Journal of Leadership and the Law





Chantelle Lytle:  Mr. Hembree, the focus of today’s interview will involve your leadership within three areas: your law career, your community involvement and your Senate campaign.  Before we discuss these major areas, let’s begin by introducing your story of how you came to be interested in the law and what sparked your legal career.

Solicitor for the fifteenth judicial circuit of South Carolina J. Gregory HembreeGreg Hembree:  I became interested in the law in junior high school. I had a Civics teacher who had our class compete in a mock trial so that we could learn about the court system. We tried a criminal case that took place at the turn of the last century – right around 1895.  A doctor had allegedly murdered his wife and disposed of her body.  The only evidence that the police found were some of her teeth in the drain of the bath tub.  This was based on a true story.

Everyone in the class played a role.  We had judges, bailiffs, jurors and attorneys.  I was lead counsel for the defense team.  After trying the case every day for two weeks, my team ultimately got a 'not guilty' verdict, so we won.  I have always been fairly competitive, so I enjoyed the competitive nature of the mock trial. Ever since I was a little kid, I have enjoyed competing and framing arguments.  That was something my dad taught us.  We would sit around the dinner table where he would challenge us, and we would have to support our arguments.  All of this collided in that mock trial – these natural inclinations I had.  At that point, I decided to be a lawyer, and ultimately set my course to go to law school.

CL:  You mention your dad being the foundation of your analytical instincts.  Do you feel as though he influenced your ultimate decision to become a lawyer?

GH:  Yes, my dad had a lot of influence in that respect as far as teaching me how to think critically. He had been successful as a dentist and had built up his practice substantially.  It was rolling along nicely, but he didn't enjoy it.  He enjoyed public service better, so he gave up his dental practice and began teaching.  He taught dentistry and that was his career.  I guess some people don't think of dentists as public servants, but they are.  He loved his profession and felt an obligation to make it the best it could possibly be.  The best way to do that was through teaching.  I watched that, and grew up around that.  Not only did he influence me in his forensic skills, but more from a leadership standpoint and a public service standpoint.

CL:  Now that I understand what sparked your legal interests, let's discuss your law school experience and ultimately, your law career.  What was a significant leadership role or position you held while in law school?

GH:  I had been very involved in leadership in both high school and college.  I was an officer in student council, Student Body President, and was also involved in a lot of organizations.  I was always volunteering somewhere and doing something.  I was also in the Student Senate in college and served as President of my fraternity.  These leadership roles were a large part of my life for a long time.  The truth is that I had had such a challenging experience as President of my fraternity that I threw up my hands and said that I didn’t want to be President of anything.  In law school, I did not participate in any of the leadership opportunities that were available. I went to class, did my course work and worked at my job because I was putting myself through school.  I didn’t want to borrow money, so I was working a lot and I just kept my nose to the grindstone.  I didn't get involved in leadership at all, and actually took a hiatus from leadership for a few years.

CL:  That is very surprising to me, knowing that you now serve in the highest leadership position in the Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor’s Office of Conway.  How did you transition into your position as Solicitor from a law school experience without any leadership involvement?

GH:  My dream was always to be a prosecutor.  I was interested in criminal law, and prosecution suited my personality and my nature better than defense.  However, when I got out of law school, I couldn’t get hired.  Ultimately, a guy who was a friend of mine failed the Bar.  He had a job lined up as a prosecutor, and that office needed someone quick.  I took that job as an Assistant Solicitor in the Fifth Circuit of South Carolina.  Turns out, someone else’s bad fortune landed me a job that ultimately took me on this path to my current position.  That was a life-changing event.  Had it not happened that way, I do not know what I would be doing.

In this first job as an Assistant Solicitor in Columbia, South Carolina, I worked for a fairly large office.  My first boss was in the last few years of his administration, so he was pretty well done and not very active in our office at that point.  It was a great experience, and I learned so much of what to do and what not to do.  We did some great work, but we also did a lot of things the wrong way because we just did not have good leadership.  Our elected Solicitor was on his way to retirement and checked out.  We had a Deputy Solicitor, but he was not the Solicitor.  He did the best he could, but it was kind of like a ship without a rudder.  I learned important lessons that have helped me now.  I learned that you cannot let things run themselves.  You have to stay involved.  There is a critical role for the Solicitor to be the leader of the office, even if that Solicitor isn’t trying very many cases.

