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Washington Lawyer

D.C. Bar Leadership Academy 2013

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2013

By Thai Phi Le

groupOn March 1 the inaugural class of the D.C. Bar Leadership Academy gathered for its first session. Some class members were seasoned lawyers; others were just launching their careers. They came from the private sector, large firms, small firms, the government, and nonprofits. All applied for the program to develop and hone the skills needed to be effective leaders throughout their careers.

The Leadership Academy is the product of an idea envisioned in 2009 when NAACP general counsel Kim Keenan was Bar president. It is also a byproduct of the Bar’s strategic plan. The Academy’s goal? To identify, inspire, and educate D.C. Bar members to step up as leaders of the organization and to apply their skills to any facet of their careers, from volunteer work to legal cases.

Over the course of three full–day seminars, which took place every two weeks, participants collaborated on numerous projects; heard about personal leadership experiences from Bar leaders, including past presidents Keenan and James Sandman as well as then–president Tom Williamson; and engaged in frank discussions about leadership challenges, personalities, and strategies, among many other activities.

The members graduated on April 12, each taking to heart different messages as they left. In the following passages, they reflect on their experiences with the Leadership Academy and on some of the lessons and skills they discovered during the program.

David William Arrojo
When David William Arrojo, an associate at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, first enrolled in the Leadership Academy, he admitted he was intimidated by the idea of “cultivating leadership” within himself. “As someone just starting my legal career, I felt that I had too much to learn and too little experience to lead; the gap between me and ‘them’ was too great,” he recalls thinking. Once immersed in the program, however, the notion was quickly dispelled. There is no “them,” he realized.

“Every scenario—no matter the size of the task or the scope of the endeavor—presents an opportunity for leadership. To be a leader, I need not accomplish monumental tasks or bring about transformational change at every turn,” he says. “A true leader thinks strategically about goals, builds coalitions around a shared vision for achieving those goals, and executes strategies for their implementation. Every one of us has this ability.”

It was an inspiring lesson for Arrojo. “Once you appreciate that everyone has the capacity for some form of leadership, there are exponential possibilities for what people, communities, and organizations can achieve.”

Shuchi Batra
Scattered throughout the conference room were large pieces of paper taped to the walls. Groups were formed, each member holding a marker and ready to fill the blank sheets. What qualities make a leader? What are the different leadership styles? How do you create a team? Brainstorming commenced. For Shuchi Batra, an attorney in the Office of General Counsel at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, what stood out was that there was no clear-cut answer. “The strongest teams are those that are diverse and composed of individuals who bring different strengths,” she says. “No one is strong in all areas. The key to strong leadership is to focus on your strengths rather than on your weaknesses.”

In addition to the interactive sessions, Batra particularly enjoyed listening to keynote speaker Sandman speak about civility and professionalism. “His message of treating everyone, regardless of their position, with respect was simple yet refreshing.”

Michelle F. Bercovici
Throughout the sessions, Michelle F. Bercovici of Alden Law Group, PLLC was impressed with the investment and interest Bar staff and leaders had in ensuring a quality experience for all the participants. She specifically enjoyed the opportunity to speak frankly with past and present Bar leaders and luminaries in the profession. Their perspectives on leadership, service, and professionalism, combined with the dynamic training sessions, gave her valuable skills that she plans to apply at work and in voluntary leadership roles.

Bercovici says of the experience, “I have such a clearer understanding of what it means to be a true leader in the profession, and even more importantly, how to work with and within the community. The sessions on strategic planning have changed the way that I approach goals within voluntary organizations and at work. I am looking forward to putting these theories into practice.”

Christopher Y. Chan
“If you want to be a more effective leader, this is a great experience,” says Christopher Y. Chan, an associate at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP, and president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area, Inc. Through the Academy’s self–evaluations and collaborative team challenges, Chan got a better sense of his most prominent character traits and how they could be perceived by others.

As each of the participants learned more about themselves, they also became more aware of the personalities in the room as they worked with classmates on various team projects. “Because personality profiles don’t generally change over time, understanding how your persona acts with others was the biggest lesson I learned,” he states. “Everyone has special talents, and recognizing how different talents can work together—or not at all—was very helpful.”

“Being grouped with high–achieving, like–minded, and ambitious people can be overwhelming, but it is also a lot of fun. The peers in the class will be the future leaders in the industry. It’s important to recognize that when building a network,” Chan says.

Shara M. Chang
It was a lesson learned by all members of the Leadership Academy. Being a leader isn’t about possessing specific characteristics, but discovering how to leverage your strengths and those around you to be effective. “Each of the leaders of the D.C. Bar that led the Academy had a unique leadership style,” says Shara M. Chang, an associate at BuckleySandler LLP. “Through this experience, I learned that great leadership manifests itself in several different forms.”

