National conference focuses on role of lawyers as leaders

The Conference on Law and Leadership brought together leaders in law, legal education and business to discuss the role of lawyers as leaders.

The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor and former presidential adviser David Gergen delivered keynote addresses at the conference.

Co-hosted by Elon University School of Law and the Center for Creative Leadership, the conference was held April 13-14 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Featured speakers included Dennis Glass, President and CEO of Lincoln Financial Group, and Thomas Ross, President of the 17-campus University of North Carolina. Biographies of all speakers at the conference are available here.


Mona Edwards, Vice President and Chief of Staff of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), provided welcoming remarks at the conference, held at CCL on April 13 and at Elon Law on April 14. She noted CCL’s partnership with Elon Law in the education of law students through Elon Law’s Leadership Program.

“Our president, John Ryan, often says, leadership is like a muscle and the earlier you begin to develop it and utilize it the better, so we are thrilled to have an opportunity to work with students,” Edwards said.

Edwards also spoke about CCL and its international role in leadership education for lawyers and members of other professions.

“We hope that throughout the conference you will have the opportunity to talk about boundary spanning and its implications for being successful in this very volatile and changing world,” Edwards said.

George R. Johnson, Jr., Dean and Professor of Law at Elon University School of Law, delivered opening remarks.

“Leadership has been one of the hallmarks of the legal profession,” Johnson said. “It’s a role that we traditionally have come to expect lawyers to play in the profession, in our communities, in society. We may have lost some of that, however, or so it may seem. It may safely be said, I think, that many people don’t regularly associate lawyers with leadership, even when we occupy those principle roles. We may want to examine some of those causes of this disconnection and what if anything our profession can do to repair that perception of lawyers and of the roles of lawyers and the roles we should play.”

Session One: “The Role that Lawyers Should Play in Times of Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity”

David Gergen, Chair of the Elon University Law School Advisory Board, Senior Political Analyst at CNN, and Professor of Public Service and Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, introduced and moderated the opening panel of the conference.

“I can’t remember a time when we had a simultaneous collapse of confidence in both government and business,” Gergen said. “At a time when so many Americans are not working, when there has been a collapse of the working class in this country in so many ways, and when elites are seen as being out of touch and not caring and not really understanding the challenges of others, lawyers are now among the elites. They are among the professionals, and the professionals all are being challenged now. It does seem to me to be a very appropriate time to step back and talk about what is the life of the law and how can lawyers make a positive difference. That is at the heart and soul of what [Elon University President] Leo Lambert and George [Johnson] are trying to do at the law school here, to determine what law schools can do to help mold and shape the leaders of tomorrow. People are concerned about not only how lawyers can make a living, but also how they can make a life.”

Raymond Burse, Vice President and General Counsel of GE Consumer & Industrial and a member of the Board of Governors at CCL, commented on the importance of cultivating strong relationships and trust among colleagues to be an effective lawyer-leader who can contribute to shaping the conscience of an organization.

“To be effective, you have to work with people and to do that you have to earn respect,” Burse said. “You don’t want to end up doing well by doing bad to people. When you are in a position to provide perspective and to raise questions you are able to cause people to think differently.”

Martin Eakes, Chief Executive Officer of Self-Help/Center for Responsible Lending, said that entrusting others with authority was the path to maximizing achievement from leaders in organizations.

“You have to pick the people that you are going to trust to be change agents in some way,” Eakes said. “People will go to great lengths to achieve objectives that they know others have entrusted to them.”

Eakes, who created and founded an organization that has provided almost $6 billion in financing to people who are underserved by traditional financial institutions, said knowledge of the law had been useful to him to know what to do to achieve positive change.

“The law is nothing if not a liberal arts education in how to solve problems and to find a path to some sort of social justice,” Eakes said.

Keith W. Vaughan, Chairman, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, whose firm recently created the position of Chief Leadership and Executive Development Officer, described dimensions of his firm’s approach to leadership development, including training in teamwork and meeting management, executive coaching, and work flow integration across multiple offices.

“The old model was firms would put someone in charge of a practice group or an office and ask them to be a leader, and then be very frustrated six months or a year later when they haven’t done the job you thought they should do, but you had given them no tools, no training, no idea with respect to leadership,” Vaughan said. “We decided to change that model and to start a process of teaching people how to be leaders.”

