By Scott Westfahl
Many lawyers, including myself, went to law school because we wanted to have a broader understanding of how the world works, how society organizes itself, and how we can leverage the systems and institutions available in a free society to change things for the better. When I survey my first-year law students (there are 80 in the Problem Solving Workshop I teach every January at Harvard Law School), nearly all of them say, in some form or another, that they came to law school to equip themselves to make a difference in the world. As many have lamented, however, while the traditional U.S. model of legal education, at its core, prepares students to “think like a lawyer,” it frequently falls short in helping them understand how to apply their legal reasoning and analytical skills to solve real-world problems and make a positive difference. At Harvard Law School (HLS), we are fortunate that our students are extremely gifted and often figure it out on their own during the course of their careers—the school has graduated countless notable public servants, including Mitt Romney ’75, Barack Obama ’91, Michelle Obama ’88 (my classmate), and four sitting Supreme Court justices, to name a few examples. But for the rest of us, including lawyers from all over the world with diverse legal education backgrounds, a new approach has emerged: executive education for lawyers. This approach, of which HLS Executive Education is a leading example, is specifically and carefully designed to accelerate lawyers’ ability to lead change and have greater impact in their organizations and the world at large.
In this issue of The Practice, we reflect upon this approach through the lens of what we have seen and done as a first mover in executive education designed specifically for lawyers. In this article, we share what we have learned during the past 10 years at HLS Executive Education and consider the future of our core principle: law schools can and should support lawyers across the arc of their careers to become more effective leaders, not only in the private bar but across all practice settings where lawyers are struggling to affect change.
History and context
When we say this approach is “new,” context is important. Executive education leadership programs started within U.S. academic institutions—Harvard Business School (HBS) in particular—in the closing days of World War II for executives and recently demobilized veterans to help them quickly accelerate their leadership capabilities. Given the enormous challenges facing the “greatest generation” following the war, leadership was an imperative—and the faster it could be developed, the better.
Until relatively recently, no corresponding leadership development imperative existed within the legal profession. As such, the profession never fully embraced post-J.D. executive education training as a central part of lawyer career development. However, as documented here in The Practice, globalization, technology, market transparency, and other disruptive forces are accelerating the pace of change across the global legal profession (see “The Global Age of More for Less”). The 2007–2008 financial crisis firmly reinforced the market power now increasingly and assertively exercised by the buyers of corporate legal services. While corporate law firms remain profitable, most no longer feel that business as usual will win the day, and they are left searching for leadership in a vacuum they created by investing minimally (if at all) in the development of leaders. As a result, the legal profession began to realize—just as wide segments of corporate America had in the post–World War II environment—that new skills were increasingly necessary for even the most seasoned practitioners. And that meant an urgent need for new programs and courses designed specifically for legal professionals.
Given the enormous challenges facing the “greatest generation” following the war, leadership was an imperative—and the faster it could be developed, the better.
Flashback to 2007. A leading scholar of the legal profession, Professor David B. Wilkins, develops the idea that HLS should build an executive education program to fill this gap. His central motivation was to help the law firm leaders he was studying—most of whom reported that they were struggling, both personally and professionally—lead change in an environment that was rapidly transforming whether they liked it or not. Reflecting on this thinking a decade ago, Wilkins notes, “In interviewing dozens and dozens of managing partners, general counsel, and other senior lawyers as part of my research on the changing nature of the global legal profession, it quickly became evident that these incredibly accomplished and quite brilliant lawyers wanted exposure to the new skills required to lead larger, more global, and more complex organizations.” He goes on, “That prompted me to think hard about how we might design a program geared toward teaching these new skills to practicing lawyers.”
