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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Law Schools’ Pivotal Role in Lawyer-Leader Formation

L O Natt Gantt II


  • Leadership education is on the rise nationally.
  • New ABA standards underscore the need for law schools to help students develop a professional identity.
  • Leadership education in law schools can foster students’ professional identity and help prepare.
Law Schools’ Pivotal Role in Lawyer-Leader Formation Markovic

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At an ABA workshop this spring, I moderated an interactive discussion of national thought leaders in the lawyer well-being movement. In preparation for the session, we were discussing topics on which to focus. Several speakers raised the fact that lawyers serve as leaders in law firms and many other prominent organizations, yet most lawyers have little formal training in leadership. As a longtime legal educator, I immediately thought about law schools’ role in better training our students for the professional world in which they will find themselves, including the leadership positions they will assume. In this article, I discuss why law schools should do more to prepare our students for these leadership roles and highlight ways in which law schools are moving in this important direction.

Lawyers as Leaders and the Rise of Leadership Education

Although ABA data finds that lawyers represent less than 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, they represent a significant percentage of those holding leadership positions throughout this country. For example, in the current Congress, 30 percent of House members and 51 percent of senators have law degrees and have practiced law. In addition, researchers analyzing the impact of lawyer CEOs found that of approximately 3,500 CEOs paired to nearly 2,400 publicly traded firms in the S&P 1500, 9 percent of the CEOs had law degrees. Beyond these published statistics, anecdotal evidence reminds us how lawyers serve as leaders in less prominent ways, from leading law firms to serving on local government and nonprofit boards. 

Because many lawyers serve in positions of leadership, questions naturally arise concerning what law schools are doing to prepare their graduates for this reality. Some critics might respond that effective leadership is not something law schools can teach and instead is an acquired skill based on experience and natural giftedness. Although it is difficult to deny that some lawyers—as with some individuals generally—might be better suited than others for positions of leadership, robust research across disciplines demonstrates that well-developed leadership education programs positively impact participants’ effectiveness in leadership and their overall job performanceCompanies are investing increasing resources into leadership training programs, and the field of leadership studies is a growing academic discipline at higher education institutions.

The Growing Professional Formation Movement in Legal Education

Amid this increasing focus on leadership education is the increasing recognition that legal education must do more than train students how to think like a lawyer—and even more than train them in the practical skills that are important for the practice of law. This recent recognition traces much of its genesis to Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, the groundbreaking report on legal education in 2007. In the report, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching pronounced, that “(l)aw school provides the single experience that virtually all legal professionals share. It forms minds and shapes identities” (page 2, emphasis added). The report added that law schools must therefore help their students develop a “professional identity” to prepare them for the profession of law.

This understanding of the powerfully formative aspect of legal education has led to a movement that has spawned research, publications, conferences, and teaching and curricular initiatives designed to help students develop their professional identity. The phenomenal impact of this movement led, in turn, to new ABA Standards for the Approval of Law Schools, adopted in February 2022, which now require all approved law schools to “provide substantial opportunities to students for . . . the development of a professional identity.” These new standards define “professional identity” as follows: “Professional identity focuses on what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society. The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.”

How These Changes Support Leadership Education in Law Schools

Although “leadership” is not expressly referenced in these new standards, lawyers’ leadership roles in society means that understanding the “special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society” must involve examining what it means for lawyers to be leaders. Lessons from the professional formation movement generally have taught us that attributes like leadership cannot be learned haphazardly, and other factors support the conclusion that law schools must address the subject of leadership intentionally—and seriously—with their students.

First, amid this current moment when many lawyers are in positions of leadership is the cry by many that the United States is facing a leadership crisis affecting not just government but also business and the professions. For instance, the Society for Human Resource Management predicts that leadership will remain the top human resource challenge through the year 2025 at minimum.

Second, recent surveys of lawyers, clients and legal employers highlight that character traits critical to leadership are fundamental to flourishing in the profession. Most notably, a survey of over 24,000 lawyers from across the United States conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System found traits like integrity and trustworthiness as the most important competencies new law school graduates need to have. Such character traits are foundational to the traditional understanding of effective leadership, so this recognition of the importance of character for new lawyers underscores how new lawyers must enter the profession prepared to be leaders in their own spheres of influence.

Third, decades of research have found that the typical personality traits of lawyers can create challenges for them as leaders, especially when they are leading other lawyers. For instance, lawyers tend to rate higher than the general population in skepticism, autonomy and competitiveness; and these qualities impede effective leadership in certain settings. Leadership education in law school can proactively help future lawyers develop heightened self-awareness and design strategies to adjust their personal tendencies so they can be more effective leaders.

Finally, the human aspects of lawyering, like leadership, are becoming more critical for lawyers in our professional roles, as many of the technical aspects of lawyering are being overtaken by artificial intelligence and other technological and market forces. As a growing group of scholars contend, law schools thus must place more instructional emphasis on these human aspects of lawyering for this changing world.

Forms of Leadership Education in Law Schools

Regarding what leadership education might look like in law schools, a fundamental point on which many leadership experts across disciplines agree is that leadership is not about status or a position; leadership is about influence. Law students who never obtain a formal leadership position in an organizational structure therefore still benefit from leadership education because our profession and culture benefit from lawyers who better understand how we can use our influence in positive ways.

Recognizing the importance of leadership education to legal education generally, a growing number of law schools are incorporating leadership development courses and experiences—from orientation programs to upper-level electives—into their curricula. Leadership scholar Leah Teague reports that in spring 2023, over 100 ABA-approved law schools have a course or program that expressly includes leadership as a focus or purpose. These courses and initiatives take various forms, but leadership education in law school is, at heart, not about esoteric theories on leadership but on training students in skills—from active listening to decision-making to well-being practices to goal setting—that will make them better in their professional roles as lawyers.

Law professors and administrators will no doubt debate the specifics on how best to implement leadership education in law schools. Such debates, although important, must not allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the good.” For the reasons noted above and others, I believe every law school should implement at least an educational component on leadership in their initiatives to comply with the new ABA standards on professional identity formation. Preparing students for the profession of the future must involve preparing them to appreciate their position of leadership and influence as an opportunity to inspire others towards positive change. This appreciation can enhance the well-being in our profession and help lawyers fulfill our role, as the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides, as “public citizen[s]” who “play a vital role in the preservation of society.”