We’re not actually on a leadership jag here at Adam Smith, Esq., but we understand if you might feel that way.

Deborah Rhode, who’s taught at Columbia and Stanford Law Schools, published a piece in the June American Lawyer (paid subscription required for access) called “Flying Blind,” about how law schools do essentially nothing to train students in leadership skills.  Here’s the issue:

Most lawyers never receive any formal education in leadership.  Nor do they generally perceive that to be a problem, which is itself problematic.  […] 

That inadequacy is striking, given that no occupation accounts for such a large proportion of leaders.  The legal profession has supplied a majority of US Presidents, and in recent decades, almost half of Congress, 10% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies, and innumerable heads of government and nonprofit organizations.

The assumption seems to be that leaders are born, not made, so what’s to be done?

But as we know, and as I’ve written repeatedly, that just isn’t so.  Leadership can be taught and, better yet, can be learned, primarily through serious reflection on experience–including learning from one’s own mistakes and observing the traits of other demonstrably successful leaders.  Yet when it comes to picking leaders of our own firms, what do we do? Historically (and this may be changing, albeit glacially), we put people in leadership positions because of their rainmaking track record, which, as one observer Deborah Rhode quotes, observes drily, “This carries considerable risks.”

I would argue that lawyers need leadership training more than anyone–simply because lawyers are, intrinsically, so hard to lead.  We’re notoriously good at challenging authority and place almost untoward value on autonomy. 

What, then, does leadership training consist of? Cultural and intellectual broadening, primarily, including deep reading in history and biography as well as management theory (selectively, OK?–I’ve read far more than my share of the stuff and the dross to gold ratio is about 100 to 1), moral philospohy, political science, and yes, of course, economics.

Where do leaders go astray?

Primarily–Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent sad and sorry experience being Exhibit A–in assembling a coterie of acolytes whose raison d’etre seems to be sycophantic. What do we actually know about how “yes men” affect leadership skills? Plenty, and none of it is pretty:

A core insight of recent research is that leadership is a relationship, not a status. Influence has to be earned, not asserted or assumed. [In a survey of some 70,000 individuals], Santa Clara University business professors James Kouzes and Barry Posner found the statement that ranked the lowest in a list of 30 leadership behaviors was that the leader “asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect others’ performance.”

Yet another critical dimension of leadership is simply self-awareness. The best leaders ask themselves how they are perceived, understanding that they will never really have a complete and candid answer to that question; the worst plow on, oblivious to how others perceive them, what lessons they learn, or how hypocritical their behaviors might seem.

Which brings us, in closing, to The New York Times story earlier this week, “In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That,” revealing that about a dozen law schools, including Loyola, NYU, Georgetown, Golden Gate, Tulane, USC, UCLA, UC/Hastings, Vanderbilt, and presumably others, have either unilaterally increased students’ grades retroactively (adding, say, 0.333 to everyone’s GPA in the case of Loyola) or “relaxed” their grading standards “in order to be more competitive in today’s job market.”

In how many ways can you say “disconnect?”

The Times story reveals behavior which leaves me with my jaw on my chest and my erstwhile pride in being a member of a learned profession subject to serious challenge.

The law schools who are re-writing history are engaging in behavior which is appalling, unspeakable, indefensible, and beneath contempt. This Times story, jocular as it was in tone, reveals people behaving in ways–and make no mistake, they’re individuals, people with names and families and academic pedigrees; this is not the behavior of deracinated “institutions”–that have long since lost sight of any connection to a moral compass.

“The market made me do it,” you might imagine them saying in defense?

Vanity Fair runs a column in every monthly issue on the inside back page of the magazine they call “Proust’s Questionnaire,” which asks such questions as “What’s perfect happiness,” “What’s your best/worst trait,” etc. And occasionally they ask “On what occasion do you lie?”

Never have I seen an interviewee try to get away with, “when the market makes it convenient.”

If “convenience” justifies out and out misrepresentation, then I would like you to join me in celebrating the 141st anniversary of the publication of my own famous novel, War & Peace.  (Convenient for burnishing a reputation, no?)

Dear Reader, this is no joke.

If Deborah Rhode is right, and I devoutly believe she is, the leadership initiative should begin in our law schools. On the evidence, that’s the last place in sight we should look for leadership.

Very truly yours,

Your deeply saddened Scribe.

Update, 28 June:

A regular reader writes:

Great piece on leadership and law
schools.  Here’s what Dean Robert Post of Yale Law said about the distinctive elements
of a Yale Law education in his June 2010 letter to the law school community:

 It has become increasingly clear to me
that at Yale we aim not merely to promote mastery of the discipline and
practice of law, which many law schools seek to do, but we aspire also to
produce the confidence and self-respect necessary for leadership:  We want
our students to understand that what they do matters.  This is a high
aspiration, and when we succeed our students experience the kind of gratitude
and affection that was palpable at graduation.”

[Our correspondent also notes:]  It took me six years to get through law
school because of time I took off for grad school, but I still find it
remarkable that I overlapped in those six years with three sitting Supreme
Court justices; the current Secretary of State; a former President of the
United States; the current Deans of both the Harvard and the Yale law schools;
and many more figures in leadership positions.  Yale Law School is the
intellectual equivalent of the deep end of the pool, and though it’s grading
system is rather impressionistic I doubt seriously that anyone on that faculty
would change an impression retroactively.

How refreshing is this–and thanks to our correspondent for contributing to the dialogue.

On reflection, I should have noted the obvious in my original column, to wit that one cannot tar all law schools with too broad a brush despite the 3rd-degree felonies of a few.  So noted.

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