What seemed like a daunting challenge was made considerably more feasible with the existence of a Harvard-generated model upon which Wilkins could build. A decade earlier, HBS faculty such as Jack Gabarro realized that their graduating M.B.A. students were increasingly moving into professional services firms like McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company rather than to traditional, more hierarchical corporate organizations. This sparked a flood of groundbreaking research on leadership in professional services firms. HBS set out to first learn what leadership looked like in these firms and then to adapt to help prepare its students to effectively build and lead them. Faculty conducted research and wrote seminal professional services firm–oriented case studies like “Bob Anderson at Cambridge Consulting Group” and “Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley,” which explore leadership dilemmas unique to professional services firms. (For more on the use of case studies, see “Attention to Detail” and “Jazzing up the Classroom.”) They also built an executive education course focused specifically on professional services firm leadership that continues today in much the same form.
Firms traditionally relied on their ability to appoint leaders who seemed smart and experienced enough to figure things out as they went along, without providing them with any frameworks, learning, or networks to help ensure their success.
But how could this important research and its related cases be translated and applied specifically to lawyers? The answer, Wilkins realized, was to marry the methods developed at HBS with his own research on the legal profession that he was conducting as faculty director of the HLS Program on the Legal Profession (now the Center on the Legal Profession). Wilkins recruited then-HBS professor Ashish Nanda, well versed in writing and teaching case studies and executive education models, to join him at HLS. Wilkins also partnered with his HLS colleague, Professor John Coates, a former Wachtell Lipton partner with deep knowledge of how law firms and other legal organizations operate, to help build a course called Leadership in Law Firms. In doing so, the first-ever law school–based executive education program for law firm leaders was born. In the years since, other law schools—including Georgetown, Oxford, and Columbia—have launched law school–based executive education programs. While all these programs vary on the micro level, together they represent a growing acknowledgement of the need for post-J.D. education—especially on leadership—for lawyers. Below we review some of the key lessons learned during the past 10 years of executive education for lawyers at HLS.
The nature of the gap
At its inception, HLS Executive Education courses focused on what research showed to be the most pressing need for senior lawyers: providing law firm leaders with empirically grounded frameworks, perspectives, and tools to lead their firms more effectively, particularly with respect to strategy development and organizational alignment. Over time, faculty began to appreciate the true breadth and depth of the problems caused by the legal profession’s chronic underinvestment in leadership development relative to other professions like consulting and accounting.
What created the gap and how did it grow? Here are three core hypotheses:
- Most Am Law 100 firms experienced growth in both size and profitability in the 1990s and early 2000s but did not see leadership development as critical to long-term sustainability. Amid relative prosperity, law firms failed to recognize the need to prepare their leaders for the enormously more-complicated roles and responsibilities they would inherit. Firms traditionally relied on their ability to appoint leaders who seemed smart and experienced enough to figure things out as they went along, without providing them with any frameworks, learning, or networks to help ensure their success.
- As I have written in the past, on an individual level, a great strength of lawyers may also be a critical weakness. We believe that “clients come first”—but at what cost? Leadership requires the building of trust and consensus. Strategic thinking requires self-awareness and thoughtful Developing talent depends on time spent mentoring, coaching, training, and giving feedback. Across all these dimensions, lawyers routinely fail to spend the time and resources required to prepare themselves for significant change. Organizationally, the effect is multiplied in an environment where competition is fierce, short-term profits drive rankings, and the occasional call to do something different sounds much like: “We need to do something really innovative—what’s everyone else doing?!” It is no wonder that people like Richard Susskind ask whether we are going to witness “the end of lawyers.”
- We believe that the leadership gap exists because, unlike many business schools, law schools have mostly ignored the notion of helping prepare students to be leaders or, for that matter, to work in teams, collaborate, appreciate and leverage others’ strengths, manage people and projects, or give and receive critical feedback. As a result, compared to M.B.A.’s, lawyers start their careers at a significant disadvantage in those skills, all of which become critical when taking on leadership roles. It is hard to catch up, especially when you don’t know what you don’t know until you are really struggling as a leader.
