Lawyers are Leading Higher Education as Advocates Call for More Formal Leadership Training in Legal Education

Patricia E. Salkin*

My recent research on the exponential increase in the number of lawyers leading colleges and universities has prompted an exploration into the what it is in legal education that prepares lawyers for key campus leadership positions. Since the 1980s the number of lawyer presidents has almost doubled every decade, starting with 47 in the 1980s and reaching a high of 289 in the 2010s. Some of these lawyers leaders have government experience, others served as general counsel, and many have had significant fundraising experience.  The number of women lawyer presidents has also increased paralleling their rise to prominence within the legal profession.

Lawyers are prone to describe themselves as creative problem solvers who possess necessary leadership skills for success as leaders in law firms, government, business and increasingly in higher education. But are lawyers born leaders or do lawyers acquire leadership skills as part of their formal academic training?  Until very recently, few if any law schools historically included leadership training as a distinct topic of study in the curriculum. In fact Professor Deborah Rhode wrote in one of the first newsletters of the AALS Section on Leadership, “As you all know, it is a shameful irony that the occupation that produces the greatest number of American leaders has done so little to effectively and intentionally prepare them for that role. Although the legal profession accounts for only about .4 percent of the population, it has supplied a majority of American presidents, and innumerable leaders throughout the public and private sector. Few of these individuals receive any formal leadership training in law schools.”  She reiterated this sentiment during an AALS interview calling on law schools to embrace the need for more formal leadership training, which can and should be more intentionally learned.

Surprisingly, contributions to the Best Practices in Legal Education blog have paid little attention to this critical topic. Scattered posts have focused on the addition of a new course at one school, the establishment of the new AALS Section on Leadership and a workshop for law professors interested in integrating leadership related topics into classes, and the launch of the Leading as Lawyers Blog.   Yet the call for more deliberate inclusion of leadership studies in legal education is rising. Thanks in large part of the efforts of Baylor Law Associate Dean Leah Teague, in 2017 the American Association of Law Schools charted the new Section on Leadership, “to promote scholarship, teaching and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.” A panel discussion moderated by Baylor Dean Bradley J.B. Toben on Leadership Programming in Law Schools at the 2020 Baylor Law School Vision for Leadership Conference noted that 80 of the 203 law schools now have some form of leadership development for students. UIC John Marshall Dean Darby Dickerson posited that because of legal training, lawyers are well-positioned to be leaders in a VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).  She explained that lawyers are trained to: continuously ask hard questions; find the essence of the problem by breaking it down into subparts – taking it apart and putting it together again; use multiple perspectives; be problem-solvers; analyze and cope with fact gaps and ambiguity; understand agreements and honor commitments; communicate clearly and concisely; and be life-long learners. All of this and more are important skills for effective leaders.

In one of her seminal books, Deborah Rhode, writing about leadership traits of lawyers, noted that despite the robust literature on “trait theories” of leadership, the context and roles in which lawyers function are critically important. She explained that the widely accepted traits of successful leaders include:

            values (such as integrity, honesty, trust and an ethic of service);      

            personal skills (such as self-awareness, self-control, and self-direction);

            interpersonal skills (such as social awareness, empathy, persuasion, and conflict

            management);

            vision (such as a forward-looking and inspirational); and

technical competence (such as knowledge, preparation and judgment). (Rhode, Deborah, Lawyers as Leaders, Oxford University Press 2013)

The Center for Creative Leadership identified ten core skills that effective leaders possess, only a few of which overlap with Rhode’s list:  integrity; ability to delegate; communication; self-awareness; gratitude; learning agility; influence; empathy; courage; and respect.  Two skills that lawyer pride themselves on, creativity (e.g., creative problem solvers) and innovation are missing from this list.  The intersection between leadership and creativity has not been widely studied.  Ben Heineman, Jr., in his essay on Lawyers as Leaders, called upon law schools to require students to create and not just critique as part of their education. In a recently published article, University of Idaho College of Law Professor John Dykstra made a compelling case for fostering and teaching creativity in the law school curriculum, and he suggested ways in which it can be incorporated into Legal Writing programs.

All of these identified traits and/or skills could be deliberately mapped through the curriculum in addition to offering focused seminars on leadership for lawyers.  For example, Columbia Law School has developed a Leadership Competency Matrix that focuses on how lawyers lead self, lead others and lead change through: vision and strategy, management and teamwork, problem solving, cultural literacy, and learning and improvement.   

The good news is that law schools are starting to heed the call for increased leadership training. In addition to the annual Baylor Law conferences, in November 2019 the Freedman Institute of Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law hosted a conference at the Association of the Bar of the City on training lawyers as leaders.  Formal programs on leadership for lawyers (e.g., more than simply a course) exist at a number of schools including:  Baylor Law School,  Santa Clara University School, University of Tennessee College of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and the Moritz School of Law at Ohio State University.  The following is an illustrative but not exhaustive list of law school courses and programs on leadership: Albany Law; Baylor Law; Berkeley Law; Cleveland-Marshall School of Law; Columbia Law; Creighton University School of Law; Elon Law; George Mason University- Antonin Scalia Law School; NYU Law; Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law School; Santa Clara Law School; Stanford Law School; Tennessee College of Law; Texas A&M School of law; University of Chicago Law School; University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law and Pritzker School of Law Northwestern University; University of San Francisco School of Law; and Villanova University School of Law School.

In January 2021 the legal profession lost a giant with the passing of Deborah Rhode the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School. One way in which legal academy can pay tribute to Professor Rhode is to continue to answer her call for more formal training on leadership across the law school curriculum.

*Patricia Salkin is Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for Touro College and University System and Provost for the Graduate and Professional Divisions at Touro College.  She is the former Dean of the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Touro Law Center.  This piece is based upon her PhD dissertation research at the University of the Arts (PhD in Creativity anticipated May 2022).

Leadership Education in Law School: You’re Already Providing It

Regardless of whether they think of themselves as leaders, our law students will play a leadership role for the rest of their lives. Certainly many will be leaders in their local legal community, in their law offices, and in various bar associations. But beyond that, all lawyers will be expected to lead outside of their law practices. As a lawyer (and sometimes the only lawyer) in their community group, family, or organization, they will be looked to for leadership.

Just as our students may not recognize themselves as leaders, we may not recognize ourselves as teachers of leadership. But we are. Most of our classes provide excellent opportunities to talk about leadership, even if “leadership” is not in the title. And we model leadership in how we treat our students and other members of the law school, how we contribute to and connect with our communities, and how we help move our law schools forward to address the changing profession.

Recognizing the growing interest in leadership education for lawyers, the AALS Section on Leadership was chartered in November 2017. The section describes its purpose as promoting “scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.” This section is a great place to start for a law professor who wants to learn more about leadership education.

Law professors interested in getting some innovative ideas for integrating leadership-related topics into their classes should consider attending a workshop and roundtable at the University of Tennessee College of Law on April 4-5, 2019. The program is titled Leadership Development for Lawyers. The “workshop” day of the program will give attendees the chance to choose two of four interactive sessions: collaborating with career services; integrating well-being into leadership curricula; assessing leadership development efforts; and effective leadership skill development exercises. Then, the “roundtable” day of the program will provide an opportunity for conference attendees and panelists to share ideas and experiences in leadership education.

The goal of the Tennessee workshop and roundtable is to bring together a large group of legal educators who are working in the area of lawyer leadership education–including professors who don’t (currently) think of themselves as “leadership” teachers.

 

 

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