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What true thought leadership means for lawyers

By Namit Oberoy.

The term ‘thought leadership’ has become somewhat of an enigma. It’s like the word synergy — overused to the point that its real meaning has been obscured. It means so much that it means nothing at all.

In professional services such as law and consulting, much of the content that masquerades as thought leadership is nothing more than recycled, formulaic content that offers little in the way of genuine insight. In truth, many so-called ‘thought leaders’ today are simply parroting ideas that have been reiterated ad nauseam, or worse, presenting borrowed viewpoints as one’s own original thinking.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics; it leads to real-world confusion. Law firms, for example, frequently allocate significant capital to what they mistakenly believe to be thought leadership. Similarly, it's not uncommon for lawyers to confidently assert that thought leadership ‘doesn't work,’ oblivious to the fact that their understanding of the concept is fundamentally at odds with what their clients are actually seeking.

This not only wastes financial resources but also perpetuates a cycle of mediocrity that, over time, erodes the firm’s culture and tarnishes its brand. When a firm opts for formulaic content over true thought leadership, it risks being

perceived as a ‘me-too’ service provider rather than an industry leader — a perception that often persists beyond the initial engagement.

With so much confusion around the concept, let's take a moment to clarify what thought leadership really means.

‘Thought’ signifies the outcomes of mental activities like thinking and reasoning, while 'leadership' implies guidance. Together, they form thought leadership, which is the act of shaping people’s thinking and inspiring action through one’s ideas.

With this basic understanding in mind, let's demystify what true thought leadership means, and how to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill content.

Below, I propose five criteria to help you do that.

Thought leadership goes beyond expertise

In professions like law, expertise is often considered the gold standard. So, it's common for us to conflate it with thought leadership.

Consider a barrister who is known for winning a number of high-profile cases, has a reputation for his grasp over legal theory, and a knack for navigating procedure. This is someone society sees as an expert.

In a field like law, experts excel at two kinds of knowledge: propositional, which helps them understand and apply the law, and procedural knowledge, which helps them navigate the law. For example, we might expect a corporate law expert to know the ins and outs of company law, precedents, and best practices (propositional), along with the practical skill to negotiate a favourable settlement for a client (procedural).

Thought leadership goes beyond propositions and procedures, and introduces a third “P” into the equation: perspective.

Thought leaders have a unique perspective into their field, which has been shaped by years of deep insight. This perspective allows them to see not just the trees but the entire forest, understanding the broader implications and deeper meanings in their area of expertise. They approach complex issues with a nuanced understanding that most experts lack.

It's this ability to see things differently — and more completely — that sets a thought leader apart from an expert. Thought leaders are skilled at navigating between different perspectives, discovering hidden patterns, and synthesising them into insights. That’s how they arrive at insights that are as innovative as they are effective.

While expertise is a prerequisite, it doesn't automatically make one a thought leader. The distinction lies in the ability to translate that expertise into a unique perspective that can shape public opinion and inspire change.

Take, for example, an attorney who not only excels in her practice but also actively writes and speaks about the need for legal reform, thereby influencing policymakers. Such an individual isn’t just an expert, she’s a thought leader.

Thought leadership is future-facing

Think back to the last ten business books you've read. While many of them might be New York Times bestsellers or even considered seminal works in their respective fields, you will not qualify all of them as thought leadership. Why?

Because, as a society, we've come to expect thought leadership to do more than just provide expertise or analysis. We expect it to offer a vision for the future — a roadmap of sorts — that helps us understand where we are, how we got here, and most importantly, where we are going.

So, while the term "thought leadership" doesn't inherently imply a future orientation, societal and cultural expectations have evolved to associate it with forward-thinking perspectives.

Readers turn to thought leaders to make sense of complex, often unprecedented challenges. These challenges, whether they are legal reforms or societal shifts, are tinged with a sense of urgency and anxiety about what lies ahead. In the face of this uncertainty, we look to thought leaders because they have specialised knowledge and unique insights into areas that we don’t. They serve as our navigational aids, shaping our thinking and guiding our actions.

For example, when new privacy laws are on the horizon that could drastically change the landscape of digital marketing, expert attorneys in data privacy can offer more than just a legal interpretation; they can provide a strategic roadmap. This foresight enables businesses to adapt their operations and strategies well before the new laws take effect, thereby avoiding costly compliance issues.

Similarly, in times of social upheaval or civil unrest, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the #MeToo campaign, legal thought leaders can provide a framework for understanding our rights and responsibilities and offer actionable insights that ease societal anxiety.

Thought leadership is not safe

In the legal profession, neutrality often disguises itself as a virtue. Lawyers are trained to dissect facts and interpret statutes with a dispassionate eye.

While neutrality may be valuable in some situations, lawyers tend to bring the same mindset when writing and sharing their insights with the world, which does a disservice to their audience.

Neutral content refrains from taking a stance, expressing an opinion, or advocating or against a particular viewpoint. It employs what are commonly referred to as weasel words, like ‘it could be argued’ or ‘reasonable’, to couch statements in ambiguity and make broad statements without unsubstantiated claims.

While they may give the illusion of objectivity, all they really do is dilute the message and leave readers disengaged and emotionally unresponsive. The safety it brings comes at a high cost — of relevance, impact, and ultimately, influence.

Neutral content, devoid of personal insights or emotions, fails to connect on a human level. It becomes a sterile exercise in fact-reporting, lacking the richness that comes from individual perspectives.