To address this and related issues, Professor Wilkins and I have recently proposed a new model of lawyer development through which law schools, law firms, and law departments should share responsibility and leverage one another’s strengths to help lawyers develop: (1) legal technical expertise; (2) professional skills, including leadership skills; and (3) rich networks through which lawyers can solve complex problems. From our experience with HLS Executive Education, law schools in particular can add tremendous value within this model by serving as a key bridge between theory and practice to close the leadership gap in particular.
Reflections upon our approach
As a subset of what some call “lifelong learning,” executive education is typically defined by intense, accelerated learning for leaders within organizations who cannot spare the time required to earn a university degree in management or leadership. For decades, organizations have partnered with business schools at top universities to develop leaders through such time-condensed, highly immersive programs. These programs are typically limited to relatively small groups of participants at similar stages in their careers, often from similar functions or industries and/or at similar levels of organizational responsibility.
It is hard to catch up, especially when you don’t know what you don’t know until you are really struggling as a leader.
Executive education is particularly effective at accelerating participants’ pace and retention of learning because it requires participants to read and debate a series of tailored, real-world cases (again, see “Attention to Detail” and “Jazzing up the Classroom”). Using such stories as discussion vehicles greatly enhances participants’ ability to remember and apply what they have learned. Participants are challenged to study, engage, and learn as much from one another as from program faculty. In the end, participants are rapidly prepared to apply leadership and business principles and frameworks to the leadership situations they face every day. Furthermore, participants form strong bonds with one another, enhancing their professional networks or, in the case of programs offered exclusively to people from the same organization, their internal networks.
What do we teach and why?
At HLS Executive Education, all our executive education leadership programs for lawyers are built upon a framework that allows participants to take perspective and then unpack, examine, and consider how to apply core leadership principles to their daily worlds. As such, the content offered and the method of delivery are critical, carefully designed elements of our approach to preparing lawyers to achieve greater success as leaders. Here is what they look like:
Taking perspective. For lawyers to become better leaders, they must reflect on and understand the full breadth of their many responsibilities and how they are currently handling them. They particularly need to see how the leadership roles they play in legal organizations differ significantly from the roles played by CEOs of traditional businesses. Real-world cases (see below and “Jazzing up the Classroom”) highlight and explore those differences and closely describe the lives of our specific participants, who struggle daily with needing to serve clients but also manage people and lead their organizations or business units. Our programs are aimed at providing participants the opportunity to step back and reflect upon their roles, careers, and lives among a group of peers and to compare notes as to how things are going. After just one session, participants buy in to our approach because they feel heard, understood, and in some ways validated. (For more on this, see “Attention to Detail.”)
Unpacking leadership. Lawyers also need to understand the key dimensions of leadership in order to focus their efforts to improve. We use cases and discussion to unpack the key responsibilities that lawyers must often have to balance and fulfill as leaders by addressing leadership across the following areas:
- Personal leadership. Leadership begins with understanding yourself as a leader—what motivates you, how you communicate with others, your default working style, and your assumptions about the working styles of others. We explore those topics and provide participants with practical suggestions drawn from the psychology of motivation and research on how to give and receive feedback and have difficult conversations.
- Leading teams. Through case studies and simulations, we help lawyers understand team dynamics and decision making and offer a road map for how to build and sustain high-performing teams. Most important, we illustrate how the way most private practice lawyers currently work fails to leverage much of the important research about how to engage and motivate teams to improve efficiency and client service.
- Client leadership. Especially for early-stage law firm partners and in-house counsel, we challenge participants to understand at a much deeper level how to add distinctive value to clients and build client loyalty.
- Strategic leadership. Leaders need to understand how to develop and implement strategy—and how to align their organizations accordingly. We use cases and comparative research to help law firm leaders and senior in-house lawyers understand the basics of business unit and corporate strategy. We particularly focus on how traditional business strategy concepts can be applied within the legal profession so that participants come away with actionable takeaways.