CL:  After being employed within an office that did not have a strong leadership presence, how have you attempted to fill that gap within your office now?

GH:  You have to have some kind of plan and a philosophy for any organization, office or endeavor.  You need to share that plan and philosophy.  If you have a brilliant plan and philosophy, but you don’t communicate it effectively, then you may as well put the plan in a binder to leave on the shelf.  It will be meaningless.  Leadership success is so much about sharing the plan and sharing with enthusiasm.  That’s a critical step – if you're enthusiastic about it, let people see that enthusiasm and get them to understand.

Notice that I am saying the words 'philosophy' and 'plan' together, but they are different.  The 'plan' is the management part of it – I call it the "head."  The 'philosophy' is the "why" behind what you are doing – I call it the "heart."  The head being the plan, and the heart being the philosophy.  Why are we doing it?  What are we trying to accomplish?  How will this help kids avoid the criminal justice system?  How will this make our communities safer?  Whatever you are trying to achieve, you must take time to do it.  You've got to take time to share the plan itself, but also share the philosophy behind why your plan is important.  This step, procedure or form – why is it important to implement?  If people understand your philosophy, they will buy into your plan.

The second part to achieving effective leadership is finding the right people to implement the plan.  I have interviewed a lot of lawyers, and I have hired a lot of lawyers.  I do all of the hiring in this office, but I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me who will be the most effective leaders to implement plans.  I've read books about what you should look for and how you should conduct the interviews.  I don’t know that I'm the best interviewer, but I know that if we get the wrong people in, it will not matter how good the plan is.

CL:  You mention the importance of finding the "right people" to implement the plan. Are there certain qualities or criteria that you look for in a lawyer to help you determine whether he or she will be an effective leader?

GH:  What I look for in people is not so much that they were the "A" students in the class.  Sure, it shows good work ethic and a high degree of intelligence. The truth is, though, that you learn a lot of good stuff in law school, but you learn a whole different type of information when you are in practice.  How you practice is so different from the theory taught in law school.  In every office you are in, you will be taught how to present opening arguments and how to manage preliminary hearings.  We can teach those things to almost any sensible person.  What I can't teach people is good judgment and integrity.  I can't teach people to look out for the other guy, and to work well with their colleagues.  I can't teach people how to treat others with respect.  These are the qualities that are more important in allowing offices to work efficiently and effectively – not whether you made a “B+” or an “A” in Contracts.  From our standpoint, it’s just not that important.  But, in some practices, it is.  I do not want to discourage good grades because a lot of offices and law firms do put a high premium on exceptionally good grades.  In my opinion, the reality of it is that when I look for a good leader, I look for good work ethic, good integrity and whether they get along well with others.  We can teach you how to do this job, how to do it effectively and to be a star.  However, I cannot teach you leadership qualities.

CL:  In addition to these qualities that you look for in job candidates, what leadership qualities do you possess that have helped you to be a successful leader within your legal career?

GH:  From a leadership standpoint, I think a lot of leadership success results from leading others to treat people fairly and to say "thank you."  It's more about how you treat those that you are leading.  I believe that if you try to build an environment both systematically and culturally that is just, employees can find happiness in their position.  So long as leaders build a just system within their office, at least employees can never say that they are getting the short end of the stick.  Where you see offices get into trouble is the presence of "first among equals" kinds of things or when leaders pick "favorites."  I try to be careful not to project any favoritism toward one employee over another.  There are inevitably lawyers whose work ethic I notice, and I appreciate them more because of what they contribute.  I would be lying if I said I didn't.  I appreciate them more because they do more.  Even the attorneys who are not successfully trying cases– if they're doing the best they can, I appreciate them, too.

All in all, building a fair and just system is important for leaders to do.  That’s important, as well as just saying "thank you."  All good leaders have a certain method in which they thank others in their office.  For me, every time someone in the office gets a verdict, I call them or I go see them to tell them "thank you" for their work, whether it is a 'guilty' or 'not guilty' verdict.  I know what it's like to try a case.  I know the anxiety, blood, sweat and tears.  I appreciate what they've gone through, and I am thankful for their efforts.  We have other methods of saying "thank you," so that is just one small way.

CL:  You have described several leadership qualities that you possess, as well as qualities that you look for in job candidates.  Conversely, have you experienced any leadership shortcomings within your own leadership or the leadership of others?

