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Leadership for Lawyers

I ran a leadership workshop for some law students and lived to tell the tale.

And it’s a good tale, I think.

Our law school like, I suspect, many law schools, talks a lot about producing leaders for the legal profession and beyond.  But as a school, we don’t do anything to teach our students how to be or to become leaders.  Again, I suspect that mine is not the only law school to suffer from a “leadership education deficit,” or LED.  One might question whether leadership development is the sort of thing that law schools should do.  I don’t; I think that leadership development should be part of all professional education — even that it should be part of all education, period.  Judging from the posters that I see on college campuses, I’m not alone.  In the context of law schools in particular, I’m not alone.  Deborah Rhode and Amanda Packel from Stanford recently published a set of materials on leadership for legal educators. The book is called “Leadership: Law, Policy, and Management,” and you can buy it from Aspen.

When I ran my leadership workshop, I didn’t use that book.  It is a book about leadership — theories of leadership, problems and challenges facing leaders, and illustrations from the lives of leaders past and present — but not a book on how to lead, or to be a leader.  It is a solid, well-constructed, thoughtful, and suitably broad tome that covers leadership like few teaching texts do, and for the benefit of law students, it covers leadership in a style and a format that law students are familiar with.  Some primary or secondary reading, then some questions, then a hypothetical problem or two.  But no one will come away from the text, or from a course based on the text, inspired to find that they have a basic toolkit for leading an organization or a group.  The book won’t enable them — here’s my working definition of leadership — to identify and share a vision, and inspire others to participate in making that vision a reality.

What I was trying to do, in other words, was (and is) to give a group of students precisely that kind of leadership toolkit.  There is a ton of leadership literature out there to explore; the exploration can come later.

For new lawyers who anticipate marching off to a law office somewhere and executing instructions faithfully on behalf of senior lawyers and clients, “developing a vision and inspiring others to share and participate in making that vision a reality” is not the sort of thing that sounds relevant.  But scale that idea up, then scale it down, from large enterprises to an enterprise of one, and it starts to take shape as a potential piece of a lawyer’s personal and professional paths.

That was my intuition, anyway, and over the course of a morning with a small group of students I got enough positive reinforcement that I’m inclined to pursue the workshop idea again.  The workshop came about because again this year, I was solicited by our school’s public interest student organization to donate something to the annual auction.  Most of my colleagues donate dinners or rounds of golf or something else that’s fun and social.  I offered a leadership workshop, which I regarded as fun and social and … useful.  I don’t know what the auction price was, but let us assume that my colleagues who offered to bowl with students generated more money for the public interest fellows.  At least the students who bought the workshop got a visit to my house (nothing fun there), and some fruit and homemade pastries for breakfast (that counted for something, I think).

I’ll skip over the details of the session itself but would be happy to share offline with law faculty who’d like to pursue something similar.  In broad outline, seven students spent the morning with me, sharing stories of their own leadership experiences and challenges, listening to me share mine, and watching and deconstructing some well-chosen film clips — some fiction, some not.  There was homework.  Before the workshop, each of the students was given a copy of Jim Collins’s Good to Great, a book that has more than its share of B-school management jargon but, if used in the right way and with the right additional material, that is a highly thought-provoking and effective tool for getting people to see themselves in a different light.  And that was the goal of the morning:  to get the students to think of themselves in new ways, both in the short term (say, relative to roles in student organizations) and in the longer term (say, relative to other volunteer engagement or career development).

Did it pay off?  In the short term, an objective observer who watched much of the morning from a respectful distance reported that the demeanor of the students reflected a seriousness of interest.  We all had lunch together afterward, and the vibe was very positive.  I’ll have to check back with them in a few months to see whether they actually used anything that they may have learned.  As for me, I will likely repeat the experiment next year.  The LED remains pretty substantial.

(If you wonder why I put myself in this position:  For the last year and a half, I have served as chair of the alumni association at Yale, where I went to college.  That role as such isn’t the point.  The point instead is that the alumni association invests in leadership development for its alumni volunteers and also for students — this is not the fundraising side; this is the “inspire your fellow alumni to do things and lead things” side — and I’ve spent a fair amount of time helping with those programs, on both sides of the proverbial podium.)

2 thoughts on “Leadership for Lawyers”

  1. Mike, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lawyers and leadership (Ben Heineman has a book and an essay about). There’s a real pedagogical and theoretical disconnect in teaching lawyers about leadership. Almost everything we do as law professors and lawyers (technically) is reductive and propositional (including the analysis of leadership), whereas leadership includes logic, but is also affective, associational, metaphoric, etc. Moreover, to your point, thinking like a lawyer is dispassionate and objective, from the outside in as it were, whereas leadership is something one experiences from the inside out.

    Dealing with issues of leadership more often, in my experience, means dealing with what the law can’t do rather than what it can. That requires a metadisciplinary perspective that is significantly at odds with the way the academy organizes itself.

  2. The way that lawyers talk (and therefore think) gets in the way. I do it myself; I talk “about leadership.” But the workshop wasn’t about leadership, and I shouldn’t talk so much about “issues of leadership” and “leadership deficits.” Speaking of leadership makes the content propositional, as you say; it deflects attention from the real goal (well, my real goal), which is training leaders.

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