Vaughan said that mentors had played an important role in his development in the profession and that mentors should continue to play an important role in the development of lawyers as leaders.

“A number of people in our firm set the bar high with respect to lawyer leadership, community leadership and all of the traits that all of us would want to have,” Vaughan said.

Candace S. Cummings, Vice President – Administration, General Counsel and Secretary of VF Corporation, the largest publicly-held apparel company, advised new lawyers to work particularly hard to understand the culture they work in.

“We now have a law department locally of eighteen lawyers and all of us, as we have developed over time, had to learn the leadership skills of working internationally, and learning not to impose our own cultural preconceptions on other folks,” Cummings said. “That has been a real lesson for me, to step back, to really listen, and to teach the lawyers who work with me how to do the same thing, because we think we know the answers, and the answers can be extraordinarily different in other cultures.”

Cummings also said that mentoring of young lawyers was essential, that lawyers should focus on developing skills at finding business solutions in addition legal solutions, and that lawyers entering the profession should seek a broad base of exposure to different areas of law.

UNC President Tom Ross said that “leading change” was the biggest challenge of leadership. He said that an essential quality of leadership was the ability to bring people of different views together and to find and build areas of consensus among them. Ross also spoke about the importance of mentors in his professional development and the joy and enrichment he had found in working with college students, first as President of Davidson College and in his current position.

“The opportunity to work with young people has changed me in ways I never would have expected,” Ross said. ”They challenge me, they push me, and they are so passionate about what it is they are doing.”

Session Two: “Perspectives on The Role of Lawyers as Boundary Spanners and Navigators of Change”

Robert Cullen, Vice President and General Counsel of JSI Logistics and Adjunct Professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, opened the discussion with commentary on the attributes of lawyers who are also leaders.

“Clients, corporations and all organizations are coming to expect their lawyers to be analytical advocates and problem solvers, team members, great communicators, creative thinkers and leaders,” Cullen said.

Edward C. Winslow III, Managing Partner of Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, LLP, surveyed three centuries of leading lawyers in Greensboro and Guilford County, North Carolina. He said the region’s leading lawyers in the 19th century, representing different cultural communities, exhibited a capacity to work together to address challenges and opportunities for growth.

“These lawyers had a shared culture that allowed them to cross boundaries,” Winslow said. “They were knowledgeable about the process of compromise between conflicting communities.”

Winslow said that the rise of law firms in the 20th century turned attention in some measure to internal organizational issues at the expense of a larger focus on community cohesion. He said the challenges of lawyer leadership in the 21st century relate to the ability of lawyers to span boundaries of the global economy and to engage new models of law firm management and the delivery of legal services.

Judith Wegner, Burton Craig Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina, defined leadership in the law as the ability of lawyers to address “wicked problems,” a concept originally introduced by scholars at the University of California, Berkeley to describe problems that are difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.

“I think it’s important to operationalize the definition of leadership, and that is why I offer you this idea of leadership being the capacity to work with wicked problems, not about traits, but about what you can do, that’s much of what legal education is beginning to talk about, the outcomes of what we do in the classroom,” Wegner said. “I’m glad that law schools are trying to teach more about leadership, but it’s equally important that we realize it’s a life long undertaking.”

The session was moderated by Roland Smith, Senior Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership and Skeens Watson Visiting Professor of Leadership at Elon Law. Following this session, all conference participants engaged in workshops to discuss the role of lawyers as boundary spanners and navigators of change.

Reflection & Commentary: A CEO’s Perspective on Navigating Change and Complexity

Lincoln Financial Group President and CEO Dennis Glass delivered a featured presentation at the conference in which he shared insights about navigating a corporation through change, based on his leadership of Lincoln National Corporation, a Fortune 200 holding company which operates multiple insurance and investment management businesses through subsidiary companies.

Glass said that the role of the CEO had changed as a result of ongoing rapid transformation in the global economy. He said the fundamental issue that led to the recent global economic crisis was that governments, corporations and individuals had over leveredged.

“One of the important takeaways was that management, and particularly CEOs, did not understand the risk embedded in their positions,” Glass said.

Speaking about his decision to study intensively the derivatives market as a CEO, Glass said it was not an attempt to be a technical expert in that field, but about being able to manage and lead effectively.

“I set out to be in the right position to ask the right questions about the risk,” Glass said. “I have a passion every time I am in a situation that is ambiguous to find out what really is the core issue.”

