Skip Page Banner  
Skip Navigation

On the Leadership Track, Contributed by Garry W. Jenkins, The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Thursday, August 18, 2011

By Garry W. Jenkins, The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Law school is about preparing students for the work of lawyers. Of course, that work entails analyzing cases, interpreting statutes, thinking on one’s feet, and advocating client positions. But, frequently, it also includes managing people, building trust, and inspiring others to follow your lead.

Accordingly, being an effective lawyer and being an effective leader must be thought of as complementary skills. In fact, with backgrounds in advocacy, negotiation and problem-solving, lawyers often are called upon in their professional and personal lives to serve in leadership capacities. They head law firms, sit at boardroom tables, deftly guide nonprofit agencies, and hold elected office.

Too often, though, lawyers are tapped for leadership positions without receiving deliberate training or undergoing intentional self-discovery about their personal leadership strengths and style.

This doesn’t have to be the case, and savvy students shouldn’t let it happen to them.

An Urgent Need
As our political and social discourse becomes increasingly polarized, the world becomes more dangerous, and private institutions of all sizes and types wield enormous power and influence sometimes affecting the lives of millions, effective leadership becomes one of the most pressing needs of our time. Simply put, the world demands great leaders.

Yet, law schools traditionally have devoted little attention and effort to teaching leadership. So, the question arises: How can law schools support students in becoming effective leaders?

At The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, we launched the Program on Law and Leadership in 2007 to help cultivate the next generation of lawyer-leaders. As a result, our students learn how to combine leadership skills with legal expertise to drive change and positively affect society.

In her terrific book, Leadership Can Be Taught, Sharon Daloz Parks notes that “teaching and learning the art of leadership occurs in a wide range of places, both formal and informal.” This essential truth, however, requires opportunity, discovery, intentionality, and reflection. In other words: Not only can leadership be taught, but students must take responsibility to learn it.

An article published in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, based on a study of hundreds of corporate executives, revealed that for senior corporate officers — including general counsels — leadership skills have become more important to career success than technical or functional skills.1 Certainly outstanding technical legal skills will still be required for those at the pinnacle of our profession, but to truly thrive, the authors conclude, an individual must also exhibit “‘softer’ leadership skills.” The evidence is clear: An understanding of leadership, problem-solving, and the ability to exercise sound judgment have become more important than ever before.

Will You Answer the Call to Leadership?
Realizing one’s leadership potential is a lifelong endeavor, combining theoretical knowledge, practice, and applied skills. The first step, for our students, begins with intertwining leadership education with their law school curriculum and activities.

The Program on Law and Leadership, now entering its fifth year, is open to all Moritz students. More than one-third of our student body is actively engaged in the program, confirming that leadership is not a set of personal characteristics or traits limited to a chosen few.

For some, the program starts with the law school application process. We look specifically for candidates who have exhibited leadership in their undergraduate studies or professional workplaces. By awarding very generous, three-year leadership scholarships, we have attracted students with backgrounds rich in diverse experiences. This permits a wide range of students to engage with and learn with one another.

A second portal into leadership development is through the classroom. In 2007, a highly influential Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching report on legal education challenged law schools to rethink their curricula to better prepare law students for the real world. Our pioneering Lawyers as Leaders course differs from the typical law school class. Students examine different styles of leadership and have robust discussions about case studies discussing real-life situations that lawyer-leaders have faced. Through the process of placing students in the shoes of leaders, analyzing specific situations, deciding courses of action in light of various circumstances, and coming to class prepared to present and support conclusions, leadership goes beyond theory. In addition, we incorporate and emphasize leadership through such offerings as our Legislation Clinic and world-renown dispute resolution courses. Students may take advantage of these or similar opportunities to acquire judgment and skill necessary to lead and practice at the highest levels.

A third entry point involves student encounters with reflective leaders. Although most universities bring a variety of guest speakers to their campuses each year, our Leadership Speakers Series invites local and national thought leaders to campus to share their insights with students, faculty and staff through public lectures. Select students also are given access to meet and network with these experienced leaders through lunches, dinners and other small-group sessions. Accomplished speakers have included former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes; the Hon. Bill Ruckelshaus, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency and later acting director of the FBI and Deputy Attorney General of the United States; and Professor David Gergen, who served as a senior adviser to four U.S. presidents.

