Never during the course of my life and career as a lawyer have I felt that there was more urgency for lawyers to step up and lead than there is today. Never have the ideals that we define as ours--truth, justice, fairness, rule of law--been more threatened, yet simultaneously more urgent. And rarely have I been prouder of my profession of first responders, running to airports and borders to defend those in harm's way and rushing to law libraries and courtrooms to protect the Constitution and the important cornerstone of our democracy (1)--that we are, as John Adams described, a "government of laws, and not of men." (2)
But what does this mean in practice? How do lawyers effectively lead, and how can law schools support leadership development in their students? What are the qualities leaders must possess and cultivate, and what are the skills they can develop and practice in law school, in their careers, and in life?
In the twenty-two years since I graduated from law school, I have thought about leadership a great deal. I have had the opportunity to work with many great leaders and lawyers and the clients, communities, and movements they serve. Whether it has been alongside participants in the human rights movement or the environmental movement, or more localized efforts such as the Free Burma movement or the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), there are certain leadership qualities that are universal. These qualities transcend geography, culture, race, and gender and can be useful to anyone who feels called to step into her own leadership at this moment when, in my opinion, we need lawyer-leaders more than ever.
In the spirit of simplicity, I have made a "top three" list of qualities and criteria essential to successful leadership.
Great Leaders Have Great Dreams
Think of every single iconic leader you know, whether trained as lawyers, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bella Abzug, and Nelson Mandela, or not, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi. Each of these extraordinary individuals had a vision of transformative change for his or her country and its people. Racial justice, women's rights, freedom, and democracy--these great leaders were not just tinkering around the edges of things that did not really matter but were seeking to shift paradigms and alter the status quo. Social justice leaders and lawyers like myself work for radical change to improve the lives of the marginalized or mistreated, with the ultimate goal of transforming the laws, systems, and structures that allow and create injustice in the first place.
When I arrived for my first day at the University of Virginia School of Law (UVA) in August 1992, I did not know that I would embark on a leadership path. Just Five days before, I had been volunteering at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, where people had run for their lives from the war and human rights violations, such as systematic killing, torture, rape, and forced labor, perpetrated by the Burmese military junta as it attempted to preserve its iron-Fisted rule over the Burmese people. (3) Upon learning that I was leaving to attend law school in the United States, the refugees who had become my family implored me not to forget them after returning home: "Please don't forget us when you go home. We have no law in our country. We have no freedom in our country. We have no ability to get higher education here in this camp. Please, use your education and your freedom to help us get ours."
Their words rang in my ears as I walked through the hallowed halls of UVA, and their voices and faces helped keep me focused on my goal of becoming a human rights lawyer. I remember that first week as a 1L, nervous and shell-shocked like everyone else but also gratified that so many of my classmates had come to law school for equally idealistic reasons. I met students who wanted to protect endangered species, advocate for women's rights, abolish the death penalty, protect children and the elderly, and advocate for racial justice. I remember feeling hopeful at an early orientation event, when one of the deans asked us to raise our hands if we had gone to law school to pursue public interest law and an overwhelming majority of us did.
Yet upon graduation, most of my classmates went into private practice and remain there today--and my class and law school were not unique. Studies show that while a majority of law students attend law school because they believe in general ideals of truth and justice and because they want to make the world a better place, upon graduation, many begin their careers in private practice. (4) They come yearning for the knowledge and skills to better the world, yet law school is all too often a place where students lose sight of these dreams. Perhaps this is because of the elite nature of law school and the privileged status of professors and students, with the heavy emphasis on legal theory and complex procedures rather than the stories of those named in the cases or the societal problems the cases aimed to address. Or maybe it is the heavy debt students incur or the well-worn path to corporate work and relative ease with which career centers place students in corporate jobs. (5)
Whatever the reason, the visions of transformative change--that most important leadership asset--become lost to most students and lawyers. We graduate with the ability to analyze and parse every detail, to assess and challenge every layer of procedure, and to argue any and every substantive nuance, regardless of whether we believe in it or not. And in that...