People-First Leadership Lessons from a Lawyer


What do the leaders to which you aspire to be like all have in common? Aside from being successful, they probably have a people-first approach to leadership.

So when it was my turn to become an influential leader, a “people-first” path is what I chose.

Serious Thought to Leadership

When I had the opportunity to co-found a law practice, I gave serious consideration to my role as a leader in the business. I thought about the leaders that I had come in contact with at home, at school, and in the workforce. I realized that the leaders I admired the most — the leaders I aspired to be like — always put others first in their organizations.

Then and there, I decided to apply a people-first approach to my own practice, for both my clients and my staff.

Over the years, I have built a strong reputation for myself and for my business. And I have seen the law firm grow to greater heights as a result!

The Dos and Don’ts of Practical People‑First Leadership

Some of these lessons may strike you as obvious, but I think you will find that they are the foundation of running any successful business — especially one in which your reputation and the relationships you create are everything.

Do act genuinely.

The key to people-first leadership is truly believing in it.

You must actually be genuine. Don’t just act genuine.

Show your clients or customers that you care by answering their questions, offering help when possible, and going above and beyond when you can. For example, when a potential client isn’t a good fit with my firm, I do my best to help him find another firm that will meet his needs. I genuinely care about seeing people’s needs met, one way or another.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

No one likes to be let down — especially a paying client. Often in my business, clients come to me with problems that have truly affected their lives in a negative way. Perhaps they’ve been seriously injured on the job or experienced awful side effects from a drug. The natural impulse is to promise you can do something to make their lives better, but it’s important to set realistic expectations.

Whether it’s a matter of cost or payment, the time it will take for something to get done, or creating a vision of the result, it’s best if you never discuss or promise anything you’re not ready, willing, and able to deliver. Failing to keep your word will not only leave the client disappointed, but it will also make your word less valuable in the future.

Do implement your practices throughout your business.

Your people-first mantra should not only be a personal standard, but it should also be embedded in the core of your business and acted out daily by all employees, from management down.

You can encourage this by promoting open communication among all levels of employees, offering consistent feedback and praise to your staff, and continually communicating the company’s vision to your team.

Don’t underestimate the power of listening.

Listening to customers is an incredibly important part of any job that is often overlooked. Business leaders who actively listen to what customers have to say — good, bad, mad, sad, or totally off-topic — show a desire to engage and help in any way they can.

This simple act tells the person that you care and are there to help.

It also builds loyalty and may bring issues to light that can help you do your job better.

Do lead by example.

The best way to promote the behavior you want to see is to demonstrate the behavior you want to see. People are more likely to act like someone they admire and respect than someone they find offensive and un-supportive. Set the standard for people-first leadership by modeling it in all of your business activities, and watch as it trickles down to other employees overtime.

At my firm, my partner and I made it a point to return any client calls or correspondence within 24 hours. Before long, we saw this people-first approach being adopted by others throughout our firm.

Don’t be seen as a know-it-all.

Make sure that you are open to new ideas and to new ways of doing things. If not, then you could be seen as an unbecoming know-it-all by the people around you. This would take away from any feelings or perceptions of your people-first attitude and will work against your level of influence with your internal and external relationships.

Personal & Business Growth

Whether you’re already the boss or you’re hoping to move up to that seat one day, you should consider the advantages of applying a people-first approach to your role as a leader.

These practices have not only helped me expand my business, but they’ve also helped me be a better, more focused businessman and leader. You and your business can gain so much when you put others first.

So, would you consider yourself a people-first type of leader? Do you take the steps to be inclusive with those you lead? Are you seen as a genuine, authentic, and welcome person of integrity? How could you take steps to increase your level of personal leadership effectiveness by being more people-first focused? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Michael Acosta is a partner at Acosta & Williams LLC
He specializes in Pharmaceuticals and Personal Injury Law
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. John Smith on February 27, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Reblogged this on THE STRATEGIC LEARNER and commented:
    Leadership thoughts from a source we don’t always consider …

  2. ramakrishnan6002 on February 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

  3. hrrebellion on February 28, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Reblogged this on HR Rebellion and commented:
    Great information on how focusing on your people creates strong business and leadership skills.

  4. Jocelyn Davis on February 28, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Michael, nice post. I found this especially interesting coming from a lawyer, because in the past I’ve found that when business leaders want to argue *against* people-first practices, the reason they frequently advance is “we can’t do that because it might lead to legal trouble and we have to protect the company.” And yet we know that (for example), physicians who apologize for their mistakes and behave in a genuine, caring way with their patients are less likely to be sued for malpractice. Have you found that a people-first attitude can actually help reduce legal actions?

    • Tom Schulte on February 28, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Jocelyn, I agree that this is a great article! And I love your question, too! This would be my default position. I think that humility, contrition, mercy, and grace are ALWAYS rewarded (in the long run.)

  5. Jim Trunick on March 4, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Michael, great insight to plan and build a leadership based, employee centered law practice. So tough to do, as what it takes to be successful in our first jobs, requires, urgency, making decisions, telling less than listening, being first and fastest. Those abilities are lethal to being a successful leader. First time leaders, truly shifting their success from me focused to others focused, requires real coaching and preparation. Even our senior leaders will learn to manage with a meat ax, and Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind, therefore , supporting poor leadership skill. So leadership skills you refer are RIGHT, and hopefully other leaders will invest in the development of their first time leaders to become great people leaders, bringing long term success and performance, not just immediate results.