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It’s Time to Educate Lawyers as Leaders

Dec. 2, 2020, 9:01 AM

There is no one reason why people come to law school, but the one we hear most is that students want to make a difference. We think law schools can and should do more to prepare students to make the impact they hope to achieve.

Legal education starts with a strong focus on contracts, constitutional law, torts, and other important doctrinal subjects. But, as students master rules and learn to effectively deploy them—essential skills for a good lawyer—some lose sight of the passion and additional skills needed to make a meaningful difference.

It takes more than legal knowledge and astute critical thinking to be a changemaker. It takes leadership—a subject not part of the traditional law school curriculum. We are committed to teaching that at Georgetown, and believe leadership education should become a part of law school curricula across the country.

The demand is certainly there. When we scheduled our new class “Lawyers as Leaders” for Sunday afternoons this fall, we weren’t sure what response we would get. It was overwhelming. More than 300 upper-class students signed up, making it the most enrolled course in Georgetown Law’s 150-year history.

Driving Change in the Public Sphere

Over the course of the semester, we invited eight Georgetown Law professors into our Zoom classroom to discuss their lives and careers, guided by questions from our students. Each professor is not only an accomplished scholar, but someone who draws on deep insights into law and society to drive change in the public sphere.

Neal Katyal talked about persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down unconstitutional military tribunals in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Victoria Nourse talked about the strategy that led to passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Randy Barnett discussed the constitutional challenge to Obamacare, and Kristin Henning spoke about fighting systemic racism in the juvenile justice system.

Paul Butler discussed his journey from federal prosecutor to influential abolitionist; and Rosa Brooks, Larry Gostin, and Peter Edelman talked about their respective work on the peaceful transition of presidential power, leveraging law to fight the pandemic, and addressing the root causes of poverty.

The group was diverse in many ways, but our speakers echoed common themes behind their successes: strategic thinking and disciplined planning, combined with building powerful relationships, taking ownership, and giving back. And they demonstrated the authenticity, empathy, and commitment to service of great leaders.

The professors displayed vulnerability, too, and shared difficult experiences and failures: the clerkship or judgeship they didn’t get, the loss of a parent, the many unexpected bumps in the road.

Grit and Resilience Matter

Everyone fails, and we want our students to know they can learn from their failures; that it’s not always a smooth path and that grit and resilience matter. That is a good lesson for any day, but even more so now, as we all confront the many unanticipated pressures of this pandemic.

So many challenges are stress-testing our society, and law and policy must play a central role in addressing them. This—together with our students’ desire to participate—makes law schools a natural place to develop the leadership we need. Amid a deadly pandemic, turbulent economic pressures, a global climate crisis, unresolved racial reckoning, and unrelenting ethical fallout of the digital revolution (to name just a few issues), the stakes are extremely high.

Today, our “Lawyers as Leaders” course is part of a growing focus at Georgetown Law on teaching leadership across a broad swath of the curriculum, including, for example, a course in which students engage in team-based projects to advise the administration on potential changes at the law school. Like alumni before them, some of our students will go on to champion major policy changes, argue before the Supreme Court, lead social movements, and run for office. Many others will counsel businesses that create jobs and services, and they, too, will have ample opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

Regardless of whether graduates work in a firm or in their community, legal education opens countless doors to improving people’s lives and making organizations and systems function better. If our students learn to lead themselves and others, they will be more effective in the pursuit of their passions, whatever those may be.

Fifty years ago, Georgetown Law became a pioneer in clinical legal education. Today, with 18 clinics and countless practicum courses and externship opportunities, we have built out the nation’s most robust offerings of experiential legal education. We did this because we know that allowing law students to apply legal skills is key to developing effective advocates—lawyers ready to fight for a client on day one of their career.

Today, legal education must continue to evolve. Law students want and need opportunities to develop and practice leadership skills long before they actually become leaders in their field or community.

And so just as clinical education—once nonexistent—became a standard part of legal education, it’s time leadership education does, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

William M. Treanor is dean and executive vice president of Georgetown University Law Center where he also holds the Paul Regis Dean Leadership Professorship.

Hillary A. Sale is Georgetown Law’s associate dean for strategy and a professor of law with expertise in leadership and corporate governance and a professor of management with the McDonough School.

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