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Leadership and the T-shaped Lawyer


Last week, I wrote about training T-shaped lawyers and about the challenges that law schools face in matching their traditional strengths to the emerging interests and needs of the legal services industry.

I promised an example of those challenges: leadership education.

For the first time in my experience in the law, and perhaps for the first time in their institutional history, US law schools have started to invest resources in training law students and new law graduates in “leadership.” I put “leadership” in quotation marks because what “leadership development” and “leadership education” mean in law schools and the legal profession is as multi-faceted as it is important.

What are law schools doing in the leadership area, why are they doing it, and what do these efforts suggest about the futures of legal education, law, and the legal services industry?

What are law schools doing? Some law schools have launched specific courses on leadership, in the JD curriculum. Some have built program areas themed around leadership for lawyers. Some have started to express leadership as a key competency for all of their students and graduates, not only highlighting leadership as a teachable competency in specific courses or other programs but also baking leadership themes into the JD program as a whole. Some first movers in these areas have hosted symposia on law and leadership and published special law journal issues coming out of the events. Take a look at this bundle of resources assembled at Santa Clara Law , and this symposium issue of the Tennessee Law Review.

For a good overview of the diversity of practices and perspectives represented in this area, see this recent webinar. Formally, law professors and law schools prioritizing leadership education have organized themselves into a “Section” of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). For non-academic readers, that means that “leadership education” is now part of the official bureaucracy of US legal education; sessions and panels on “leadership” will become part of the regular program at annual AALS gatherings and perhaps otherwise. Substantively, the “Section” identity gives “leadership development” some important visibility in law schools as curricula are shaped, budgets are allocated, schools are evaluated for accreditation purposes, and others. Leadership educators have a modest but important new seat at some critical tables.

Why are they doing it? The instinct to invest in leadership development in law schools comes from two different directions. Some leadership training programs and courses are more clearly associated with one rather than the other. Many are blends. By identifying the two directions, I mean to illustrate something about the present and future of law and legal services, and something about “T-shaped” lawyers in particular, rather than to praise one approach and demean the other.

One instinct to train new lawyers in leadership is to train new lawyers as leaders. This view builds on one classic identity of lawyers in society, as political and civic leaders as well as heads of complex organizations, including law firms and government offices. Anthony Kronman wrote elegantly in The Lost Lawyer of the “lawyer-statesman” ideal, and there is something in that label that speaks to leadership as critical to the lawyer’s role in society, ethically as well as functionally. If lawyers are leaders – directing things, organizing things, running things, deciding things, and so on – then lawyers should be trained to be leaders, rather than have leadership responsibilities thrust upon them. Not surprisingly, this vision is linked to professional responsibility and ethics education.

In “T-shaped” terms, this strategy invests in strengthening and broadening the “vertical” part of the professional’s T-shape, or the person’s core professional identity and competency.

A second and quite different instinct to train new lawyers in leadership is to train new lawyers in leadership skills and competencies, believing that these are valuable parts of a new professional’s portfolio no matter what career paths they follow. This approach is borrowed explicitly or implicitly from management education, which we might trace to Peter Drucker or, to invoke my preferred model, Frances Hesselbein. The point is that lawyers, like all professionals, are effective primarily in organizational or institutional terms. Those settings might be formal (firms) or informal (small groups, volunteer or community organizations). To Drucker, Hesselbein and others in that tradition (Jim Collins, for example), leadership is best understood and expressed in terms of competencies that help individuals know who they are. That self-awareness can help their organizations thrive, because self-awareness is a critical first step in understanding how one’s actions affect others. Those who approach leadership in law from this perspective seem not to share an intellectual or cultural foundation. Many of them (for I am one) come to leadership as a field having learned critical lessons about organizational behavior and success in some other setting, possibly unrelated to law. But paths to leadership education, like paths to leadership itself, are diverse.

In “T-shaped” terms, there is little in this second approach that speaks distinctively or differently to law or lawyers. The strategy invests in broadening and strengthening the “horizontal” part of the professional’s T-shape, or novel and diverse identities and competencies.

What does leadership education for lawyers signify for the future? My points here are (i) the T-shaped lawyer represents the future of the profession and of legal services, (ii) current law schools are ill-equipped to train the T-shaped lawyer (as I argued in the last post), but (iii) new modes of leadership education in law schools suggest that (ii) is a solvable problem, at least in part.

Readers with a historical bent will note echoes of a long-standing spectrum describing the lawyer’s identity as “profession” (at one end) and as “craft” (at the other end). The “professional” identity usually has the upper hand in public imaginings of law and in lawyers’ collective self-definition. Law professors insist that they are not merely teaching legal doctrine but are, in addition, laying the foundations for the exercise of professional judgment. Yet lawyers’ “craft” identity never disappears, and it can’t. Too much legal practice really is craft. Judgment itself is, in many ways, the lawyer’s craft.

But the different instincts animating leadership programs in law schools suggest a final observation. Law schools and the legal profession confront a change management problem: how to build and institutionalize what might be conceived as an entirely new field of legal education, in the face of a well-established existing institution. The new field, represented by a group of insurgents, proposes that it is rightly tuned to the needs of the emerging legal services industry. It is flexible and dynamic and inclusive in useful and important ways. Existing institutions risk stagnation, or worse, because they are fundamentally backward looking. Present institutions and hierarchies are highly evolved to address the needs of a now-fading marketplace. New institutions are needed.

The political scientist Andy Markovits illustrated the basic challenge here in a recent book about women in football (soccer).

One strategy for the newcomers is to organize the insurgency, as it were, from outside an incumbent hierarchy. The women’s game has succeeded over the last 30+ years, where and to the extent that it has succeeded, largely by keeping a healthy distance from the men’s game, culturally, bureaucratically, and financially. It is “women’s soccer,” in part. Some of that separateness was forced upon women by incumbents; some was adopted intentionally. Over time, that separate identity has become a strength.

Some advocates of leadership for lawyers in particular and of T-shaped lawyering in general seem to be using analogous tactics, by setting up institutes, programs, and courses that operate adjacent to but not necessarily as parts and parcels of the core JD program. The Drucker/Hesselbein/Collins vision of leadership may be difficult to harmonize with traditional legal education and so may be easier to establish, initially, on a kind of “outsider” model.

An alternative strategy is to work from within, to advocate for evolution and inclusion by situating new groups and interests within the existing hierarchy. Increasingly, women’s soccer is not content to succeed on its own; today, professional women players are asking FIFA and national federations for playing conditions, compensation, and other organizational support that is equal to what their male colleagues receive. To a significant extent, this is women playing “soccer,” one game, not women playing “women’s soccer,” a separate game.

Some advocates of leadership for lawyers and T-shaped lawyering seem to be using similar “work from within” tactics, particularly by aligning leadership programs with long-standing and broadly accepted professional responsibility and ethics teaching and research, or with clinical education, or both.

Conclusion: As Markovits argues, each strategy confronts barriers; neither is right for all places or all times. The future of leadership for lawyers and the future of the T-shaped lawyer are and will be blends of both. It was argued back in the Reagan years that “personnel is policy,” and that may be the bottom line here, too. As these educational and professional development movements evolve, pay attention to who is doing the teaching and training. That will tell all of us a lot about what is really happening, and what is not.