Message from the Chair

Deborah Rhode, Chair, AALS Leadership Section

It is with great pride, pleasure, and appreciation that I welcome readers to this first newsletter of the newly inaugurated AALS Section on Leadership. As you all know, it is a shameful irony that the occupation that produces the greatest number of American leaders has done so little to effectively and intentionally prepare them for that role. Although the legal profession accounts for only about .4 percent of the population, it has supplied a majority of American presidents, and innumerable leaders throughout the public and private sector. Few of these individuals receive any formal leadership training in law schools. This section marks a commitment to do better, and I am enormously grateful to all who have made it possible, particularly our superb executive committee Douglas Blaze, David Gibbs, Rachel Moran, and Chair Elect Leah Jackson Teague.

The section is an outgrowth of a series of symposia, conferences, and informal gatherings at the AALS annual meeting for those interested in teaching,   research, and programmatic ideas in the field. Over a 150 legal academics are now members of the section, and our hope is to expand that membership through the kind of activities described in this newsletter. We all have much to learn from each other, and the section leadership welcomes your ideas for how to enlist and engage faculty and communicate with broader audiences.

We confront a number of challenges. Part of the problem is that the field has only recently emerged, and its reputation has been tarnished by pop publications, which I have elsewhere labeled “leadership lite, ” such as Leadership Secrets from Attila the Hun, and Toy Box Leadership; Leadership Lessons from the Toys You Loved as a Child. A related problem is that to many lawyers, law students, and law professors, the subject seems somewhat squishy– a “touchy feely” curricular “frill,” unlike the more doctrinal courses tested on bar exams. But what that latter objection ignores is a wide array of research indicating that effective leadership requires so- called “soft skills,” particularly those demanding personal and interpersonal skills such as self-awareness and emotional intelligence. And by training and temperament, these are not the skills in which lawyers and law students excel; for many “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.” And a wide variety of research suggest that  that law schools can help students develop some of those capacities, such as decision-making, influence, communication, and conflict management.

A related challenge is that many students are reluctant to advertise an interest in leadership. The term seems to conjure up visions of high school student body presidents or overreaching politicians desperate for power and adulation. Yet many law students who are reluctant to out themselves as ambitious will inevitably exercise leadership, if not as heads of organizations, then heads of teams, committees, task forces, and charitable initiatives. When I was a law student, I never thought of myself as a potential leader and would never have taken a leadership course. But I would have surely have benefitted from one, and I deeply regret that I did not know earlier some of what I know now.

Leadership education can also inspire future lawyers to be life-long learners, to recognize the skills that they will need, and to become reflective about their own capacities, limitations, and aspirations. And perhaps most importantly, law school initiatives can encourage students to think more deeply about what they want leadership for. Positions of influence offer many rewards, but those that are most fulfilling are generally not the perks of power, money, and status that individuals often covet. Research consistently finds that satisfaction generally depends most on other, intrinsic factors, such as feeling effective, exercising strengths and virtues, and contributing to socially valued ends that bring meaning and purpose.

As law professors, we have enormous opportunities, and I believe, corresponding obligations to equip future leaders to meet the complex challenges facing our nation and our world. In the final analysis, the question is not whether law schools should prepare students for leadership. Law schools already are developing leaders; they are just not doing it as effectively as they should. We owe it to our students and our communities to do better. I am deeply grateful to all of you who have joined the section to help us become more effective in that mission.