- Innovation, collaboration, and emerging themes. To help lawyers adapt to their rapidly changing environment, we continuously develop new cases and research through our partnership with the HLS Center on the Legal Profession and the HLS Case Development Initiative. In the past two years, for example, we have developed cutting-edge cases, materials, and research around both innovation and design thinking as it can be applied to the legal profession as well as how collaboration works within leading professional services firms. In our most recent leadership programs for senior law firm leaders and general counsel, we have also developed cybersecurity simulations and engaged with leading experts to help our participants lead more effectively in a cyber-related crisis.
- Core business principles. Parallel and closely related to the leadership gap discussed above is the huge gap in most lawyers’ understanding of core business principles. For example, younger lawyers in particular must understand how they can use core business principles to serve their clients more effectively, whether they work within a law firm or a corporate law department. For more-senior lawyers, an important function of executive education has always been to teach core business skills in a condensed, accelerated way. To lead, they need to understand how to direct the business operations of their enterprise and communicate effectively with the experts on whom they rely internally. Yet many lawyer-leaders advance to leadership roles without any formal training in finance, valuation, marketing, accounting/control systems, compliance, strategy, or even negotiation theory. We partner with professors from across Harvard University to provide such training and have had particular success with our [email protected] program (see “Attention to Detail”).
How we teach and why we teach the way we do
The way we teach is shaped by four key elements critical to effective executive education programs: the case study method; timely, empirical research; the right participants; and the right faculty.
The case study method. At the core of how we teach is the highly effective case study method, first perfected in the executive education and business context by our colleagues at HBS. Of course, as lawyers we are proud to point out that the first widespread application of a case method for professional instruction was developed here at HLS in the late 1800s by our first dean, Christopher Columbus Langdell. Langdell’s method, which is still the primary instructional approach at nearly all U.S. law schools, focuses on teaching the application of legal theory through the parsing of judicial opinions (case law serving as the cases). Without a similar, formal system of recorded precedent that can easily be adapted for case teaching purposes, business schools have developed the concept of writing their own “cases” to illustrate and bring to life how leadership and management theories and frameworks apply to real-world business situations. The last point in that preceding sentence is critical: real-world situations. To effectively teach experienced lawyers about leadership, we must teach cases that are fact- and story-driven and based on actual firms, law departments, and people. Skeptical lawyers will otherwise rip apart any alternative attempt to teach theoretical principles, as lawyers’ previous, intense training in Langdell’s method has finely honed their ability to spot inconsistencies and impracticalities in almost any professional or business setting. Thus, one of the great innovations of HLS Executive Education has been our investment in a team of HBS-trained case writers who develop the cases we use in our leadership programs.
The ideal group of participants has enough diversity to provoke lively discussion and enough similarity with respect to career stages and roles so our case discussions are practical and helpful to all participants.
Beyond being grounded in real-world practicality, why is the case study method so effective? Fundamentally, there is the power of story. To the far reaches of antiquity, it has been evident that as human beings we learn and convey important principles—and embed them in our consciousness and long-term memory—much more effectively when we relate them to stories involving real people like ourselves. The most powerful Greek myths or biblical parables stand out to us even still as ways to convey lessons about culture and values. A good story is memorable because it engages our emotions, and neuroscience research has proven that long-term memory is triggered and enhanced strongly when our emotions are engaged. In the classroom, sparks fly as soon as a faculty member begins to facilitate discussion of a well-written case grounded in real facts and the experiences of real people. Even better, when the faculty facilitator introduces related research and theory, participants in the class more easily understand and retain ideas and frameworks because they won’t forget the powerful story through which they were introduced to those concepts.
As an example of how this plays out in our program for early-to-midstage law firm partners, participants discuss a case comprised of a series of vignettes about challenging team situations that actually occurred (and occur often) in a law firm setting. After analyzing the case and parsing the issues it presents, participants role-play difficult conversations using a research-based feedback model that helps them to have such conversations much more productively. In the case discussion segment, they directly relate to the case protagonists’ struggles. In the discussion of related theory and principles, they have the opportunity—within the context of a powerful story—to practice the application of theory to a real-world challenge. Ultimately, they are better prepared in their day-to-day world to recall and apply the principles that research teaches us about how to have difficult conversations productively. (For more on case studies in the law, see “Jazzing up the Classroom.”)