Chang also enjoyed connecting with both current and future leaders of the legal community in a platform that encouraged open discussion about key leadership challenges and best practices. “I was encouraged to learn that I already possess the tools needed to be an effective leader,” she says. By graduation day, Chang walked away with an increased awareness of her strengths and confidence in her ability to successfully play to them in any situation.

Annette Kayan Kwok
As president–elect of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area, Inc., Annette Kayan Kwok applied for the Leadership Academy to help demonstrate the contributions that Asian Pacific American attorneys can bring to the legal community. “I think it’s important that we actually walk the walk and really show our participation, our interest, to be part of the [D.C. Bar] leadership,” she says. 

Whether through lively discussions, self–evaluations, or simply getting to know her Leadership Academy peers, Kwok picked up lessons both big and small. “It changed the way I think about organizations and about putting together a team,” Kwok says. The team–building exercises also helped Kwok reexamine group dynamics. “We’re all leaders. Sometimes it got chaotic because everybody in a way wants to lead. For me, sometimes to be a good leader, I need to take a step back and be a follower.” 

Reflecting on the experience, Kwok states, “I am very fortunate to be in the inaugural class. It’s exciting to have this opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

Charles Anthony McCullough II
When Charles Anthony McCullough II walked into the Leadership Academy on the first day, he was happy with what he saw. “I was not the only lawyer that had a unique career track. Many were like me—having spent time in courtrooms and then branched out to nonprofit work, solo practice, smaller firms, or unique practice areas within the government,” McCullough recalls. “I am confident that this cohort truly represents the best of the practice areas, life experiences, points of view, and ability to serve that the D.C. Bar has to offer.”

Diversity did not end with the demographics of the inaugural class, he notes. The speakers touched upon varied and important lessons of leadership. McCullough distinctly remembers Sandman’s words about integrity and civility, Keenan’s notion about building the best team infrastructure to successfully fulfill a vision, and Williamson’s talk about balancing public and private service work with helping the community. 

“I am certain that my fellow inaugural class members would join me in saying that we are now even that much more prepared for the tasks that are ahead of the D.C. Bar [and equipped to become] a deeper friend to the community and supporter of the legal profession.”

Maria G. Mendoza
There were tests, personality profiles, team–building exercises, talks about communication styles and influence, a sharing of ideas, an analysis of varied work scenarios, and much more. By experiencing the Leadership Academy together, all 16 members left with a unique bond. “It’s like a little family,” says Maria G. Mendoza, a staff attorney for D.C. Law Students in Court. “One of the things I walked away with was access to an amazing network of dedicated lawyers who are interested and passionate about public service and making a difference and improving the state of our Bar. That’s something that certainly left an impression with me.”

Like many other participants, Mendoza thought one of the most useful sessions was on evaluating individual strengths and learning how to interact with different personalities. It’s a skill she has already begun to apply in her professional life. “It’s a critical skill to have when you’re approaching a thorny problem that doesn’t appear to have a solution,” she says. “It’s very helpful to be able to effectively communicate with your adversaries or a person who doesn’t see your ideas quite clearly, and really be able to hear what they’re saying and address your concerns, and also focus on their concerns and what they can bring to the table.”

Sadina Montani
For Sadina Montani, an associate at Vedder Price, the Leadership Academy went beyond the basics. It wasn’t just about getting the tools necessary to discover individual leadership styles and strengths. “We focused on how to recognize these characteristics in others, discussing ways to recognize how divergent leadership and work strengths and styles blended with our own individual tendencies, and how to manage group dynamics accordingly,” she says.

Montani believes that by having attorneys with distinct and varying leadership qualities enroll in the Academy, the Bar allowed participants to see first–hand which leadership styles blended well as they worked together on an array of team projects.

Lisa R. Neuder
People who practice law in the District of Columbia already bring a lot to the table, from their expansive work experience and political backgrounds to their community activities and education, notes Lisa R. Neuder, who specializes in financial services and tax policy. The Leadership Academy, however, helps attorneys move up to the next level, honing the “softer skills,” as she calls them. “Learning how to work with others is invaluable and has a direct impact on your professional and personal success,” Neuder says. “Whether your goal is to chair a project, committee, or serve as president of the Bar, it is necessary to learn these skills and constantly practice and apply them to any situation.”

After the three full–day sessions, Neuder had a greater sense of who she was. “This greater self–awareness has shifted my perspective, as well as the emotional quality of my interactions and relationships with my coworkers, friends, and family. This experience has brought about new and positive opportunities into my life.”

