Advancing Leadership Education in Law

Something Old, Something New;
Something Borrowed, Something (Red and) Blue

By Kellye Y. Testy 1

Lawyers are leaders.  What’s new about that?  Not much.  Lawyers have always served as leaders in many different forms and ways.  Those include formal business leadership (e.g., President, Chairman), service (e.g., Mayor, Governor, Reverend), and leadership that arises not from title or position but from persuasion, whether moral, ethical, political, or intellectual. Despite the pervasiveness of leadership roles and expectations for lawyers, legal education did not – at least on the surface – purport to include leadership development as an area of its curriculum until relatively recently.  Indeed, only a decade ago when I asked my faculty to consider adding leadership education as a strong theme of our curriculum, the most common response was “that’s for the business school.”

Today, however – and fortunately in my view — legal education is taking leadership education seriously.  Not only are there many examples of outstanding law and leadership programs in our nation’s law schools, but that groundswell has enabled the formation of this new AALS Section on Law and Leadership.  It was an honor to participate in its first program at the 2019 AALS Annual Meeting, and I’m pleased to share here a summary and some additional thoughts on the topic.  To keep it short for this column, I’m organizing my points into something “old,” something “new,” something “borrowed,” and – bear with me – something “red and blue.”

Something “old”

As noted above, it is not a new insight that lawyers serve as leaders in many capacities, both formal and informal.  As legal education increasingly embraces leadership skills as ones that can and should be taught as part of the law school curriculum, it is important to recognize that many elements of leadership education have always been part of legal education, even though they may not have been explicitly called out as such.  Combining the “old” with the “new” can help us be more efficient in delivering maximum value to our students by not unnecessarily repeating something under a new name that is already being covered.  Thus, for instance, law schools already do a good job in several key areas of focus for leadership education, including honing “difficult conversation” skills, nurturing the ability to lean into ambiguity, inspiring reflection on values and ethics, and cultivating the ability to “see around corners.”  Understanding these as leadership skills makes it easy to see why law-educated individuals are often so successful as leaders.  Imagine how much more we can add to our students’ leadership capacities by building on this solid platform with intentionality.

Something “new”

While we are not starting from scratch in developing leadership education in law, there is a great deal that we still need to add.  Legal education has always been more about the “head” than the “heart,” and leadership education at its best blends both.  That is not to say that there are not currently elements of legal education that engage the whole person (kudos to our nation’s clinical programs!), but that has not been the norm to date.  In my view, the high levels of depression and other emotional struggles in the legal profession are symptoms of this disconnect.  Likewise, just as legal education has not nurtured care for own hearts, it has not nurtured care for others’ hearts either.  Effective leadership requires engaging with others emotionally as well as cognitively.  Leaders are often called upon to manage changes in which the largest obstacles are emotions of loss and fear. Change management is growing as an important area of focus for the legal profession, and thus an important dimension of legal education.  As many forces continue to reshape legal services and legal education, and challenges to the rule of law proliferate both at home and abroad, the capacity for leadership in our profession and in our world has never been more important. 

Something “borrowed”

The something borrowed example picks up on my former faculty’s early resistance to teaching leadership in the law school – business schools have been doing this for a long time.  In my view, that is no reason for us not to do it; after all, why should we prepare our business titans to be leaders but not our legal titans?  But it does mean that we need not start from scratch.  In business, as well as in leading schools of public policy, there are many outstanding examples of teaching and scholarly resources on leadership.  That does not mean that we need to rely on every new trade book promising the next great secret to effective leadership.  But just because a business book is more mainstream doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed as a potentially helpful resource for leadership education in law.  Business academics have far outpaced legal academics in moving their ideas into the mainstream (consider the visibility and impact of the Harvard Business Review vis-à-vis the Harvard Law Review).  I will save for another day some of my own favorites in the field, but why not walk over to your business school to collaborate with and borrow from the faculty there who teach leadership?

Something (Red and) Blue

As legal educators, our job is to nurture the leaders who will advance the rule of law and build the future of justice.  What surprises me most in hearing objections to teaching leadership as part of legal education is that it is a partisan initiative — both directions!  Some objections are that a focus on leadership might be seen as “too corporate” or “too militaristic” and thus off-putting to law students who see themselves as champions for justice.  Further, that because structural inequities mean that women, women and men of color, and others are often excluded from leadership roles, a focus on leadership might reinforce these existing inequities.  A focus on leadership education might tilt legal education more to the right than those who hold these views are comfortable with.  Others object from the opposite standpoint; for instance, that adding leadership to legal education is another example of “diluting” the curriculum with “soft” skills that undermine legal education’s rigor and tilt it “left.”

Leadership, for good and for ill, does not have a political party.  What is most important in thinking about educating leaders is that we ask “leadership for and toward what?”  If we take the most common definition of leadership as “having influence,” then we know that influence can flow in many directions.  The promise of being more intentional about teaching leadership is that to do so requires that we focus not only on skills but also on values.  Legal education should focus more on the hard questions of what it means to defend and promote the rule of law and what we want the future of justice to be in our world.  Yes, these may bring forth a need for those “difficult conversation” skills, but these are conversations worth inspiring and worth having.  Indeed, without them, we risk a world that Grant Gilmore so famously warned of: “In hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observed.”  I know we can build a better world than that, and I believe adding leadership to legal education will help.

  1. Kellye Y. Testy is the president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council, the leading assessment, data, and technology hub for law schools and their candidates in U.S., Canada, and other nations.  Testy joined LSAC after leading the University of Washington School of Law for eight years as the school’s 14th (and first woman) dean.  Prior to joining UW, she was a professor and dean of Seattle University School of Law, and she also served as President of the American Association of Law Schools in 2016.  She is the Dean’s Distinguished Fellow at Villanova Law where she assists with its growing leadership program and is a sought-after speaker and consultant on legal and higher education, leadership, diversity and access, and corporate law and governance.