Embracing Leadership Development in Legal Education

I recently had the privilege of participating in the 2019 program for the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Leadership. I and my fellow panelists, Yale law professor Bob Post and Columbia law professor Susan Sturm, discussed the importance of advancing leadership education in law — a topic that is central to the Section on Leadership’s mission of promoting activities that prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.

Lawyers are leaders, and many people in leadership roles have a legal education. Until relatively recently, though, most law programs did not specifically include leadership development as part of their curriculum. But it’s important to note that even though they may not have been called out as such, many aspects of leadership have always been part of legal education. For example, lawyers are taught to hone their “difficult conversation” skills, reflect on values and ethics, and develop the ability to “see around corners” — all key aspects of being a successful leader.

So, while we’re not starting from scratch when it comes to leadership, there’s still much that we can add. Law school has always been about the head, not the heart; being a leader, though, requires some of both. High levels of depression and other emotional struggles in the legal profession show that we haven’t nurtured care for our own hearts; without doing so, how can we care for the hearts of others? We must teach tomorrow’s lawyers to care for their clients emotionally, as well as cognitively.

Interestingly, business schools have focused on leadership for a long time. Why are we teaching our business executives, but not our lawyers, to be leaders? Again, this is an area where we need not start from scratch. Business schools have provided the template for leadership education, and by borrowing from that template and adding our own values, we can pave the way for more effective leadership education in law.

Finally, we must strive to overcome the resistance I often encounter regarding leadership education in law. Voices on both sides of the political spectrum have often dismissed such initiatives as too “partisan” — claiming they either make the curriculum too “militaristic” or “corporate,” or that they dilute the curriculum with “soft” skills. The truth is that leadership has no political party. By focusing on values, in addition to skills, we can nurture leaders who will advance the rule of law and help us build the future of justice.

You can read a full summary of my remarks at the program, along with those made by Bob Post and Susan Sturm, on the Section on Leadership’s website. We’ll be talking more about leadership in legal education on the next installment of “Live With Kellye and Ken,” my webcast series with iLaw President Ken Randall, on Monday, April 1, at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The theme for the webcast is “Law and Leadership: If You Build It, They Will Come.”

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Kellye Y. Testy

President and Chief Executive Officer of LSAC
Since 2017, Kellye Y. Testy has served as president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council, the leading assessment, data, and technology hub for law schools and their candidates in the United States, Canada, and throughout the world.