting the people who can assist in the lawyer in securing that first job.
Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes a law firm will offer temporary or fixed-period employment involving a specific case. Young lawyers should consider taking these jobs to get a foot in the door. For new lawyers seeking that first permanent job, there is no law-related job that they should reject because they consider the work to be menial or limited. Be flexible and take advantage of every opportunity to be involved in the practice of law.
3. What does it take to be a leader in a setting that often involves tense, emotional situations with a lot at stake?
Good leaders need to understand the issue at hand and the reasons why the case is creating tension and emotional upheaval. An effective leader must avoid personalizing the dispute and stay focused on the possibilities for resolution. That leader should try to de-escalate tension by giving all participants a chance to be heard and encouraging the parties to listen to each other. Leaders recognize when dealing with emotional situations that, despite their best efforts, flare-ups will occur. In these settings, a good leader will anticipate a possible provocation, and try to redirect the parties before the provocation becomes a conflagration.
Above all, a leader should never lose sight of the core issue at hand. A good leader will have a sense of where there may be overlap in the parties’ positions and will always try to focus the parties to bring that area of common ground into play. That is often the best basis for resolving or de-escalating a tense situation. The role of a leader in this type of setting is not dissimilar to the role of a mediator: a successful resolution in mediation comes about when the parties themselves recognize that compromise can address enough of their concerns to allow for a shared victory. In a tense setting, a leader needs to focus the parties on the positive aspects of each side’s position rather than demeaning those parts that may have less merit. People who hold positions very passionately sometimes cannot understand or tolerate any disagreement with their views; those who do disagree are seen as the enemy. A good leader must deflect that destructive impulse and refocus the creative instincts of the parties to enable them to fashion a solution to the problem. Leadership in tense emotional setting is about imagining solutions, creating the right kind of atmosphere to make the solutions possible, deflecting personal animosity and empowering the parties to embrace the possibility of resolving the dispute on shared terms based upon compromise.
4. How does choosing to engage in pro bono/public service work exhibit leadership as a lawyer?
Pro bono work is a collaborative effort involving lawyers, bar associations, communities, and the courts. Participants share a vision, a passion, and a sense of commitment to address the perceived need, as well as a willingness to take responsibility for matters small and large. In a broad sense, a young lawyer who chooses to become involved in a pro bono program is someone who recognizes instinctively that collaborative civic engagement is an important part of our professional responsibility. In other words, the initial decision to get involved in pro bono work is a manifestation of leadership in its crystalline form. Once involved, young lawyers will then have the opportunity to refine their innate leadership skills by working with more experienced lawyers who share their same sense of professional responsibility. The potential for leadership exists within each of us, but becoming a leader is a process that takes hard work and commitment over time.