PUBLISHED:January 18, 2008

Law and leadership

Jan. 18, 2008 ― Lawyers should aspire not just to be “wise counselors” but “leaders with accountability and responsibility,” according to Benjamin Heineman Jr. Senior counsel with Wilmer Hale and former senior vice president and general counsel for GE, Heineman urged Duke Law students to seek leadership opportunities throughout their lives and professional careers, and challenged law schools to do more to “prepare and inspire” their graduates in this regard during a lunchtime address on Jan. 16.

“The lawyer as leader is focused on making decisions for institutions or causes or ideas that engage the whole person, and that have as a driving force the desire to make our national or global society a ‘better place,’” said Heineman, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a distinguished senior fellow in Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, and a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

By taking on leadership roles lawyers can help resolve a national and global “leadership deficit,” while undertaking a “professional life of values,” he said. “Simply stated, professional satisfaction comes when ‘who you are’ and ‘what you do’ have a strong correlation,” said Heineman. “One way to live such as life is to be the client, not just serve the client ― to set the course as leaders and practical visionaries, not just provide advice and practical wisdom about what the course might be.”

Observing that lawyers are likely to have multiple careers, Heineman urged students to think broadly of the possibilities open to them, noting the inherent value of taking risks and adapting to new organizations and cultures, as well as “developing different perspectives on problems because of different institutional roles.” His own experience as a public interest lawyer litigating for the rights of the mentally handicapped at the outset of his career, and later as an assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare helped him become “a better general counsel” at a huge multinational corporation.

Globalization offers unique opportunities for leadership in both traditional and non-traditional legal positions, Heineman observed, presenting such challenges as global security, integrating the global economy, building institutional infrastructure at the nation-state or international level, managing private transnational entities, and even state building. “All of these pressing issues are about policies, laws, rules, and institutions in national, regional, or global society, with complex public-private dimensions, myriad interdisciplinary considerations, with a self-evident need for leadership on policy, politics, and implementation [or] administration. Someone will have to provide the vision, wisdom, and energy to lead.” Lawyers are particularly well-positioned to do so, he added. “[T]he lawyer’s core skills of understanding how values, rules, and institutions interrelate with social, economic, and political conditions is central to the demands of contemporary leadership.”

How should legal education adapt to serve this vision of lawyers as leaders? Unlike business and public policy schools which view training students to lead in the private, public, and non-profit sectors as a core part of their mission, law schools have not traditionally addressed the issue, Heineman said. “Duke’s Blueprint is a notable and elegant exception,” he said, referring to the Duke Blueprint for Lawyer Education and Development.

In addition to the traditional case method that develops the core competencies of law, Heinemen suggested that law schools build “complementary competencies,” in effect providing “a form of necessary ‘professional general education.’”

Working through interdisciplinary case studies similar to those used in business and public policy schools would help students understand how legislators, policy-makers, general counsel, and others make decisions, he suggested. Writing opinions, regulations, legislation, memoranda of understanding, and policy agendas would similarly require them to apply a variety of intellectual perspectives to realistic problems, to consider constituent concerns, and to address questions of implementation. Students also would benefit by learning about organizational behavior and development, key issues relating to globalization, issues in the legal profession, and about lawyers as leaders ― the “intellectual history and pragmatic approaches of those with legal training who have had a striking impact on public and private institutions and on society,” he said.

Law schools, continued Heineman, should aim to achieve true integration of interdisciplinary perspectives, offering courses taught by lawyers and practitioners or scholars from other disciplines, strengthening joint degree programs, and even fast-tracking those programs so that students could earn joint degrees in three years, as opposed to four. “Such a reform could make three years of professional school consistently exciting and challenging,” he said.

Heineman met with small groups of law students during his visit to Duke, again encouraging them to think broadly about leadership and service as they launch their careers. His visit was sponsored by the Law School’s Leadership Working Group and the Office of the Dean. The Leadership Working Group is a task force of faculty, student, staff, and alumni established by Dean David F. Levi to look at how leadership development can best be addressed at Duke for its students and the broader alumni community. It is co-chaired by James Cox, Brainerd Currie Professor of Law, and Peter Kahn ’76, the former chair of the Law School’s Board of Visitors and a partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Heineman’s talk is available as a webcast.