Student Panel Highlights – Institute for Professional Leadership

Students’ Perspectives

Below is a collection of discussion points, responses, and ideas from the Roundtable Discussion: Student and Recent Graduate Perspective on Leadership Development Needs at the leadership conference at the University of Tennessee.

• Christopher Davis, Tennessee ‘19

• Taylor Flake, Tennessee ‘20
• Marisa Martinson, Santa Clara Law ‘19
• Darra Lanigan, Santa Clara Law ‘20
• Sloan Lynch-Davis, Tennessee ‘18
• Jessica Nguyen, Cincinnati ‘19
• Willie Santana, Tennessee ‘14

At the heart of the leadership efforts among law schools is the present investment in the next generation of lawyers.  In few professions is this task more important.  Statistically speaking, lawyers represent a unique class of citizens who comprise a significant number of positions of authority from community leadership efforts to federal service. 

Understanding the effectiveness of these early efforts is most-beneficial through the eyes of those who have experienced the first decade of a deliberate effort to address leadership in the legal profession.  In April, the University of Tennessee College of Law hosted a Leadership Roundtable with the theme “Leadership Development for Lawyers: Increasing our Impact.”  This annual effort spearheaded by a cohort of innovative senior law school professors and administrators are forging a path forward for the profession and its future leaders.  One of the week’s panels focused around current students and recent graduates with experience in the efforts. 

The primary question the panel tackled was to explain what each believed was the most influential thing each learned while in law school or what prepared each best for legal practice?  A collection of those answers can be found below:

1.  Leadership should be taught early.

(Darra Lanigan) Leadership development should be taught early and often. No one has to invite you to the table you can chose to forge your own path.

2.  Leadership is about People. 

(Taylor Flake)  The most influential thing that I have learned and am still learning in law school is how to deal with people. The practice of law is made up of a group of people (lawyers) who went through a rigorous process to learn how to help “people.”  Being immersed in an environment where there are all kinds of personality types, people from all walks of life but minimal effort to train the future lawyers on how to be good people and leaders teaches you how to deal with people.  I like to think you have three options when going through law school. You could (1) be like everyone else, (2) find a way to deal with people in a loving way or (3) completely check out, and not deal with anyone. Option 2 is what is molding me and preparing me for practice.  Learning how to communicate and people with respect, having the resilience to go against the grain are the exact qualities that law schools should add to their curriculum to prepare attorneys for practice. 

Is it more beneficial to hear from peers/students, outside leaders, or a mixture of both?

Absolutely both. It is helpful to hear and discuss with fellow students. We understand each other and it’s great hearing how different people approach leadership. We are all leaders, but we are different types of leaders. It is also helpful to hear from outside leaders and faculty because it shows us how the leadership skills we obtain during law school carries into our careers. They are also able to provide an “outsider’s” perspective on what managers and employers are looking for in young associates.

3.  Leadership Opportunities. 

(Christopher Davis) You only get better at leading, by doing it. “Teddy” Roosevelt: Man in the Arena  

(Sloan Lynch-Davis)  There are leadership roles available to those new to the profession.  I think there is a tendency for many to feel like they are unfit to be leaders until they hit certain milestones or achieve certain titles.  We wait until we graduate, pass the bar, land our first job, get promoted, or make partner.  Not only are there important leadership roles available, but we have a duty as young attorneys to fill them.

4.  Planning is key

(Willie Santana)  In (Blaze & Lewis’) Lawyers and Leaders class, the final assignment is a strategic career plan.  At the time I wrote mine, I never expected that I would really use it. However, I have referred to it every time I was faced with a difficult career question.   Additionally, the whole process of planning and preparation has been instrumental in my practice.  I can’t be the most experienced person in the room at this point, but I can be the most prepared.  It has been incredibly helpful.          


(Sloan Lynch-Davis)   There can be some confusion between what a leadership course offers that is different from a professional development course.  Leadership courses may very well focus on developing some of the same skills as a professional development course, but leadership courses look at those skills from a different angle and for a different purpose.  Leadership courses focus on the student in the context of their peers and the profession.  They focus on how their skills and attributes can be used to be a better lawyer to their clients and to make meaningful contributions to the profession.  Professional development courses focus on the individual and help them succeed, while leadership courses go a step further to show students how to use their accomplishments for good.

Additional Notes

Where do you believe you have been unprepared to handle leadership roles since you began law school?  What might be added to the curriculum to address this concern? 

A lot of students are afraid of speaking up. We are constantly told to be professional but are not told that professionalism does not necessarily mean staying silent and just agreeing with everything our managers say.

