How Law Schools are Becoming the New Business School for Future Leaders

There’s a revolution going on right now in top law schools across the country. They’re starting to teach leadership – and trust me, it’s not an easy task. Some – however – are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. 

Law students aren’t used to learning about how to develop leadership skills, and professors certainly aren’t used to teaching it. Getting left-brained, analytic, hyper-competitive law students to genuinely embrace soft and squishy concepts like empathy and teamwork requires a different mindset. In fact, it requires a new way of educating altogether. Century-old Ivy League law schools, chock full of Socratic professors like the fictional and highly cantankerous Professor Kingsfield in the movie Paper Chase, simply won’t suffice any longer. A new paradigm is needed. A fundamentally new approach is required. 

But it isn’t easy to teach old dogs new tricks. That’s why most come up short or avoid the challenge altogether.

As the Stanford Law School website notes, “It is ironic that the occupation most responsible for producing America’s leaders has focused so little attention on that role. The legal profession attracts a large number of individuals with the ambition and analytic capabilities to be leaders, but frequently fails to develop other qualities that are essential to effectiveness.”

Fortunately, some law schools aren’t shying away from reinventing themselves. A handful of administrators are at the forefront, 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 are rethinking and revamping legal education, focusing on self-awareness, empathy, resilience, and vulnerability. These “soft skills” are difficult to learn but essential for success in today’s unforgiving and unpredictable world, regardless of what careers law school graduates ultimately pursue. 

Without resilience, there is little chance that a leader can bounce back from inevitable setbacks and failures. Without empathy, leaders can’t step into the shoes of different stakeholders, to better understand what they’re thinking and thereby build consensus around critical strategic initiatives. Without self-awareness and vulnerability, they risk misinterpreting how others view them and remain unaware of their own baggage and blind spots. And without integrity, nothing else really matters for leaders, especially ones that want to ensure a positive legacy. 

But that begs the question – how do you teach these soft skills? I was fortunate enough to get a first-hand, inside view as a guest lecturer – for two semesters – at Yale Law School. The creator of the leadership program was then-Assistant Dean Anastasia Boyko who created a uniquely fertile environment for students to sharpen their skills. With support from her boss, Dean Heather Gerken, Boyko introduced a holistic, mutually reinforcing approach to leadership development which included curricular, programmatic, and mentorship components. 

How did it work? In the classroom, our goal was to inspire Yale law students to confront their development needs, blind spots, and fears head-on. Accomplishing it required creating a “safe space” in which participants could share stories – without fear of ridicule or judgment – and offer advice and best practices to peers. We invited a slew of accomplished YLS alumni to share their own development journeys, including their biggest obstacles (and mistakes) along the way. 

The goal of course wasn’t to embarrass the guest speakers, it was to set the right tone. If these CEOs, luminaries, entertainment lawyers, and entrepreneurs were willing to be vulnerable, then it gave the students permission to do the same. In a sense, the classroom became like a group therapy session mixed with a Harvard Business School case discussion. The conversation was practical and focused on real business outcomes. But it also allowed students to open up about their fears and anxieties and think of new ways to overcome deep-seated personal challenges. Along the way, participants learned more about themselves, their classmates, and their authentic leadership styles. 

Gerken and Boyko are pioneers in a traditionally stodgy industry – legal education. As other law schools witness Yale’s success, my hunch is that this trend will intensify. It wouldn’t surprise me if some elite law schools soon surpass top business schools as the best place for high-potential talent to stretch outside their comfort zones and sharpen soft skills and leadership competencies. Law school already emphasizes problem solving and dissecting complex challenges, which is a key competency for any leader in today’s unforgiving and unpredictable business world. Soft skill training is icing on the cake. 

A quick personal story and disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, but when I was a kid growing up in Kentucky my dad used to tell me constantly to go to law school. He would say, “You can’t go wrong with a law degree. You can do anything with a law degree.” As a typically rebellious and annoying teenager I smirked back, “Are you crazy? Law school makes the mind narrow 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.”

As it turns out, Bob Dylan is the one who got it right because “The times they are a-changin’.”

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