GH:  It is certainly easier to see leadership shortcomings in others than in yourself.  I offer this next piece of information because it is important for someone who is an emerging leader.  A few times, not many, but a few times, I have seen young lawyers who are talented, using good judgment and seem to have their feet on the ground.  Because of that, they begin to advance into a leadership role.  He or she is moving up in the office, but unfortunately, they cannot handle success.  Some people do not do well with success.  That change in title or raise or grant of authority that they gain goes to their head. Their ego gets involved, and unfortunately, they start believing that they are that much better than others in their office. That is a very dangerous leadership role to have.  Even in myself, as a young leader – as someone who was coming up through the office – I can recall being more selfish as a young leader.  You're looking out for the other guy, and now you're a leader, so it's all about you now.  That's a bad trap to fall into.  It's never about you.  Once you start down that road, there is a high probability that you will find yourself out of leadership or you will have a difficult time in leadership.  Those that you are leading are going to sniff that out.  They will sense selfishness and ego.  That selfishness will start driving your decision-making process and you’ll have difficulty.  I did that as a younger prosecutor.  Some people have better emotional maturity than I had when I was 30.  It took some professional setbacks, quite frankly, for me to grow up.  Aging, growing up and having children helped me move away from that mentality.  So, I guess I would say that if you find yourself moving towards a professional leadership role, you must be thoughtful about how you are treating others.  You must recognize that it’s not really about you, but about those whom you are leading.


CL:  I would like to transition into your leadership roles within the community.  What are some of the organizations or movements you are involved in within the community?

GH:  I have been involved in a lot of community service activities and organizations.  The two organizations that I have stayed the most involved in are the North Myrtle Beach Rotary Club and Ocean Drive Presbyterian.  I’ve put a lot of leadership into my church through teaching Sunday School and Bible Study.  I have also been the head of personnel and similar positions.  Because of the nature of my work in prosecuting, it collides so much with community service.  Whether it is working with a shelter for battered women or the Family Justice Center in Georgetown, [South Carolina], I am frequently involved with sitting on a committee, board or a meeting involving a committee initiative.  I am involved in initiatives that are typically geared toward children.  I am also involved in initiatives dealing with rape crisis.  There is a lot of this type of community involvement because a lot of it really does cross over with my professional work.  Quite frankly, I spend more time on these sorts of initiatives that are quasi-work related more than anything, as far as community service.

CL:  Is there a leadership role that you have held within the community that taught you something that young lawyers could benefit from?

GH:  I participated in Leadership Grand Strand.  It was sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.  I joined together with about 20 other emerging local leaders to complete a class.  The class is held on one day of the month, and we held a big public service project at the end.  It was an excellent program. I would recommend any program like this to young lawyers and anyone moving up in their career.  Most local communities have a similar program.  It was so valuable because I learned a lot of great information.  But, what was really valuable, even more so, is that it helped me to understand the different systems within the community.  However, I think more important, were the contacts and all of the networking that took place.  The relationships that I made – people that I completed that class with 20 years ago – we’re still friends.  The current Chief of Police was in my class.  He was a young lieutenant then, and I was a city attorney.  Now, I'm Chief Prosecutor and he is Chief of Police.  We have a special relationship that makes getting our work done easier.  Building those relationships is so critical to being an effective leader in the community.  People say that it is the "Good 'Ole Boy" system, but that is not so.  Being an effective leader is nothing more than building relationships.  If you take the time to build the relationships, then it is easier to get things done.  You've gained a track record with people and they trust you, so they don’t have to think about what you’re up to.


CL:  You are currently running for a State Senate seat.  What leadership qualities are you relying on in your campaign that will help you prevail?

GH:  Yes, I am running for Seat 28 of the South Carolina State Senate.  I do not have any announced Republican opposition, and I have one Democrat opponent who is a five-year incumbent.  What I learned in politics along the way – I ran for Solicitor, and now I am running for Senate – is to be truthful with people.  This is the same thing that lawyers do with a jury.  Be truthful with people, and don’t waffle on what you believe.  Share what you believe, and what your plan and philosophy are.  This is the same thing I said earlier.  Be truthful about that, and be prepared that someone doesn't like your plan and your philosophy.  That’s okay.  You won't get every vote.  It is more important to maintain your integrity than it is to sell out to gain a couple of more votes.  It is just not worth it because once you get elected, you have to lead.  You better be truthful and maintain your integrity as a candidate, so that you can use that integrity as a leader.
That's an important part of being a candidate or being elected.  Be truthful with people and with yourself.  Know where you stand.