Timely, empirical research. Skeptical lawyers expect that what we teach is grounded in unbiased, empirical research rather than gut instincts or anecdotal approximations of best practices. By analogy, Harvard’s Program on Negotiation is a leading provider of negotiation instruction worldwide but is also one of the world’s leading research centers on the science of negotiation. Following a similar model, HLS Executive Education partners closely with the HLS Center on the Legal Profession, which has long been recognized as the leading academic research organization focused on lawyers and the changing global legal profession. As an example of our collaboration, in April 2014 the Center on the Legal Profession hosted a groundbreaking global conference on disruptive innovation in the legal profession that included scholars like Clayton Christensen from HBS. Since then, we have successfully integrated several key findings from that conference directly into our leadership programs for senior law firm leaders and general counsel.
A broader point is important to note here. Executive education programs—both for-profit and nonprofit—are offered by a wide variety of providers worldwide. Yet there are several research-related advantages to locating executive education within academic institutions rather than consulting firms or other independent centers. Academic-based research is required to be rigorous, peer-reviewed, and untainted by profit motives. Within a university, executive education programs can also access broader, more interdisciplinary research. Moreover, organizations and individuals more readily share data with academic researchers, who are not viewed as competitors. Indeed, as my colleagues at the Center on the Legal Profession will tell you, because their research protocols must be approved by the university’s ethics board—the same board that sanctions drug trials and other life-or-death medical research endeavors—their commitments to confidentiality and rigor mean firms and companies provide them access to even the most sensitive data. For instance, one of the Center’s core researchers was granted access to a law firm’s billing records for her research into collaboration.
Finally, executive education programs meet participants’ high expectations only if they specifically address the important “hot button” issues that participants are all facing or anticipate having to face. For example, as legal innovation has become a pressing imperative across the profession, we have researched effective innovation and how design thinking is being applied to transform the delivery of services in other industries. We now include a workshop on design thinking–based innovation as part of our six-day leadership program for senior law firm leaders.
The right participants. Executive education requires a careful balance of participants. The ideal group has enough diversity to provoke lively discussion and a broad trading of ideas. On the other hand, we have to ensure that there is enough similarity among participants’ career stages and roles for our case discussions to be practical and helpful to all participants in facing their common day-to-day challenges. Thus, we carefully screen and select participants in all our open-enrollment programs, and when we design a custom program for an individual organization, we work carefully with the organization to craft the right group of participants. For live case-based teaching, the ideal class size is between 35 to 60 participants. This allows us to balance diverse perspectives with space for participants to meaningfully share their ideas in a 90-minute case presentation. Finally, we cannot understate the importance to participants of the break time, lunches, and dinners we provide to allow them to get to know one another and trade ideas, thoughts, and perspectives, whether one-on-one or in small groups. By the end of a weeklong program, class participants are tightly bonded and anxious to set up ways to stay in touch. If we took less care in selecting participants, it would be much harder to achieve the buy-in and relationship building that always occurs.
The right faculty. This is perhaps the most critical element to the success we have found in executive education for lawyers. Teaching in the executive education style is very difficult and challenging for even long-tenured “traditional” law faculty to master. When it is done right, the classroom comes alive. Ideas organically arise from the discussion, with all participants engaged. The faculty facilitator incorporates research-based ideas and frameworks into the session and leaves participants with practical ideas they can readily apply. There is a steep learning curve, but fundamentally what distinguishes an excellent executive education teacher is someone who can empathize, listen, and invite participants into the discussion rather than expending all their energy trying to control it. When it goes wrong, one of two things usually happens: either the class discussion devolves into an uncontrollable, frustrating chaos, or the instructor gives up, hijacks the discussion, and reverts to a tightly controlled, narrow discussion or even a straight, disengaging lecture.
