Leadership Training Lacks in Law School
But at many law schools, leadership training is something of an afterthought. Some law schools may offer an elective course or two in leadership, but studying leadership isn’t mandatory at most of them. Many students graduate with no background in leadership theory—or experience in leading. One could even argue that the foundation of legal learning isn’t leading but following: following procedure, following precedent, following the canon of ethics. The study of law is grounded more in tradition than innovation.
Many Prominent Leaders in History Were Lawyers
Throughout history, some of the most renowned leaders in politics, academia, philosophy, and even the arts, were trained as lawyers. Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela all studied law before rising to political prominence. Modern artists like Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky and movie and television celebrities like John Cleese of Monty Python fame and Jerry Springer, an early influencer in reality television, all earned law degrees before launching the careers that made them famous.
Many of these figures attended law school long before leadership courses began showing up in law school course catalogs. Perhaps some had a natural inclination to lead or were drafted by circumstance to lead without the benefit of formal instruction. And law school does, of course, teach students to become highly critical thinkers, to see all sides of a story, and to manage conflict. Some law school classes—particularly those geared toward litigation—emphasize the art of persuasion.
But is a traditional law school education enough? Or should law schools make leadership training a prerequisite for graduation? At this point in your career, you may be asking yourself, “How well did law school prepare me to lead?”
Why Should Lawyers Be Leaders?
From the perspective of self-interest alone, there’s one apparent reason: you can lead yourself into a more influential position in your company or area of practice. You’re more likely to make partner in a large firm if you’ve demonstrated the ability to mentor other lawyers, for example. You’re more likely to run cases efficiently if you can marshal internal and external contributors such as paralegals, investigators, and expert witnesses and maximize their contributions. That’s another leadership skill that can help you climb whatever ladder stretches before you. When you work a case, you’re going to encounter adversaries, of course. Influential leaders are skilled at defusing tension and setting the stage for open, mutually respectful communication.
You Can Make a Lasting Impact
If your passion is social justice, you’re more likely to make a lasting impact on the law if you can envision what better laws look like and enlist the legal and legislative communities toward your cause.
Your Leadership Trickles Down
Best of all, leadership has a way of trickling down. Fostering a culture of leadership is rewarding in its own right. But witnessing the long-term results of your leadership is a lifelong pleasure. You can be proud of your teammates’ success—and the accomplishments of their teammates right on down the line. In other words, you can make legal history.
One New Lawyer’s Perspective on Leadership
Ashley Futrell graduated from Howard University School of Law in 2015. After a three-year stint as assistant district attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, she became an assistant US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Currently, she’s an associate with the largest law firm in northwest Ohio, Shumaker, Loop, & Kendrick, specializing in complex litigation, labor and employment, and white-collar criminal cases. Leadership is her stock in trade and her passion.
Leadership Is at the Heart of Advocacy
“Law schools could do a much better job of teaching leadership. And they should. Leadership is at the heart of advocacy. Making good law is every attorney’s responsibility,” she remarked during a recent conversation. But the bulk of Futrell’s leadership training didn’t happen in law school. In addition to her JD, she also earned her master’s degree in government and political communications. She earned a certificate in advanced leadership studies while studying at American University. Today, she devotes some of her time to advocating for establishing a leadership training program at the University of Toledo School of Law. She’s leading the charge for more effective leadership in the field of law.
The Best Leaders Are Self-Aware and Authentic
Like many leaders, Futrell continues to be inspired by the leaders in her life that she admires. “The best leaders I’ve known have been true to themselves. Showing up authentically every day, no matter the task at hand, is critical to leading. The best leaders I’ve known have been extremely self-aware and secure in their own beliefs,” she recalls. Futrell strives every day to know herself better. She advises other new lawyers to find their sense of purpose and lead from that perspective.
A Public Defender and Climate Activist’s Take
Michael Burleson graduated from Lewis and Clark Law School in 2019. He immediately ran for mayor of Portland, Oregon. How’s that for stepping up to a leadership role? He didn’t win the election, but you have to give him major props for being gutsy.
Today Burleson is leading the fight for criminal justice, one case at a time, as an associate with Morrison Sullivan, the firm that holds the contract for public defense work in Hood River County. He also practices environmental law and advocates fiercely for policies that curb climate change and protect our natural resources.
Leaders Create Lasting Social Change
Burleson has never taken a specific course in leadership. They were not and still aren’t offered at Lewis and Clark Law School. But he has a precise definition of leadership and brings his principles to his practice. “Leadership is about advancing human rights and supporting a scientific worldview to influence social outcomes,” he told me when we spoke. He views the law as a tool for bettering human lives and preventing suffering. So how’s that working out for him?
Leaders Have to Be Skeptical
“To me, being a pain in the butt is part of being a leader. Leaders have to be skeptical. I challenge assumptions all the time, particularly assumptions about my clients.” Legal practice is based on precedent, and Burleson sees his role as reframing precedent in the service of greater justice. “I argue from the margins a lot, and that’s okay by me.”
Leading Is a Slow Process
Burleson admits that leadership, as he defines it, can be emotionally taxing. “It’s a slow process. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught up in a meat grinder. Losses are demoralizing when the stakes are someone’s life and liberty,” he told me. “As public defenders, the need for systemic change is obvious to us. But doing justice one person at a time? Sometimes that’s the best we can do.”