Law blogs and publications are littered with this type of content. Often, a law firm partner and an associate will co-author an analysis of a recent case. They meticulously outline the case's context, facts, and arguments, only to tuck a brief, almost unnoticeable opinion in the middle or at the end. Even here, the language would be laced with weasel words like ‘it remains to be seen’, diluting their impact.

True thought leadership is about offering a viewpoint that has the power to ignite minds and catalyse change. Content that leaves its audience emotionally numb and intellectually unengaged fails in this fundamental aspect. It may be safe, but it's far from being thought leadership.

Thought leadership is not scalable

I often work with lawyers who are eager to produce as much content as possible in the shortest amount of time. However, unlike more straightforward tasks like case summaries or fact-reporting, thought leadership isn't something you can churn out en masse.

Even within a law firm teeming with talent, only a fraction of attorneys can consistently produce content that qualifies as genuine thought leadership. This is because the very qualities that make thought leadership impactful — such as a unique perspective and the ability to shape public opinion — also make it inherently unscalable.

Sure, you can aggregate insights from attorneys across the firm, and even streamline the capture and organisation process through an efficient knowledge management system. But, the thinking and articulation will always require time; there's no shortcut to manufacturing wisdom. Even with the right culture and infrastructure, the quality of thought leadership will always be constrained by the individual capacities of its contributors.

The dilemma here is between quality and quantity; you just can't have it both ways. Rushing the process compromises not just the quality but also risks burning out the attorneys capable of such deep work. These are often the same attorneys engaged in the most demanding billable work in the firm. Overburdening them with unrealistic content expectations will lead to burnout, affecting both their legal work and their ability to produce future insights.

So, what's the solution? The focus should not be on how to scale thought leadership, but on how to nurture it. Start by recognising the attorneys who have the potential for thought leadership and give them the space and resources they need. Implementing systems and processes like a knowledge management system, collaborative platforms, and mentorship programs can go a long way in achieving this.

While the idea of scaling thought leadership is tempting, it’s ‘hacky’ and rather misguided. The value of true thought leadership lies in its scarcity and depth, not its ubiquity. The goal should be to cultivate, not commoditise, this invaluable asset.

Thought leadership is valuable

If a piece of content, no matter how forward-facing or eloquently written, fails to deliver value, it’s useless. Likewise, if a perspective is unique but doesn’t resonate with the reader, it’s ultimately useless.

While it's tempting to focus on the 'thought' aspect of thought leadership, emphasising groundbreaking or innovative ideas, the 'leadership' component is equally crucial and often overlooked. Thought leadership is not just about presenting new ideas but using those ideas as a vehicle to guide or direct the reader's worldview in a meaningful way.

The primary task of any thought leadership piece, then, is to change the way they sees the world. It's about shaping thinking, changing perspectives, and providing that proverbial 'aha' moment. This is the moment when a complex issue that has been gnawing at the reader suddenly becomes crystal clear. It's the moment when they 'get it.' The real measure of value is the ability to induce this transformative moment in the reader.

However, this is often the hardest thing to do for an attorney; it’s often their Achilles’ heel. Lawyers articulate their knowledge using their own linguistic patterns, frameworks, and thought processes. But readers, especially those not well-versed in the subject, approach the content with a different set of cognitive tools. This leads to a situation in which the expert has said a lot, but too little has been conveyed to the reader. When this mismatch occurs, the writing fails in its primary job: to provide value.

So, as groundbreaking as your ideas may be, if they don't make a lasting impact, they have failed in their core mission. The true test isn't just the brilliance of your ideas but your ability to resonate, transform, and guide. Anything less falls short of genuine thought leadership.

The role of thought leadership in the legal profession

As professionals, we’re constantly being told to ‘create content’ and ‘get ourselves out there’. Driven by the fear of missing out and a need for relevance, we find ourselves diving headlong into the social media game. Yet, we do so without a clear purpose, without having anything specific to say, and offering little in the way of genuine insight — all the while stealing time from our professional practices and detracting from our roles as business and practice leaders.

In a world fixated on likes and followers, true thought leadership is becoming increasingly rare. Yet, it’s precisely what clients are seeking: succinct, well-articulated insight that helps shape their understanding of complex issues and guide their decisions.

As genuine experts, we owe it to ourselves to wake up from this marketing myopia and instead do what our clients expect us to do — share our specialised knowledge and insights to guide their thinking on the most pressing issues that keep them up at night.

For expertise-driven law firms, thought leadership is the most potent business development tool available today. Thought leadership elevates lawyers from mere service providers to trusted advisors, and profoundly impacts the dynamics of client relationships. The trust and credibility that thought leadership brings leads to highly tangible real-world outcomes, such as shortened sales cycles, reduced turnover, longer engagement, increased cross-selling, and overall more fulfilling and less draining client relationships. The most significant impact of thought leadership, however, is on the firm's culture and brand. Thought leadership fosters a culture of deep work and intellectual rigour, training attorneys to think beyond the case in front of them. They learn to see the broader implications of legal issues, to connect the dots in a way that adds value not just to their practice but to the clients they serve. This culture becomes a virtuous cycle of excellence, attracting both talent and clients who value intellectual depth.

In the end, thought leadership is the highest form of service we can offer — to our clients, our firms, and society at large. It's not just about being the best in the world, but the best for the world.


About the author

Namit Oberoy is the Founder and Principal of Sidebar, a legal marketing firm, and writes The Business of Law newsletter on Substack. Connect with Namit on LinkedIn.

#NamitOberoy #thoughtleader #legal #businessdevelopment #culture #brand

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