CL:  You mention several qualities that you are using within your Senate campaign.  What qualities related to leadership specifically do you think will give you an advantage over your opponent?

GH:  My willingness to be honest is what I think will give me an advantage over my opponent.  He has reached the point where he is hesitant to take a position on anything.  It is as if he fears he will offend someone, but you need to know where he stands on issues.  It is frustrating as a constituent.  He is my Senator currently, and I have tried to work with him on issues.  I have never felt like I knew where he stood.  I can handle it if you tell me no, and that I have a bad idea.  I have a lot of bad ideas.  It happens.  But, because I’m truthful does not mean that I'll get elected.  Maybe I won't.  I have never run for a Senate Seat before, but my process is one that has worked in the past when I ran for Solicitor.  It also parallels my role as a prosecutor.  As a prosecutor, it is our job to sit down with victims.  Their son has been killed, and they want someone to be held accountable for the crime.  I certainly understand that, but if the evidence isn’t there and the case can’t be proven, it is my responsibility to be truthful, not to say something that will make me popular with the victims.  It is my responsibility legally, ethically and morally to be truthful with them and to be sensitive with them.  It really is the same concept within the Senate campaign.  Like I said, we’ll see if my method works for a State Senate seat.  Taking that approach as a candidate has helped me previously as a leader.  I firmly believe that this approach will also help me in the Senate race.

CL:  Should you get elected, you will transition from leading approximately 100 staff persons in the Solicitor’s Office to having 100,000 constituents.  How will you alter your leadership style, if at all?

GH:  I have been involved in tens of thousands of negotiations in my career.  That’s what we do with most of our cases.  We negotiate, and that's also what you do in the General Assembly.  You try to get legislation passed that is good policy and best for all concerned—the constituents.  To do that, you have to know when to give in a little, but also when to hold your ground.  That skill will translate well.  I am looking forward to that.  There is also a part within the prosecutorial process when you are at a certain point in certain cases that you really cannot, as a matter of principle and conscience, do any better.  You cannot negotiate the case, so you stand your ground and go to trial or "war" so to speak.  There will also be times in the General Assembly when you must draw the line to say that you cannot meet a person midway on an issue.  The issue will be too important or too big.  I know how to do that already because I have a lot of experience.  Truthfully, I like it.  It is fun to go to trial.  In the General Assembly, that will be a skill that I will carry over rather than alter.

Another thing is that trial lawyers are trained to go into a courtroom and do battle.  Sometimes, it gets heated and hurtful things are said.  Then, we finish the trial, and all of the lawyers on both sides go out to dinner or go play golf.  It’s interesting.  This lawyer who was just accusing me of prosecutorial misconduct is now sitting at the ballpark with me while we watch our kids play baseball together.  A great leadership trait is to be able to separate yourself where it’s not personally.  You can be passionate about an issue or a cause, and still not take it personal.  The ability to look at issues as issues and not as people is a great skill that trial lawyers have as an advantage going into the General Assembly.  A lot of people don’t understand that, or they can’t.  If you run a chain of convenience stores, all you know is that that guy got my bill killed in the General Assembly, so I don't like him anymore.  He can't put that aside, and will take the action personally.  I think lawyers have a real advantage on separating issues from people.


CL:  We have talked a lot about your own leadership styles and characteristics.  Who has been most influential in your leadership abilities?

GH:  The most influential person in my leadership career would have to be my dad.  He taught me a lot about justice and fairness.  About not getting too big for your britches.  And remembering where you came from.  I think all those things – those lessons of humility – are really about being a servant leader.  If you can retain some humility, and at the same time, lead, it is going to go well for you.  He taught me a lot, but that was an important part.

I have some more individuals who influenced me, but I will answer your question with just one person.  It wasn’t a hard question.  Dad clearly was the most influential.  I have had some bosses who were bad leaders, which was very influential.  I tell people all of the time that I have learned more from my bad bosses than I have from my good bosses.  It is helpful to recognize what not to do, so you will not want to do those things.

CL:  As a final closing remark, is there any advice you have for young, emerging leaders?

GH:  Concentrate more on being a good person as a lawyer rather than just being a good lawyer.