Marlon Quintanilla Paz
As a partner at Locke Lord LLP, past president of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and former national vice president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, Marlon Quintanilla Paz has demonstrated strong leadership capabilities. So why join the Leadership Academy? “I best serve my colleagues through the continued application and sharpening of leadership skills,” Paz says. “The Academy offers insights into the D.C. Bar and an opportunity to ‘look within’ to enhance leadership abilities.”

Paz was inspired by Sandman, who told personal stories to reinforce his idea that successful volunteer leadership is anchored by three critical elements: Integrity, treating others with respect, and valuing diversity. In addition, Paz was excited to learn about the many opportunities offered by the D.C. Bar to serve in meaningful ways.

Pavani Reddy
“The Leadership Academy is a great way for lawyers in D.C. to reflect on their own leadership skills in their respective workplaces and to create a personal plan for contributing to the D.C. community,” says Pavani Reddy, senior director at LexisNexis. Among the highlights for Reddy was comparing and contrasting public service with working in the private sector. 

Even though the Academy ended in April, Reddy continues to take the lessons with her—literally. She carries a notecard with her that lists the five “must dos” as a leader: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. “[The list] also includes what leaders must offer to those around them: Trust, compassion, stability, and hope. When work and other commitments get tough, these are a few of my go–to ideas I learned from the Leadership Academy that will have a lasting impact. I encourage others to participate in this program to enhance their leadership skill set.”

Jonathan K. Tycko
As an experienced litigator at Tycko & Zavareei LLP, Jonathan K. Tycko has worked on numerous civil litigation cases, from whistleblower suits to consumer class actions, but he wanted the opportunity to improve his skills beyond what he was taught in school or practiced at his job.

He recalls one session focused on how to run a meeting. “That was a bit of an eye–opener because I run a lot of meetings, but found that I was making some classic mistakes. Even though I’ve participated in more meetings than I care to count, this was the first time I’d ever sat back and thought about ‘running meetings’ as a separate skill that could be learned and improved. Turns out that it is. Who knew?” he says.

Tycko believes that the Leadership Academy would be a great program for attorneys interested in developing professional experience beyond their specific practice areas. “The Academy is a useful place to think about other roles you might be able to play in the profession or the community. And it gives you some tools to use in those other roles.”

Angela Varner
Finding time for both life and work is always a balancing act. Add in volunteer opportunities and leadership roles, and the scales can often tip. Angela Varner, an attorney–advisor for the Transportation Security Administration, thought it was refreshing to hear Bar leaders discuss how they juggle family life, their jobs, and volunteer work. Keenan’s speech on her own personal experiences was especially memorable. “She was very inspiring,” Varner says. “To hear Kim describe her background demonstrates her deep commitment to the practice of law. I enjoyed hearing about triumphs and tribulations while becoming a leader, and how her experiences helped her evolve into a great leader.”

Part of Varner’s evolution during the program was improving “the ability to better identify and manage my emotions in more constructive ways. Then take those emotions and use them to better engage with others, including clients, peers, and managers.”

Alva Waller
Broken up into teams of three, participants of the Leadership Academy had one goal in mind: Build the tallest tower with a limited amount of supplies. It was a contest with no rules. Alva Waller, chief executive officer of Legal Resolutions Inc., remembers two of the three groups collaborating and producing big structures. “The other team refused to join forces, and as a result, the tower was not only the shortest, but it fell,” she says. “I learned that success doesn’t have to always be competitive. You can work with your competitor and get a desirable result without losing your independence. You may even go further than anticipated in record time.”

The building exercise was one of many valuable lessons for Waller, who learned how to appreciate her strengths and work with others with differing and possibly conflicting viewpoints. “I learned the value of following a leader and how to conduct a very difficult meeting and accomplish goals at the same time,” Waller says. “You leave the Academy feeling confident and motivated to go out and do great things in the business and community arenas.”

Christopher P. Zubowicz
Leaders come in many forms. They have varying visions and drastically different methods, but for Christopher P. Zubowicz, an attorney–advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice, an important characteristic of all leadership is going beyond the daily practice of law. During the Academy, he distinctly remembers Sandman’s remarks. “He emphasized the idea of leadership as service to others, which is a principle that should govern all of our professional lives,” Zubowicz says. Helping others is key to finding both professional and personal fulfillment.

With this in mind, Zubowicz was happy to learn through the Academy about the numerous ways to support local nonprofits through the D.C. Bar, including its Community Economic Development Project. “[The Leadership Academy] offers leadership strategies that you can put into practice right away, in any setting. I am especially excited about using these tools to become a more effective board member for Jobs for Homeless People,” Zubowicz says.

We’re Looking for the Next Class of Leaders

Applications for the next class of the D.C. Bar Leadership Academy will be available this fall. The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. on Friday, December 6. Sessions will be held in March and April of 2014. For more information, visit