What advice do we have for new faculty learning to teach in this style? First, it is important to set ego aside, let go of a fixed agenda, and allow the participants to fully engage. Second, although faculty members need to allow for a lot of fluidity in the discussion, they must have a teaching plan that maps out key teaching points and timing. Often these teaching plans incorporate a “chalkboard plan” that diagrams how the faculty member will use, record, and order participants’ contributions on the classroom chalkboards as the case discussion unfolds. Recording the participants’ key contributions on chalkboards or flip charts helps engage them by validating their comments. More important, by recording their comments in an organized way, faculty members reveal key takeaways from the case in a way that participants are more likely to feel “ownership” of the discussion and recall key lessons afterward.
At its core, that is what executive education is all about—providing the tools and frameworks for lawyers to become better lawyers and better leaders.
In the hands of a gifted professor, this learning model is incredibly powerful. As the class progresses, the buzz starts to really build. Ideas fly; there are moments of laughter and then moments of intense, sometimes even wistful reflection. People share experiences and lessons beyond what you would ever expect among seasoned, hardened professionals—not unlike group therapy at times. The professor in the middle of the directed cacophony learns as much—if not more—from the participants as they learn from him or her and forms a very special bond with them. They are all suddenly part of a learning community that shares in the joy of intellectual debate and discovery and the camaraderie that collaborative learning produces. The magic of executive education is that this happens in a condensed, intense period of focus rather than across a full semester, as participants once experienced in law school.
(For more on how these elements come together in the process of designing individual executive education programs, see “Attention to Detail.”)
As we reach our 10th year of providing executive education for law firm leaders, general counsel, and other senior in-house leaders, law firm associates, and others, we reflect upon the impact we have had to date and lessons we have learned on this journey. Of critical importance: the impact on the participants who attended, on the organizations to which they return, and on the profession as a whole (see “The Impact of Executive Education Programs”). At its core, that is what executive education is all about—providing the tools and frameworks for lawyers to become better lawyers and better leaders. Through this transformation, their organizations and the legal profession as a whole are better positioned to grow and flourish. Anecdotal evidence abounds as we keep in touch with participants and from their self-reporting to us at alumni gatherings. Law firm leaders give examples of how our program inspired them to launch new initiatives, communicate more openly with their firms, think more strategically, and build more-effective leadership teams. General counsel and other in-house lawyers report that our program helps them communicate more effectively with their business partners, CEOs, and boards, as well as align their law departments more effectively with the strategic goals of their companies. Law firm associates participating in our [email protected] program frequently share with us their stories of how building strong core business skills has helped them serve their clients more effectively and gain a seat at the table when business decisions are being made. One top law firm chairman I encountered last year told me that the leadership agenda he created out of our Leadership in Law Firms Program was transformational, and that having completed his first agenda, he is working on number two. (For more on the personal agenda, see “Attention to Detail.”)
Of critical importance: the impact on the participants who attended, on the organizations to which they return, and on the profession as a whole.
What else do we notice? By continuously updating our content to stay current and even ahead of trends, we have successfully prepared our participants to advance the dialogue around those important trends. For example, before collaboration was a buzzword, we engaged our colleague Heidi Gardner to come to HLS to study and teach about why collaboration matters among lawyers and how individual lawyers and legal organizations can become more collaborative and break down traditional walls and barriers. Before innovation was a buzzword, the HLS Center on the Legal Profession held its major conference on disruptive innovation and HLS Executive Education developed workshops to teach design and innovation principles to lawyers. We continue to ensure the relevance of our teaching programs by leveraging our research and case-writing resources, and we see real impact when buzzwords and themes emerge and quickly spread across the profession due in no small part to our teaching programs, research outreach, and network. We continue to invest in this kind of R&D effort because we see that it pays off.
