There is a revolution going on in the best law schools across the country right now. They are starting to learn leadership – and believe me, it is not an easy task. However, some manage to surpass their wildest dreams.
Law students are not used to learning how to develop leadership skills, and professors are certainly not used to teaching it. For left-brain, analytical, hyper-competitive law students to really embrace soft and gentle concepts like empathy and teamwork, a different mindset is required. In fact, it requires a whole new way of parenting. Ancient Ivy League law schools, brimming with Socratic professors like the fictional and very grumpy professor Kingsfield in the movie sniper hunt, just isn’t enough anymore. A new paradigm is needed. A fundamentally new approach is needed.
But it’s not easy teaching old dogs new tricks. That’s why most fall short or completely avoid the challenge.
As the Stanford Law School website notes, “It is ironic that the occupation most responsible for producing American leaders has paid so little attention to that role. The legal profession attracts a large number of individuals with the ambition and analytical abilities to be leaders, but often fails to develop other qualities essential to effectiveness.”
Fortunately, some law schools don’t shy away from reinventing themselves. A handful of administrators are leading the way, including Dean Heather Gerken and former Assistant Dean Anastasia Boyko at Yale Law School, Jennifer Leonard at the University of Pennsylvania and Scott Westfahl at Harvard Law School.
In true Schumpeterian fashion, they rethink and innovate legal education, with an emphasis on self-awareness, empathy, resilience and vulnerability. This one “soft skillsare difficult to learn, but essential to success in today’s unforgiving and unpredictable world, no matter what career law graduates ultimately pursue.
Without resilience, there is little chance that a leader can recover from inevitable setbacks and failures. Without empathy, leaders cannot step into the shoes of different stakeholders to better understand what they are thinking and thereby build consensus on critical strategic initiatives. Without self-awareness and vulnerability, they risk misinterpreting how others see them and remain oblivious to their own baggage and blind spots. And without integrity, nothing else really matters to leaders, especially those who want to ensure a positive legacy.
But that begs the question: how do you learn these soft skills? I was lucky enough to get a first-hand look as a visiting lecturer – for two semesters – at Yale Law School. The leadership program’s creator was then-Assistant Dean Anastasia Boyko, who created a uniquely fertile environment for students to hone their skills. With the support of her boss, Dean Heather Gerken, Boyko introduced a holistic, mutually reinforcing approach to leadership development that included curricular, programmatic, and mentorship components.
How did it work? In the classroom, our goal was to inspire Yale law students to face their developmental needs, blind spots, and fears directly. To achieve this, a “safe space” had to be created in which participants could share stories – without fear of ridicule or judgment – and offer advice and best practices to colleagues. We’ve invited a slew of veteran YLS alumni to share their own development journeys, including their biggest obstacles (and mistakes) along the way.
The aim, of course, was not to embarrass the guest speakers, but to set the right tone. If these CEOs, celebrities, entertainment lawyers and entrepreneurs were willing to be vulnerable, it gave the students permission to do the same. In a way, the classroom was mixed like a group therapy session with a Harvard Business School case discussion. The conversation was practical and focused on real business results. But it also enabled students to open up about their fears and concerns and come up with new ways to overcome deep-seated personal challenges† Along the way, the participants learned more about themselves, their classmates and their authentic leadership styles.
Gerken and Boyko are pioneers in a traditionally stodgy industry – legal education. While other law schools are witnessing Yale’s success, I have a feeling this trend will intensify. I wouldn’t be surprised if some elite law schools soon surpass the top business schools as the best place for potential talent to step outside their comfort zones and hone soft skills and leadership competencies. Law School already places an emphasis on solving problems and dissecting complex challenges, which is a key competency for any leader in today’s unforgiving and unpredictable business world. Soft skill training is the icing on the cake.
A short personal story and disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but growing up in Kentucky as a child, my father constantly told me that I should go to law school. He would say, “You can’t go wrong with a law degree. You can do it.” something with a law degree.” As a typical rebellious and annoying teenager, I grinned back: “Are you crazy? Law studies narrow the mind by making it sharp – by focusing on legal code and esoteric technical skills. I want to do something more creative. I want to be a leader.”
It turns out that Bob Dylan is the one who is right, because “The times they are a-changin’.”