Leading Differently Across Differences Conference

On November 8, 2019 more than 250 lawyers, academics, deans, judges and public service professionals gathered for a day long interactive conference at the Bar of the Association of the City of New York to explore why it is so difficult to diversify the legal profession. The conference challenge was “Why don’t we do better in leadership around equity and inclusion?”

Organized by the Freedman Institute for Legal Ethics at the Maurice A Deane School of Law, it was cosponsored by the AALS Leadership Section, seven New York area law schools, the New York State Unified Court System, several prominent national law firms and private sponsors. The planning committee included the AALS Leadership Section executive committee whose members are national figures in leadership training.

The conference asked and sought to provide answers to: How do we promote leadership training in law schools in a more inclusive and forward-thinking manner? How does the profession and the academy confront the need to develop cultural competence, deal with gender, race, and other identities affecting full participation, and address generational differences? Why have we not done better in equity and inclusion? The conference acknowledged that legal profession and law schools exist in a time of profound changes in the culture and in lawyering across various fields and it behooves us to do better.

The introduction by conference organizer, Professor Ellen Yaroshefsky, noted that we do not even have a common language and framework to discuss these difficulty issues. We are communities of many identities and relationships to power. We can be privileged in one environment but excluded in another. The notion of who is an insider and who is an outsider is relative depending on the environment in which one finds oneself. We need to change ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. This conference of intense and engaging discussions attempted to begin that process.

NYU Professor Tony Thompson’s introductory keynote was a provocative presentation that addressed why leadership training is necessary and what it means in a diverse world. He challenged us to make diversity, equity and inclusion the center of leadership training. How do we do it?

Professors Susan Sturm and Akilah Folami then engaged in a conversation that began to explore this question. They noted that we need to begin to navigating a set of tensions as part of both lawyer-leadership development generally and building the capacity to navigate across difference. Law may be reactive, but leadership is proactive. Lawyers learn to be risk averse, but leadership requires risk-taking. These tensions, among others in legal training, present profound challenges and we sought to begin to drill down to identify skills and competencies necessary to enable the next generation to confront these challenges.

The conference explored these issues through interactive panels and presentations about law practice, and the legal academy. The academic panel with Deans Angela Omwuachi-Willig of Boston University School of Law, Dean Song Richardson of the University of California, Vice Dean Ann Cammett and Dean of Admissions Degna Levister, both of CUNY Law School and Professor Susan Jones of George Washington Law School provided concrete ideas to diversify law schools. Among the suggestions was to change the pipeline into law school by reexamining admission criteria. Law schools should start relying heavily on applicants’ past history demonstrating emotional intelligence, grit, perseverance and other factors instead of the LSAT and grades main paradigm. Consider more than standard measures of success. Other concrete suggestions included changing syllabi and exercises to incorporate methods of learning beyond casebooks; to change the 1L curriculum to reflect a more diverse culture; create spaces to confront unfairness entrenched in the law; talk about and normalize experiences of failure to relieve pressure on students; create effective mentorships; reduce costs whenever possible by considering use of older casebooks and online readings; and provide implicit bias trainings for all students and faculty alike on an ongoing basis. Overall, on this panel and the others throughout the day, there was agreement that one day diversity trainings are insufficient. Race and gender needs to be included in every conversation, particularly ones around leadership training.

The panel entitled Leadership on Cross Cultural Competencies: Race and Ethnicity, drilled down into particular competencies necessary for effective leadership including experiences of growth by “learning to be uncomfortable” in exploring race and ethnicity. The remarkable panelists from the bench, bar and academy challenged the audience to have frank and difficult conversations, to start reframing issues when discussing diversity with white colleagues, to recognize that race and gender are difficult topics, and that cultural change comes via short term shifts. Judge Julie Bernard of the Massachusetts District Court described how she and others worked moved that court toward greater equity and inclusion by constant engagement, not a day long implicit bias training.

The Leadership and Gender panel began with Professor Sweetha Ballakrishnen exploring the issue of how we define gender followed by Professor Deborah Rhode discussing the structural impediments to the advancements of women in the profession. The engaging conversation among panelists including former federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, Aisha Greene, the director of attorney development at the Cadwalader firma and Cecilia Loving, the Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department who had remarkable success in diversifying the fire department.

The unique panel that ended the day was Leadership Across Generations. Listening to the perspectives of millennials, Gen X and Gen Z pointed to the critical need to address cultural differences among generations including issues such as work-life balance, work direction, mindfulness and most significantly, coping with student debt. These lawyers and law students who are future of this profession challenged the audience to change and to acknowledge incorporations of new voices in leadership.

The excitement in the room throughout the day was palpable and there is an acknowledged need to continue these conversations and develop concrete plans to move forward. This includes developing resource materials for law schools, ongoing conferences and programs and vehicles for effective communication.

Many have asked if the conference was recorded. It was not because the panelists wanted the opportunity to speak freely.

The following reading includes books and articles on leadership, diversity in the profession, race and ethnicity in the training of lawyers, gender and the legal profession and students as leaders and is first step to accomplishing this goal.


  • Anthony C. Thompson, Dangerous Leaders: How and Why Lawyers Must Be Taught to Lead (2018)
  • Deborah Rhode, Lawyers as Leaders (2013)
  • Stacey Abrams, Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change (2019)


  1. Donald Polden, Lawyers, Leadership, and Innovation, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 427 (2019)
  2. Barry Z. Posner, Leadership Development in Law Schools: Myths, Principles, and Practices, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 399 (2019)
  3. Deborah L. Rhode, Preparing Leaders: The Evolution of a Field and the Stresses of Leadership, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 411 (2019)
  4. Rachel F. Moran, The Three Ages of Modern American Lawyering and the Current Crisis in the Legal Profession and Legal Education, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 453 (2019)
  5. R. Lisle Baker, Character and Fitness for Leadership: Learning Interpersonal Skills, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 525 (2019)
  6. Douglas A. Blaze, Law Student Motivation, Satisfaction, and Well-Being: The Value of a Leadership and Professional Development Curriculum, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 547 (2019)
  7. Neil Hamilton, Leadership of Self: Each Student Taking Ownership Over Continuous Professional Development/Self-Directed Learning, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 567 (2019)
  8. Louis D. Bilionis, Law School Leadership and Leadership Development for Developing Lawyers, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 601 (2019)
  9. Leah Witcher Jackson Teague, Training Lawyers for Leadership: Vitally Important Mission for the Future Success (And Maybe Survival) of the Legal Profession and Our Democracy, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 633 (2019)





  • Deborah Rhode, Women and Leadership (2013)



These materials can be accessed at: