Defining Principled Leadership in Legal Education

By AALS President Mark Alexander, Dean at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

Photo courtesy of Villanova Law

 As legal educators, we have a unique role in shaping future lawyers. From curriculum development to administrative decisions to mentoring students, our actions today directly impact the legal profession of tomorrow. It may not be obvious, but part of our responsibility in legal education is to help our students learn to lead. Why? It’s all part of how we participate in society—how we all work to Defend Democracy. As you already know, part of being a lawyer is being a leader in our system of laws, in our nation committed to the rule of law. Some lawyers lead as everyday practitioners by helping their clients. Some lead in politics, serving as architects and advocates for the future of our country. Some are prosecutors, while others are defense lawyers. You get the point—whatever the situation, lawyers provide a service to society. 

As a law school dean, I want our students to understand that serving as a lawyer is more than just having a job and even more than a career. It is an honor, a privilege, and heavy responsibility. As we do our jobs as legal educators, we are training principled leaders. We teach them how to listen and how to be responsive. We teach them to advocate for the causes that matter to them. We encourage them to consider multiple perspectives. We teach them to debate all sides of an argument with respect and care. Yes, we want to ensure that students become knowledgeable about the law. But we also want them to emerge as professionals ready to lead. 

How do we do it? It is an ever-evolving process, but I can share a few insights—some examples of this work in action—from my perspective as Dean at Villanova Law. 

First, our work must be grounded in values. Being an ethical lawyer and principled leader requires an honest and forthright approach when confronting problems, whether it’s the specific problems a client hopes to solve or the broader issues we face as a society. At Villanova Law, we embrace the university’s motto of Veritas, Unitas, Caritas—Truth, Unity, Love. I have no doubt that, however you phrase it at your institution, you also have a version of these values, because they are universal. Embracing values as part of our legal education makes a difference in the outcomes we produce and the lawyers we train.

We actively work to make this difference at Villanova Law through a rigorous professional development curriculum integrated into our broader curriculum. We strive to weave together the subject of the law with preparing to lead in the law. We are thoughtful in providing intentional role-modeling through speakers, one-on-one networking, and other opportunities for students to learn from those who are principled leaders.

The ABA’s recent changes to the law school professional development curriculum requirement has sharpened the focus for all of us. After years of planning, I am proud that a year ago, we continued to expand our programming by establishing several key positions: an Associate Dean for Professional Development and Leadership, a Director of Professional Development and Leadership, and a Director for Public Service and Pro Bono Initiatives. Our entire team is a critical part of the Villanova Law experience, and the impact of these positions is profound.

Law school is a distinct and unique moment to help students tap into principled leadership, and I believe we must be intentional about building this foundation. During my tenure as dean, we also established Lawyers as Leaders, an extracurricular not-for-credit program that brings together the heads of student organizations and other students for a collaborative and interactive exploration of leading with values. Through a series of sessions across the academic year, we challenge students to assess their leadership capabilities, discuss different leadership styles, and develop skills that will help them lead in their future careers and beyond.

In modeling principled leadership, we promote and engage with our alumni as they forge new paths in society. At Villanova Law, we routinely connect alumni with current students as part of the professional development process because, like you, we have alumni serving as leaders across all sectors and organizations. A few examples are the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, NFLPA/NFL Players, Inc., the Federal Reserve Board, Share Our Strength, Comcast, and Samsonite International, not to mention countless who serve as judges or lead prominent law firms. I would be remiss not to highlight my AALS colleague April Barton, dean of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law of Duquesne University. As the head of the AALS leadership section, she sets an example for all of us in legal education.

All faculty members play a critical role in demonstrating principled leadership. We do that through teaching and scholarship and by stepping up to lead when the opportunity arises. I am sure you all have examples of faculty who do this extraordinarily well. At Villanova Law, my colleague Professor Doris Brogan excels in supporting the nonprofit world. She serves on the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and she was recently honored for her leadershipcove rwithin an environmental education center outside Philadelphia. Another colleague, Professor Chaim Saiman, serves on The Beth Din of America, one of the nation’s preeminent rabbinic courts, applying his expertise in Jewish law to the broader community. These are just two faculty members who set an important example for students: after graduation, you are not simply a lawyer, scholar, educator, etc. You possess a unique skill set that is valuable at all levels of society. Your leadership can make a critical impact on your community and within our democracy.

Wherever law students land, they will become leaders in some way. They will be the ones defending democracy in the future. We must do all we can to help them lead, based on their principles. If you operate on principle, you can sleep knowing you have done something good. Perhaps for your client. Perhaps for your company. Perhaps for your country, or even the world. Principled leadership is not one preset thing—we must define it for ourselves.

To be a successful lawyer and leader, you must ask yourself why you do what you do. You must examine your heart and mind and know your principles. Being a leader and defending democracy does not happen in grand gestures; it happens in our everyday decisions. This applies to all of us as legal educators because we are also leaders. We must continue asking ourselves the same questions and applying the answers to our curriculum, scholarship, and culture. We have a role to play in the future of legal education—and while it is a heavy responsibility, it remains an honor and a privilege every day. Those are just some of my stories, examples and experiences. What about you? I would love to know what you are doing—feel free to share stories with me at [email protected].