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Exploring justice and the role of the lawyer

Through Elon Law’s winter-term course, Lawyering, Leadership & Professionalism, first-year law students explored personal and professional attributes valued in the profession.

The course allows law students to step back from their intensive study of subjects like torts, contracts, and criminal law to reflect broadly on fundamental purposes of law and the qualities of excellent lawyers, while developing individual goals for personal and professional success in law school and beyond.

Throughout the course, accomplished lawyers, scholars, and judges shared their insights about the personal traits and professional skills needed for effective leadership in law and society. The course used simulation exercises, drawing on law firm organizational models and legal scenarios, to strengthen students’ skills in negotiation, counseling, teamwork, objective inquiry, time-management and problem-solving.


The concept of justice was explored in-depth as a theme of the 2011 Lawyering, Leadership & Professionalism course. Law school dean George Johnson began the course with a lecture about the lawyers and legal history that preceded Brown v Board of Education, the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.

Sherea' Burnett, a member of the Class of 2013 at Elon Law.

Johnson discussed the role of lawyers as leaders, noting that regardless of the field of law that students pursue, they will have to be leaders and seek justice.

Sherea' Burnett, ’13, said that Johnson‘s lecture affirmed her interest in law.

“You have to raise your own bar to become an attorney,” Burnett explained. “By being a lawyer, you know that you are going to achieve change for people, and to me that is what being a leader and being involved in justice is all about.”


Elon Law partners with the internationally acclaimed Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to provide law students with research and learning tools about leadership development in the legal profession. Roland Smith, Skeens-Watson Visiting Professor of Leadership at Elon Law who teaches Lawyering, Leadership & Professionalism with Johnson, is also a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Elon Law professor Roland Smith.

During a full-day session at CCL‘s flagship Greensboro campus, students participated in group exercises, developing leadership skills and exploring professional values. They also met with John Ryan, CEO of CCL, who emphasized the importance of contextual and situational awareness. Reflecting on a pivotal moment in his life that occurred through interactions with a disabled woman who overcame significant obstacles to reach her goals, Ryan said the experience put his own frustrations about his career into perspective.

Eddie Holder, ’13, found the CCL visit particularly beneficial.

“It helped me understand my own values and how they might compare to those who I may be working with in the future,” Holder said, “and how that understanding will encourage communication and collaboration.”


Leading up to the winter-term course, each law student identified an accomplished lawyer to interview about his or her decision to become a lawyer, experience of law school, pivotal career moments, and qualities they valued most among lawyers.

Elon Law student Brett DeWitt, '13.

Brett Dewitt, ’13, interviewed Steven McCloskey, a solo practitioner in Winston-Salem, NC, and an instructor for paralegal programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and Guilford College. DeWitt learned that McCloskey’s community leadership and service includes donating platelets to cancer patients and helping with causes like muscular dystrophy.

DeWitt said his interview experience was beneficial because he learned that lawyer-leaders not only do what is best for their clients, but also exhibit qualities highly valued in the profession that impact the community.

“Giving back to the community is important and Elon Law stresses that,” Dewitt noted, “and that was reiterated during the interview.”


Elon Law student Pamela Boeka, '13.

Each student created an Individual Development Plan (IDP) after personal reflection workshops and consultations with faculty, practicing lawyers, and leadership coaches. The IDP allows students to detail personal strategies for success in law school and to create a framework for professional development that they can return to throughout their careers.

As part of the IDP process, students were provided with a workbook at CCL, in which they completed self-awareness exercises and evaluated themselves in different areas. From there, students focused on their strengths and weaknesses across a variety of communications and leadership skill sets, identified their values and explored how to integrate those values into their development plans.

“That was a positive experience,” said Pamela Boeka, ‘13. “I was able to concisely set out a plan for the future and figure out what I need to do to get there.”


Hank Shea, a University of St. Thomas law professor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney who specialized in white-collar crime, spoke about legal ethics and white-collar crime through the course on January 18. Drawing on video monologues featuring white-collar offenders, many of whom he prosecuted, Shea explored the decision-making process of criminals whose actions range from embezzling money and forging signatures, to failing to report the illegal actions of colleagues.

Kaitlin Shimansky. ’13, said Shea’s presentation emphasized the importance of working for the common good by serving the needs of others before one’s own.

“As future lawyers, we must all remember that our job is to use the resources we have to create positive change for our clients and our communities,” Shimansky said.


Elon Law students at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, where sit-ins sparked a national movement.

Students toured the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, led by professional guides, as part of their exploration of justice through the course. Several lectures and presentations for the course took place at the museum, which is located a few blocks from the law school.

Jennifer Crissman said she found the exhibits at the museum especially moving.

“[The tour] put it all into context,” Crissman said. “It highlighted the fact that the Civil Rights Movement happened only a generation ago and made me aware that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing, continuous process.”


From left, Justices Exum, Billings and Frye present at the first-year leadership course at Elon Law.

Three former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Rhoda Bryan Billings, James G. Exum, Jr. and Henry E. Frye, spoke with the class on January 14 about their careers, the qualities they value in lawyers, concepts of judicial power and restraint, and trends in North Carolina law.

Elon Law’s national moot court competition, announced in 2010, is named in honor of Billings, Exum and Frye, each of whom is a member of the law school’s national advisory board. Click here for a report on their recent presentation to law students.

Stephen Wermiel, official biographer of Justice Brennan, speaks at Elon Law

Stephen Wermiel, coauthor of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, spoke with the class about his new book, which gives unprecedented access into the life of William J. Brennan, Jr., considered by many to be the most influential Supreme Court justice of the twentieth century. Click here for a report on a similar lecture presented by Wermiel earlier in year at Elon Law, through a forum sponsored by the Center for Engaged Learning in the Law.


Members of the class attended the third-annual Martin Luther King, Jr. forum at Elon Law, featuring Elaine R. Jones, the nation's top civil rights lawyer from 1993 to 2004. Click here for a report on that forum.

Among written assignments for the course, each student wrote an essay presenting the case for (or against) the importance of leadership in law and society.

Click here for a video report on the first-year leadership course.

Philip Craft,
2/8/2011 1:59 PM