Glass also advised those seeking to lead in the law and in large organizations to stay focused on priority institutional objectives without regard for self-interest, to clearly define management responsibilities while leaving room for ingenuity and innovation, to have a thirst for learning, to communicate well and to be open to change.

Keynote Address by David Gergen

Speaking at an evening banquet held at the O.Henry Hotel in Greensboro, David Gergen delivered the first of two keynote addresses at the conference. He commented on the importance of lawyers as ethical leaders, upholding the ideals of the nation’s democracy and its institutions of government.

“We have to believe that the leaders of this country put the country first,” Gergen said. “In so many ways, the people I looked up to were lawyers. For so many of my generation, the majesty of the law is what we believed in.”

Gergen noted that government up until the mid-1960s enjoyed 75 percent approval ratings.

“We have drifted far from that,” said Gergen, suggesting that the country had become much more polarized. “The reputation of lawyers has never been as high as it should be, and it has suffered.”

Gergen also expressed concern for the opportunities available to families of moderate means in the country.

“We have a working class in this country that is in serious trouble,” Gergen said. “Inequality has been with us throughout our history, but what we’ve always had is the ladder up. Today, the most important indicator in how you’re going to do in life is what zip code you are from. It was not always like that.”

Additional reporting on Gergen’s address is available here.


Session Three: What Role Should Law Schools Play in Preparing Effective Lawyer-Leaders?

Moderated by Elon Law Dean George R. Johnson, Jr., this discussion featured perspectives by Louis Bilionis, Dean and Nippert Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, Marina Hsieh, Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University School of Law, and Judith Wegner.

Hsieh reviewed several dimensions of leadership education offered at Santa Clara University School of Law. She called on law schools to provide students with the leadership and management tools needed to adapt to changing circumstances in the profession and across society, and to advance their personal and professional goals beyond the bounds of traditional legal practice.

“Too often we take law students who have amazing motivation, who have had the energy to get into law school, who have in many instances been the first people in their families to ever go to a college, much less to a graduate school, who have real understanding of their communities and the desire to come to law school to empower themselves, to be able to continue to translate for their communities, to be able to do immigrants rights, or to advance the social work causes that they were already working for, to be able to take their engineering and understanding of high-tech issues and turn it into being a lawyer, they often come because they had a reason why they need that extra J.D., to have the credibility and the tools to do what they already knew they wanted to do, and somehow after a semester or six of law school, we told them you had to fit in a certain box or you are only good if you are a certain way, and in my book that is doing harm,” Hsieh said.

Bilionis opened his remarks detailing the contributions that lawyers make to society.

“As a law dean, one of the great privileges is I get to meet lawyers all the time, I get to see the product of what a law school can do over generations, and it is pretty inspiring,” Bilionis said. “I get to see graduates to whom society constantly turns to solve complex problems, to create solutions that others haven’t envisioned, to ensure that principles are made part of what we do day to day when the press of expedience takes society in other directions. I see people who help transcend differences, find concord where there is discord, and ultimately maintain society’s vision of a civil society. That’s what our graduates really do and it is a tremendous privilege to be part of an institution and an academy that actually produces that for our society, to provide to society the talent that is essential to its survival to keeping not just the rule of law, but the sense of a shared vision in America, a legal academy that might be subject to criticism frequently, but don’t forget it is really the envy of people around the world.”

Bilionis described a course titled “Becoming a Professional” that he offers in conjunction with professors at other law schools and with practitioners of law, focused on supporting law students in forming professional identities and purpose.

“There is deep recognition of the importance of leadership in law schools, they just don’t use the l word, they use the p word, they use professionalism,” Bilionis said.

He said the course focuses on self-understanding, examination of personal values and shared values as lawyers, the complexities of the changing global economy and other influences on law, the spectrum of law practice opportunities and the relationship between all of those areas.

“The course is all designed to get the students to focus on a key intersection,” Bilionis said. “The world, themselves, and their ability to navigate the two.”

Wegner said that if law schools are going to prepare students to navigate a new kind of world, then they ought to focus on the role of lawyers as people involved in counseling, governance, dispute resolution and agreement formation.

“We need to provide folks with new tools and I think a lot of those tools fall within the umbrella of leadership,” Wegner said.

Session IV: The Next Generation of Lawyer-Leaders – A Glimpse into the Future

Elon Law Professor Faith Rivers James moderated this discussion among three graduates of Elon Law.

