BYU Law School: Inspiring Leadership Initiative

By D. Gordon Smith, BYU Law School

The Latin word spīro — often translated “to breathe” — is a component part of many modern English words. For example, conspire comes from roots meaning “breathe” and “together”; perspire comes from roots meaning breathe through; expire from breathe out; and aspire from breathe on. But my favorite spīro derivative is the word inspire, which combines roots meaning breathe into. Recounting this etymology, I am reminded of Genesis 2:7, in which God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life.” In the Latin Vulgate, the word used here is inspirare — God inspired Adam. It is not hard to see how inspire has come to mean, “To infuse some thought or feeling into (a person, etc.), as if by breathing.” (OED) At BYU Law School, we recently launched the Inspiring Leadership Initiative in the hope of infusing our students with a simple but profound idea: we can change the world for the better.

Inspiring leadership demands excellence, and we aspire to be a great law school in the same way that other law schools are great: as a source of great ideas and a training ground for great professionals. While leadership traditionally has been viewed as a natural outgrowth of legal education, we are making leadership training explicit with a suite of innovative reforms based on the belief that leaders are not best understood as heroic individuals guiding a group of followers, but rather as a community of people, each with distinctive strengths and each contributing to the success of the community’s shared mission. Thus, we promote the theme “Excellence Together,” because in our best moments at BYU Law, we learn and serve as a community.

We begin leadership training during orientation for entering law students, with a half day of interactive work on the “outward mindset” by a professional leadership trainer from the Arbinger Institute. Many new law students are focused intensely on personal objectives, and it’s easy for them to view others as vehicles to achieve those objectives, as obstacles to such achievement, or as irrelevancies that can be ignored. The purpose of our orientation training is to help our students see others as people with their own needs, challenges, and objectives. In short, with an outward mindset, our students see others as people who matter like they matter. We believe this training can change the experience of law school from isolating to supporting. 

After the first year, the Inspiring Leadership Initiative is particularly evident in our clinics and field placements, where students turn outward to serve vulnerable populations affected by the legal system. For example, in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Clinic, our professors and students create conflict resolution systems in contentious environments. In our Legal Design Clinic (aka LawX), we design legal technology solutions to improve access to justice. And in the Refugee and Immigration Initiative and the Community Law Clinic, professors work with students and alumni to represent immigrants. 

We also strive to teach our students the importance of innovation. Managers make the trains run on time, but leaders change the world for the better. Thus, in addition to the courses and clinics already mentioned, BYU Law has created several new programs to promote innovative action. Pro Bono Boot Camps facilitate service in areas such as domestic violence, housing discrimination, debt collection, and elder abuse. BYU LawStories includes a series of storytelling training sessions and a national storytelling event featuring law students. The Leadership Incubator helps students develop legal innovations for real-world implementation. And the Council of Inspiring Leaders is a donor group that supports the Annual Leadership Conference, the Leadership Study Tour, and Law and Leadership Fellowships for our students. 

Many of the components of the Inspiring Leadership Initiative are aimed at applied leadership training, but we believe that an important aspect of this Initiative is the creation of new scholarship relating to law and leadership. We hope that the Law and Leadership Colloquium, launched earlier this year, will inspire original scholarship on law and leadership from faculty and students of the Law School.

Leadership is a crucial factor in creating successful and sustainable institutions, and lawyers are expected to lead. Law students are graduating into an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, and the purpose of the Inspiring Leadership Initiative is to equip them with insights and that will inform their work and their lives after law school. We hope to challenge students to think critically about leadership and to develop their own ideas about ethical leadership as members of the legal profession.