Stephen Bright Speaks on ‘Leadership in Times of Challenge’ at AALS Annual Meeting

Stephen Bright will speak on “Leadership in Times of Challenge” followed by a panel discussion, Saturday January 5, 2019, 8:30 – 10:15 am.

In no other country do lawyers play as important a leadership role as in the United States. A majority of American presidents have been lawyers, and they dominate in legislatures, government, and non-profit positions. A significant number also become corporate leaders; Stanford Law School alum Brad Smith recently became president of Microsoft after a stint as general counsel. In our local communities, lawyers are often the ones who manage the PTA, or lead neighborhood committees. Yet much of the American public distrusts lawyers and lawyers themselves receive almost no formal education in how to lead. As Center Director Professor Deborah Rhode noted in her recent book, Lawyers as Leaders,“The focus of legal education and the reward structure of legal practice undervalues interpersonal capabilities and ethical commitments that are necessary for successful leadership.” In law schools, although we have expanded the curriculum to include clinical and experiential approaches, we have not focused on developing a structured and disciplined approach to developing leadership skills. The Center’s newly launched leadership initiative hopes to change this at Stanford Law School and set an example for other institutions.

The need for leadership development for lawyers both within and beyond law school is particularly strong in light of two trends in the profession. One is the continued and increasing importance of law and regulation in a swiftly globalizing, information-driven world. International, national, and local laws interact with each other and with each of us in more direct and complicated ways. The role of the lawyer continues to expand in tandem with global and technological developments as the world looks to lawyers to structure these new interactions. Cybersecurity is one example of a new and rapidly changing issue with dramatic international, national, and personal ramifications that requires legal attention. A second trend involves the continued blurring of the line between business and the profession. The in-house bar is growing and today’s in-house counsel is expected to perform in ways beyond traditional legal knowledge and tasks and is expected to contribute actively to the business and strategy decisions of the company. Lawyers in non-profit leadership roles play a similar role.

Leadership education can contribute in a significant way to these expanded legal responsibilities. As Rhode notes, “Formal leadership programs can increase individuals’ understanding of how to exercise influence and what cognitive biases, interpersonal responses, and organizational dynamics can sabotage effectiveness.” Leadership programs can also reinforce ethical leadership through case studies and simulations. The Center’s leadership initiative will address all of these potential avenues of professional development.

The first effort of the leadership initiative is the Lawyers as Leaders speaker series. By bringing to the campus diverse examples of successful lawyer leaders, we seek to expose the students to a more complete picture of leadership possibilities and the challenges that they entail.

The series kicked off this spring with an inaugural speech by Stephen Bright, the President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights (“SCHR”). Bright’s leadership has not only guided the growth of SCHR through its legal battles (most recently successfully litigating the Foster v. Chapman death penalty case before the Supreme Court). It has also shaped social and policy advocacy movements around capital punishment, prison reform, and effective legal representation for indigent criminal defendants throughout the country. Bright explained lawyers’ outsized representation in the leadership arena as follows: “Lawyers have knowledge. They know something about the law and they know how the legal system works, and of course, the legal system affects every aspect of our society, life and liberty, who has custody of children, whether people are evicted from their home, every kind of the most fundamental things you can think of….” He stressed the importance of leaders who start from the “trenches,” close to the “pain and suffering that is going on” so that real understandings of the problems can guide legal and policy advocacy. He recalled his first years as a lawyer working for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (“AppalReD”), as fundamental to setting his course on advocacy for those “who need us desperately.”

Bright identified certain qualities as essential to successful leadership of social justice movements, particularly a deep knowledge of those whom you seek to serve and the factors affecting their lives, an ability to build a team of smart and committed people and to allow them to do their work without interference, and to be unafraid to seek help from others who know more than you do. To an observer, his speech was remarkable for lack of ego and focus on the importance of others to his success. He spoke about the significance of his original mentor Jon Rosenberg at AppalRed, his team at SCHR, the younger lawyers, and particularly the support staff. He spoke very little about his own role in the organization and in fact cautioned against the “cult of personality” that can grow around an inspiring leader.

And yet his speech distilled his singular and personal commitment to the people whom he serves and the issues to which he has dedicated his life. The stories of Bright’s work are shocking, horrifying, and demoralizing: the man whose elderly mother died of starvation while he was held in jail before trial because he could not afford bail; the death row inmate whose case was denied cert and whose lawyers informed him that he would be executed through an impersonal letter; and the legions of black men in prison or sentenced to death with little or no adequate legal representation. When asked how he has kept his energy and focus on these very challenging and emotionally draining issues for so long, he responded simply, “Outrage. Every day, everything I see going on in these cases is simply outrageous.”