M. Alexandra Hazel ’09 commented on the relationship between character and leadership.

“I really think good character and good leadership are interchangeable, and you can’t have one without the other,” Hazel said. “I once thought it was about having power over followers, but it’s not, it is a more positive, inspirational strain when you talk about leadership.”

Craig Turner ’10 commented on the value of the Elon Law’s mission of service and leadership in his choice to attend the school.

“I was drawn to Elon law school based in large part on what I perceived the mission of Elon law school to be, which was almost that there’s is an expectation to be involved in community affairs and to be a lawyer who is involved in civic organizations, and that, as a part of that, Elon was going to prepare students to engage in those roles,” Turner said.

Lora Howard ’10 commented on the benefits of Elon Law’s second-year “Public Law and Leadership” course.

“One of the things that I really enjoyed about the program, and one of the things that attracted me to Elon, was the focus on leadership and this separate class where we could really fine tune those skills around a legal problem, working together and learning to do that as a team and in a more collaborative approach,” Howard said. “When you are really looking at solving a problem and working with a community or a group of people, you have to be able to communicate with all of them and not be adversarial.”

Keynote Address: The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor

Ellen Gregg, a partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP and a member of the Elon University Law School Advisory Board, introduced O’Connor.

“To those of my generation, Justice O’Connor is a hero,’ Gregg said. “She continues today to participate in things to protect the integrity of our judiciary. She is an outspoken proponent of judicial independence to make certain that there is not an additional agenda there.”

Gregg complimented O’Connor for her consistent application of law to cases before the Supreme Court.

“She did not let other agendas get in the way of applying the law to the facts in getting to the right result in a case, instead of having some other agenda at play,” Gregg said.

O’Connor, who participated in the dedication of Elon Law in 2006, opened her remarks with comments about law and leadership.

“I am glad to be back at Elon, since I helped you get started here at the law school,” O’Connor said. “It’s fun to be back and to see how well the law school is doing. It’s also very interesting for me to see a focus at this law school on leadership. I’m impressed with the law school, in what it is achieving, and with its focus on leadership. Lawyers learn how things work in society, they learn what makes things happen and why we have speed limits and how they are enforced and how you deal with it, why we have taxes and how they are enforced and what we do with them, how laws are made and they are a part of that. So everything in the legal profession is already geared to teaching the lawyers how to be part of knowing how things are accomplished in our society and how they as lawyers can be part of making it function in some fashion, sometimes for clients you hope, sometimes in another capacity, as an academic or something of that sort, but you are doing the right thing here in your focus.”

O’Connor reserved the majority of her remarks to share insights about the challenges she faced as one of the first women to practice law in America and to describe her path to becoming the first women to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Following law school, O’Connor said she was turned down for interviews and jobs at law firms because she was a woman, and that one firm’s managing partner told her that the firm’s clients “wouldn’t stand for it.” O’Connor was able to secure a position in public service as deputy attorney general for San Mateo County in California.

“That was my first job as a lawyer,” O’Connor said. “No pay and I put my desk in the same office next to my secretary, and I loved my job.”

O’Connor described her family and career development, noting that after her move to Arizona, she opened a neighborhood law office with a fellow attorney, and when she took time off to raise her young children, she began serving on a number of public commissions. She then became Deputy Attorney General in Arizona, filled a vacancy in the state senate and was selected by her peers as majority leader of the senate. She then ran for and won election to serve as a trial judge in Arizona, followed by an appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals. She said she was completely surprised to be considered for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I never dreamed, ever in my wildest dreams, about serving on the U.S. Supreme Court,” O’Connor said, noting later in her remarks that her appointment to the Court had widespread impacts for women. “It wasn’t just doors that opened for women in the United States, it was women around the world,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor concluded her remarks commending Elon Law students for their emphasis on pro bono and community service.

“I am pleased to come back to Elon and to see that you are focused on what you can do to serve the public,” O’Connor said.

Additional reporting on O’Connor’s address is available here.

Elon Law students who form the editorial board of the online Journal of Leadership and the Law will publish a special edition in the fall to report on proceedings of the Conference on Law and Leadership.

The conference was supported by lead sponsors Lincoln Financial Group and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, and by supporting sponsors LexisNexis and Wolters Kluwer Law & Business.

Click here to download the conference program, including biographies of speakers.

Click here for the Conference on Law and Leadership website.