ABA Journal

The New Normal

The leadership opportunity for law schools

By David G. Delaney

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David G. Delaney

The recent global recession, new technology and many other factors have changed the job market and work environments for attorneys. The pessimistic outlook on the value of the JD is reflected in a 43 percent decline in law school applicants since 2006. It is a moment of transformational change, calling for leadership as in many nonprofit, government and business communities.

The scholarly view of leadership—a social-influence process through which emergent coordination and change are constructed—recognizes this moment as an opportunity to assess and develop individuals and institutions alike. In law schools the focus should be on three things: Designing a lawyer-leader curriculum for each degree program; developing faculty members as leaders; and nurturing a collaborative school culture which emphasizes leadership.

When I began teaching law three years ago, I expected to find few parallels with my leadership education and experiences at West Point, in the army and as an executive federal attorney. A wise sociologist and vice provost convinced me otherwise. Here are some of his leadership maxims and my experiences to help schools envision paths to success.

Lawyer-Leader Curricula

“It is easier to change the course of history than a history course.”

This is proving true for many schools creating learning outcomes and assessment methods under new American Bar Association accreditation standards (PDF). Infusing leadership into the education environment is even more demanding because it requires law schools to change, develop and integrate many courses together. Collaboration and innovation are essential to that work. I am optimistic about the prospects for success, in part because academics can tap into vibrant professional communities to help develop the JD and other curricular programs that tomorrow’s lawyer-leaders need.

Such integrated thinking is already a feature of some reform proposals and redesigned JD programs. In 2014, Harvard’s 2014 Center on the Legal Profession proposed one lawyer-leader model in a report (PDF) titled “Lawyers as Professionals and as Citizens: Key Roles and Responsibilities in the 21st Century.” It calls on schools to develop graduates to serve as technical expert, wise counselor and effective leader.

The University of Colorado is one school whose forward-looking efforts began more than five years ago. A recent report (PDF) on law school innovation from the school’s Silicon Flatirons Center describes how four sets of competencies—thinking like a lawyer, practical skills, subject matter expertise and professional skills—guide the JD student’s instruction. The Ohio State University’s Program on Law and Leadership blends law and non-law courses with workshops and other events to develop students in a variety of ways. When educators consciously develop students’ leadership knowledge, skills and abilities in those areas, they are producing leaders through a lawyer-leader curriculum.

That kind of scholarly and experiential background in leadership can help prepare students to be effective attorneys and lead their organizations. I found that background in short supply at the Department of Homeland Security. A study I co-led found that leader development programs varied greatly across the department’s nine legal offices. Some provided only informal mentorship opportunities. Others offered formal training programs designed for any federal supervisor. The U.S. Coast Guard prepared its military attorneys to work in operational command positions. Many civilian attorneys were focused only on overseeing litigation dockets or other specialized legal work. Collaboration and innovation enabled our senior leadership team to agree within one year on essential curricular goals and new ways to accomplish them.

Faculty Leader Development Programs

“Practice intentional leadership; find the expert.”

The provost urges everyone to be a leader. He also anticipates that professors may feel unprepared and uncomfortable in this area. The goal of leader development programs is to build confidence in what faculty members offer their students, colleagues and institutions as leaders. Expertise from in-groups and out-groups alike is needed to develop those programs, and each school should aspire not just to find leadership experts but to develop and hire them.

Engaging tenured and non-tenure-track law professors equally in this work is one effective way to promote trust, collaboration and innovation across faculty ranks. Schools may draw upon the work of Deborah Rhode (author of Lawyers as Leaders), two-time dean Jeswald Salacuse (author of Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People), John Heinz and others for insights that are specific to the legal community. Ultimately, however, schools and professional communities will be breaking new ground on our understanding and development of lawyer-leaders and law professor-leaders. They must therefore look for other relevant scholarly expertise.

Psychology, sociology, management, postsecondary education and other fields have much to lend to this effort. Are law professors among the powerful people found to underperform in group activities? Do faculty groups possess sufficient psychological safety to improve effectiveness (PDF) in work teams? How do lessons on leadership and learning for teams of scientific researchers translate to the legal academy? The answers to these and many other questions should inform the legal academy’s long-term approach to leader development.

Like the provost, military and civilian government communities view every employee as a leader with abilities to develop and apply. In different ways at multiple points in a career they teach administrative, creative, and supportive leadership behaviors to foster effective teamwork. It is a model that faculty groups can apply to teaching, service, and research activities to form a common leadership practice throughout the school community. Discussing and adopting such shared experiences inevitably develops the faculty’s leadership capacity and the school’s culture.

School Leadership Culture

“We are an institution with medieval roots.”

I take the provost to express both pride and caution about the memes this maxim encompasses. Relationships among culture, innovation, effectiveness, and leadership have been well studied in many academic fields, but they must be better understood in graduate legal education to be addressed effectively. Law schools will have to work independently and collaboratively to do this.

The Law School Survey of Student Engagement administered by the Center for Postsecondary Research provides a tool to consider some issues. So does the work of educators studying and improving culture in American secondary and postsecondary schools. One approach that law schools can adapt employs an assessment of student achievement, collegial awareness, shared values, decision-making, trust, openness, leadership, communication, socialization and other characteristics.

It is a monumental task. It reminds me of the military’s incomplete, generations-long efforts to bring true equality to the ranks. I also think of the challenges in forging a new culture for attorneys and clients at the Department of Homeland Security when Congress combined 22 different agencies in 2003. Employees still describe (PDF) a dysfunctional organization that ranks last among large agencies on employee satisfaction and commitment. As in these cases, assessing the status quo and expanding the community of change agents are important first steps that schools can take to work toward a new leadership culture for the legal academy and profession.

The value of the JD and other graduate law degrees may be difficult to describe for years to come. My wager—and I think the provost’s, too—is that tomorrow’s highly regarded schools will be those deliberately educating students to lead in diverse fields; constantly improving the profession of law teaching; and collaborating with other communities to recast the profession for a new era of global service.

David G. Delaney has taught at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He is a faculty affiliate of the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and founded Indiana University’s faculty working group on national security ethics. He is also a senior fellow at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, Francis King Carey School of Law. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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