However, we wanted to go beyond the large lectures and provide students opportunities to interact with leaders in smaller settings. The Conversation Series and our Dean’s Roundtable are critical components of the Program on Law and Leadership and popular activities among students.

Thoughtful planning goes into lining up lawyers with distinguished careers or experience in nontraditional roles for the Conversation Series. Past speakers have included a United States District Court judge, the CFO of a Fortune 150 company, a former state attorney general, and the president and CEO of a nonprofit organization that raised $44 million in 2009 alone for agencies assisting youth, families and the underserved in our communities. No more than 20 students are invited to these intimate luncheon discussions.

A slightly different format, the Dean’s Roundtable features lawyer-leaders, often Moritz alumni, at a sit-down lunch with our dean and a small group of first-year law students. It’s a quiet exchange between no more than a dozen people that encourages discussion of leadership topics. These lunches underscore the point that leadership can come in many forms, and students at the beginning of their journey see that they, too, can become leaders in their own way.

Finally, skill-oriented workshops help students discover their individual leadership strengths and refine skills in a hands-on setting. Led by professional corporate trainers, students learn strategies for facilitating group decision-making, communicating with impact, cultivating creativity, and leading when they are not in charge. Exhibiting leadership behavior, even in that first year out of law school, can set one’s career on the trajectory for later success.

The overarching goal of these programs is to prepare students for lives of leadership in a complex, changing world. In his classic 1989 book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis writes that “[b]ecoming a leader isn’t easy, just as becoming a doctor or a poet isn’t easy, and those who claim otherwise are fooling themselves.” While that news may be disheartening, the good news is that becoming a leader is a process. For decades, graduate schools of business have helped students prepare themselves for the leadership challenges of the future. Law students should begin that process as well.

A Valuable Pursuit
Helping students effectively understand and navigate their path to leadership development should be a key responsibility of any advanced professional degree program. With fewer than a handful of law schools nationwide offering a comprehensive leadership initiative, ours has blazed a trail in formalizing leadership education integrated with the academic experience.

We are committed to developing the next generation of lawyer-leaders because we know their impact on the world will extend beyond briefs and meetings with clients. Their intelligence, creativity, and ability to inspire others will translate into extraordinary achievements for our profession, for important public and private organizations, and in our communities.

A law school can and should prepare its students for the broad spectrum of leadership positions they may occupy throughout the length of their careers. We can’t afford otherwise.

If your law school does not offer specific leadership curricula, attempt to educate yourself independently. Check for graduate-level leadership course offerings at the business or public policy schools at your university, and put yourself forward as a candidate for top positions among your student organizations. Finally, take a trip to the bookstore to pick up any number of the many excellent titles on leadership. This is not to imply that all one needs to learn about leadership can be learned from a book or in a classroom, but your personal journey to leadership can and should begin now.

Remember, society depends on lawyers to rise to the challenge and opportunity of leadership. Only you can determine whether you are ready to answer that call.

Garry W. Jenkins is associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of law at The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law. He is also the co-director of the Program on Law and Leadership at the College. For more information on the program, visit

© 2011 Garry W. Jenkins

This document and any discussions set forth herein are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice, which has to be addressed to particular facts and circumstances involved in any given situation. Review or use of the document and any discussions does not create an attorney-client relationship with the author or publisher. To the extent that this document may contain suggested provisions, they will require modification to suit a particular transaction, jurisdiction or situation. Please consult with an attorney with the appropriate level of experience if you have any questions. Any tax information contained in the document or discussions is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties imposed under the United States Internal Revenue Code. Any opinions expressed are those of the author. The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. and its affiliated entities do not take responsibility for the content in this document or discussions and do not make any representation or warranty as to their completeness or accuracy.

To view additional stories from Bloomberg Law® request a demo now