Strong leaders don't just happen. They are created. That principle guided the founding faculty of Elon University School of Law as they designed the curriculum for their school, which welcomed its first students in 2006.
Plenty of law schools have a course here or there that emphasizes leadership skills, but Elon decided to make leadership training a focal point by integrating it into all three years of the program and making it mandatory, said Faith Rivers James, director of the school's leadership program. First- and second-year law students spend two weeks each year in intensive courses designed to help them understand their own goals and values and improve their ability to communicate and work in group settings.
Practicing attorneys and leadership coaches observe the students as they work in groups and offer assessments that identify the students' leadership strengths and weaknesses. The program aims ultimately to produce students who are both self-aware and prepared to take on leadership roles, be it in a law firm setting or as a volunteer for a local organization.
"Sometimes students wonder why we spend so much time talking about a skill that is traditionally associated with business school and not tested on the bar, but eventually they connect that leadership is an important part of their future legal practice," James said.
The Greensboro, N.C., school's spotlight on leadership has been an effective student draw and has garnered interest from legal industry groups. The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Professionalism recognized the program this year for being an "innovative, deeply committed and highly effective approach to leadership training of law students."
The program was a major factor in David Lambert's decision to attend Elon, the 3L said. He is already putting his skills to use by revamping the leadership structure of the ABA Law Student Division's Fourth Circuit, which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. His plan is to move away from a hierarchical leadership structure to one more reliant on teamwork. "We're learning the law through a different lens, which I think is exciting," said Lambert, who serves as one of the leaders of the ABA's student division.
The first major component of Elon's leadership program is a two-week course that all 1L students complete in what is called the winter term — the period before the traditional spring semester begins. "Lawyering, Leadership, and Professionalism" focuses on the students' personal values and goals. Students take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, designed to measure how they see the world and make decisions, and to determine whether they are introverts or extroverts.
The students work with leadership coaches and draw up personal development plans.
"We ask them to think about what they value and what strengths they think they have," said John Alexander, the law school's leadership coach in residence and former president of the Center for Creative Leadership, an organization that conducts leadership training and research around the world. "They set some goals for what they want to accomplish in law school and in the first three to five years of their careers."
Students meet with their coaches to discuss their plans. "Those conversations can be very powerful," Alexander said.
The following year, all 2Ls spend another two weeks in a course called "Public Law and Leadership" that requires them to put their skills to the test by tackling a real-world problem as a team. Students are put into small groups — essentially, simulated law firms — and asked to solve an actual legal problem that a local nonprofit organization faces. The coaches observe how each student operates in the group setting and provides individual feedback about how their approach either helps or hinders the team. They also assess the overall leadership dynamics of the group.
Lambert's group helped an organization that focuses on the education of homeless children, analyzing regulations regarding facilities for the kids.
"I learned that I'm an extrovert and that I'll start talking because I want to get things done," he said. "Introverts may still be thinking though the problem, but I tend to speed through and leave people behind. There's a danger that people will feel excluded."
Lambert now knows to slow down and allow others to participate fully to create an effective team.
Recent graduate Chantelle Lytle was on a team that assisted a group aiming to build a charter school in Greensboro; it needed help working through the legal issues. Her leadership coach pointed out that she tended to dominate the team in a way that might be off-putting to colleagues as she moves into the workplace.
"This really gives you a much more detailed picture of your strengths," Lytle said. "You do a lot of self-assessment and writing about your own leadership experiences."
At the end of the 2L course, the teams present their ideas to the client organization and compete to see which team delivers the best solutions. In addition to teaching students how to work in groups and lead, the course gives them a chance to work directly with clients, James said.
The law school also employs what it calls "perceptors" — attorneys who observe first-year classes and give students feedback about their performance. They also serve as mentors.
During the third year, a select group of leadership fellows completes a capstone project in which they use what they have learned during their first two years to tackle a project of their choosing to benefit the community, the legal profession or society. Lytle chose to develop a series of leadership training sessions for the law school's student organizations. She will take what she has learned into her new job as an associate at Columbia, S.C.-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scar­borough.
"Prior to going to Elon, I had a skewed version of leadership," she said. "I thought it was completing an assigned task. But Elon has taught me that leadership is a lifestyle. It's personality trait."
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.