(Sloan Lynch-Davis)  One thing I have noticed is that leadership courses and articles often have an internal focus, meaning that they focus on leadership within one’s firm and the bar as a whole.  While leadership in these areas is certainly important, the most important leadership role all attorneys have is often forgotten:  being leaders to our clients.  We are given the unique privilege to know some of our clients most sensitive information.  While we certainly do not serve the same role as mental health professionals, I believe that lawyers need more training in how to help their clients be bigger and better than the problems they face.  Law school is the perfect place to help teach these skills.  Exercises involving active listening, conflict resolution, and effective written communication can help students not just become better leaders overall, but become more effective lawyers for their future clients as well.

What is a leadership course? Versus a Professional Development course?

(Willie Santana) Both are key.  I was a nontraditional student and being able to connect and interact with people at different stages of their career helped me visualize what my own path could look like.  It also helped me break out of the biglaw-is-the-ultimate-goal groupthink that tends to permeate through law schools.

(Sloan Lynch-Davis) Both.  Even more importantly, however, I believe that hearing from a variety of practitioners and students from a wide array of backgrounds is most crucial.  There will always be a certain percentage of law students (and faculty) who unfortunately see leadership curriculum as a waste of the student’s time.  As Deborah Rhode pointed out during closing remarks we have a tendency to forget that we are often “preaching to the choir.”  There is a natural tendency to choose speakers who ascribe to your particular brand of leadership.  Bringing in a diverse set of speakers 1) exposes those who already see themselves as leaders to different skills and perspectives and 2) increases the likelihood the curriculum will resonate better with students who may struggle with the concept of leadership.

Are written assignments helpful?

(Willie Santana) ABSOLUTELY.   The writing assignments absolutely helped me better process what I was learning from the speakers.  The process of reflection upon their stories, synthesizing the concepts and then visualizing how they may be applicable to my own goals and aspirations was very instructive.

(Sloan Lynch-Davis)  Yes.  I think writing assignments force students to take time to reflect and to remember their purpose and passion.  However, I think there is a danger to leaving prompts open-ended too often.  While one or two open-ended prompts give students the opportunity to relate to the material in a way that is most meaningful to them, I think that answers can become repetitive and students aren’t forced to think outside of the box unless prompted otherwise.  When we were discussing different options for the reflection papers for the 1L Lawyering & Professionalism course at UT, we tried to come up with prompts that challenged the students to act on what was covered in class that week. 

(Taylor Flake) Yes!  If I were to be completely transparent, the written assignments were what transformed my thoughts and actions.  Sitting in class, we heard a lot of information.  With the reading the assignments, we read a lot of information.  The written assignments allowed us to synthesize the information and apply it directly to my life.  The more I opened my mind to apply the information absorbed to me personally, the more I began to see my strengths and flaws.  I remember once while writing my assignment just feeling a ton of emotions come over me.  I would not have experienced those feelings, and that transformation, had the writing component not been a part of the course.

How can the administrators and faculty aid student leaders/student organizations?

Providing a safe space for student leaders to come together and discuss their successes, failures, and challenges as a student leader of an organization. This allows students to see that they are not the only ones encountering the issues and allows them to brainstorm innovative ways to overcome certain obstacles. This encourages collaboration and innovation amongst the student leaders and by having a faculty “advisor” there to oversee the discussions, it also provides some “outside” aid. Someone who will not just give answers but help push students towards coming up with the answers on their own – together.

(Willie Santana) Train them as leaders.   Lawyers are leaders.  The truth is that generally, nonlawyers fear or respect lawyers.  When I set out to create H.O.L.A Lakeway and begin its work, I wrote many letters to community organizations, leaders, and other groups.  Those letters were taken more seriously because the initials “J.D.” followed my name.  It’s a fact of life.  As soon as the students are hooded, they will be sought out to sit on boards of directors and to lead other organizations.  Training effective leaders should be as important to a law school as its bar passage rate and post-graduation employment. Your alumni will represent your school as leaders in various roles in the community. That’s not an “if”.  It’s a certainty.  What is not certain is whether they will be successful at leading.  Success is the intersection of opportunity and preparation.  The opportunities will be out there. Will your students be prepared?

(Sloan Lynch-Davis) Simply set a good leadership example.  Be the type of leader to the student that you want to see the student be to others.  That example starts by showing students grace.  Law school is a very pivotal moment for a lot of students where some of their deeply rooted opinions and biases are flushed out.  And, the pressure and stress students are under can often bring out the worst in them.  Faculty and administrators can be there as a neutral sounding board who are there to help students work through these issues and hone in on their leadership skills.

(Taylor Flake) Administrators and Faculty can aid student leaders and student organizations by helping us as students execute our dreams. I fully believe that students, no matter what university they attend, have the ideas that will change the profession and the nation.  I want to personally all faculty, staff and administrators to open the floor for students to dream big, discuss the reality and plan for execution no matter the issue.