President's Report

Preparing civic-minded lawyers for leadership roles in communities, legal profession

Successful lawyers need more than in-depth knowledge of the law.

That’s why learning how to tackle problems, take leadership roles and offer assistance to the broader community is the crux of the Elon University School of Law’s Leadership Program led by Professor of Law Faith Rivers James.

“Lawyers are leaders for their clients every day,” Rivers James says. “Every time a client presents with an issue, they are looking to you for advice.”

Rivers James has given conference presentations and has written two articles about the benefits of preparing civic-minded lawyers to assume leadership roles in their communities and law firms. She says there is a “natural nexus between legal training and leadership.”

As part of the Leadership Program, students are required to take courses during Winter Term that expose them to key leadership skills and concepts that will enhance their ability to excel in the legal profession, as well as provide opportunities to solve problems at regional, national and international levels. The program was recently named the 2013 recipient of the American Bar Association’s E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award, which honors excellence and innovation in professionalism programs by law schools.

Students jump right in immediately after their first semester with the course lawyering, leadership and professionalism, which provides the hands-on experience essential for mastering leadership roles.

“We give them the opportunity to tackle problem solving because essentially that’s what lawyers do: We solve problems for individual clients or broader communities,” Rivers James says. “We give them the opportunity to not just read about landlord tenant law but to go through a lease and understand what it’s like to advise a client who is having a challenge with a lease.”

During the course, students also spend a day at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. At the center they have the chance to share with each other and learn different work styles and preferences so they can be effective in teams.

They also explore their own values—the things that drove them to law school—and that helps them formulate the plan for their legal career,” Rivers James says.

Second-year students take a public law and leadership course that Rivers James developed and teaches. It focuses on problem solving in the community and exposes students to pro bono work.

“It gives our students the opportunity to work with nonprofit organization that have challenges, and they come to us with proposals for the law school’s assistance,” she says.

Whether it’s an administrative, legislative law or strategic challenge, law school students spend the semester helping government agencies and nonprofit organizations. For example, Action Greensboro wanted to build a greenway and sought advice about the best way to go about acquiring property.

“It gave our students an opportunity to consider how eminent domain actually works in the real world, as well as the administrative policies in the federal rails to trails program,” Rivers James says. “After the class, one of our students took that project on and actually made a presentation to city council about it and now we have a greenway.”

Students also developed strategies for Reading Connections, an adult literacy program that dealt with intellectual property issues, and took on substandard housing issues and provided long-term legislative solutions for Housing Greensboro.

While working with nonprofit organizations and government entities, students learn how to best work in teams and how to lead when no one is in charge, a very special leadership skill, Rivers James says.

In their third year, law students have the option of taking a capstone leadership course. It gives them the chance to apply legal knowledge and leadership skills toward an initiative of their choice that benefits the profession, the community or society more broadly.

Lawyers are always working for someone toward a result, and leadership skills are a key component of that, Rivers James says.

“Either you are arguing before a jury and trying to influence and persuade them to take your side, or you are in a business transaction trying to convince your client or the other side that what you proposed is the best solution,” Rivers James says. “Lawyers influence. It is our currency. It is what we do.”

Rivers James started her legal career as a legislative attorney in Washington, D.C. She joined the Elon Law School’s faculty in 2007. She received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. Besides public law and leadership, she teaches courses in property, nonprofits organizations and legislation.Related links: