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Law leaders share personal journeys in their legal careers

The path to leadership in law has no set roadmap. For some, it starts in law school or before. For others, it might involve taking on the added responsibilities of managing a small regional office for a BigLaw firm.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez (far right) participated in two panels during a recent AALS conference.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez (far right) participated in two panels during a recent AALS conference.

Photo courtesy of the Association of American Law Schools

But leaders in the legal profession can make a difference. “Being a leader is one thing. Being a lawyer is another. But being a lawyer-leader gives you opportunities to push for change,” said ABA President Judy Perry Martinez at an Association of American Law Schools conference Jan. 3 in Washington, D.C.

The ABA president joined the former dean of Harvard Law School, the president of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and a federal appeals court judge at the panel discussion, “Learning from Lawyer-Leaders throughout the Profession.”

The speakers agreed that law schools should do more to incorporate leadership development in their curriculum. And recounting their own paths, it was apparent their leadership persona developed outside of the classroom.

James J. Sandman, a former managing partner at Arnold & Porter and now president of the LSC, recalled his biggest leadership challenge was opening a new office of 14 lawyers for Arnold & Porter in Los Angeles at the age of 39.

“I realized on opening day, it was my job to convince (the firm’s new lawyers) they made the right decision,” he said.

Robert L. Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who recently wrote a book on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, earned an undergraduate engineering degree and focused on “solving problems, improving systems …. what engineers do.” He said that training helped him work with others to establish the museum.

His legal education, he said, contributed to research, writing and advocacy skills. But he felt law school fell short in important leadership areas of learning to deal with the media, coalition building and fundraising.

Moderator Martha L. Minow, former Harvard Law dean and now a distinguished professor there, urged panel attendees to set their own agendas. “Don’t be driven by your inbox,” she said, adding leaders should be modest. “It is amazing,” she said, “what can be done if you don’t want the credit.”

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