Our 10-year engagement with executive education has provided some surprises. In no particular order:
- It has been harder than we thought to convince law firms to invest in leadership development the way other professional services firms have. We have made significant progress and the quality of our programming has moved the needle, but our profession still lags considerably.
- The need for the kind of programming we are doing is truly global, and we have been surprised that without advertising overseas, we generate enormous participation from lawyers from all over the world.
- Lawyers are actually hungry to learn from one another and compare notes, particularly across geographies and types of firms. Some U.S. participants in our programs are highly skeptical when they arrive and see the global breadth of our participant base. Within a day or two, their skeptical/arrogant attitude turns into a great appreciation for the cultural and substantive lessons they are learning from their classmates from outside the United States.
- What we do is not easy to scale because so much depends on human interaction in a psychologically safe, neutral place. From time to time we help law firms and law departments by teaching at partner or associate retreats or other internal programs. While predictable on some level, we continue to be surprised by how much more difficult it is to have impact when we travel to deliver programs rather than holding them on a university campus—a place where the free exchange and flow of ideas is embedded in its DNA.
- Our case study method works really well for lawyers, which is not something intuitively predictable given that lawyers are trained to differentiate and distinguish and sometimes try from the start of a case discussion to reject the relevance of the case or their perception of its relevance. Having faculty who are inclusive and draw participants—even the skeptics—into the case discussion is critical to overcoming the skepticism, and afterward we often hear from participants that this teaching method is the best they have ever encountered.
- Our ability to draw upon broader university resources and our network continues to grow exponentially, and it keeps us ahead of the trends and challenges facing the legal profession. Being able to collaborate with experts on collaboration, innovate with experts on innovation, and conduct interdisciplinary, global research with world-leading researchers has become central and core to our mission. Ten years ago HLS Executive Education began with more of a catchup mission—we had to help the legal profession build leadership capacity from scratch and narrow the leadership gap. Now, our mission is broader and includes our passion for preparing the profession and its leaders for the rapidly accelerating pace of change it now confronts.
The Road Ahead
Perhaps the biggest lesson we have learned during the past 10 years most effectively points the way for our future: the legal profession, in dire need and under great, transformational pressure, is looking for law schools like Harvard, but in no way exclusive to Harvard, to serve as a bridge between the academic study of leadership and the real world of practice. As David B. Wilkins and I described in our recent Stanford Law Review article, law schools, law firms, and law departments need to ensure that they do not “waste a good crisis” and miss this opportunity to martial their collective resources. For example, in the past two years, we have run several leadership programs that for the first time brought together senior law firm partners and their general counsel clients. By serving as a neutral, safe bridge among lawyers who too often see their interactions as a zero-sum game, we moved the discussion forward to broaden their mutual understanding and commonly discuss and ideate around the challenges they all face.
Lawyers are hungry to learn from one another and compare notes, particularly across geographies and types of firms.
So how else can we—representing law school–based executive education—play this “bridge” role? As we look forward, we see significant gaps that would benefit from our platform, where lawyers in the public sector and government struggle with leadership issues or lawyers leaving one practice paradigm for another lack the organizational understanding and core skills they need to succeed (for example, transitioning from a law firm to in-house practice). Beyond addressing such skill gaps, we look toward macroeconomic, demographic, and geopolitical forces for opportunities to have positive impact. How can lawyers better prepare for the disruption that artificial intelligence will bring? How can lawyers advance justice more effectively in a world where core institutions are being challenged? What will the labor market look like as baby boomers face retirement and need to take another direction to find meaning as they live longer than any generation of prior human beings? How will interdisciplinary networks, using collaborative technology, transform the way lawyers are involved in solving tough problems?
Clearly, we are very confident that there will continue to be a need for what we are doing, and we look forward to building upon the executive education model we have transformed for the legal profession.
Scott Westfahl is a professor of practice and the director of HLS Executive Education at Harvard Law School.