PUBLISHED:January 25, 2008

The process of becoming a leader

Jan. 25, 2008 — “It’s inevitable that you are going to be asked to lead,” observed Angela Oh, keynote speaker for the second annual Duke Law Leadership Experience. “What will that mean for you?”

Leadership — what the concept means for young lawyers and how one develops a personal identity as a leader — was the focus of the Jan. 25, student-organized conference that featured speakers and panelists with wide-ranging life experiences to share. Law School Dean David Levi and organizer Julia German ’09 provided a framework for the conference in their opening remarks, both acknowledging that leadership can mean different things to different people in different contexts, but that Duke Law School aims to equip its students to be able to meet the challenge whenever the opportunity for leadership arises.

“We believe that a legal education should encompass the development of leadership skills, preparing students not only to think as lawyers, but also to develop an awareness of the motivations of those with whom we work and to develop creative thinking and persuasion skills so that we may be active agents of change and progress, wherever our interests lead us,” German said.

Themes of discovering and developing a personal identity, taking risks, and stepping into the role of a leader wove throughout the day’s sessions. In a morning panel, Cait Clarke, director of public interest law opportunities at Equal Justice Works, encouraged personal development by “getting out of your comfort zone” and learning to manage life’s challenges. “A colleague of mine, who is a consultant with major corporations, says, ‘it’s all whitewater,’” Clarke said. “We all go through days where a lot is coming at us — and it is the way you manage the ‘whitewater’ that makes you an effective manager, leader, family member, and communicator.”

Jay Moyer ’65, special counsel to the National Football League and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, stressed that certain leadership roles are only realized by taking risks. The offer to leave a firm job and join the NFL in 1972 as counsel to the commissioner was a “unique opportunity,” he said. “There was only one job like it in the United States. I took the road less traveled by — in fact, the road that had never been traveled — and I did it with some trepidation. [However,] I went and never looked back.”

Risk also factors into the relationship between leadership and ethics, observed Bruce Green, a law professor and the director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law. Sharing the stories of two prosecutors faced with different ethical dilemmas in the course of their professional duties, Green said that inevitably every lawyer will “be tested” and that leadership “is knowing the right thing to do and doing it without being told, even at some personal risk to yourself.”

The conference concluded with Angela Oh’s keynote address. Now of counsel at Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg in Los Angeles, Oh is a well-known litigator and community leader who became a leading spokesperson for the Asian-American community in the aftermath of the racial unrest in Los Angeles in 1992. President Clinton later appointed her to serve on the advisory board of the President’s Initiative on Race.

“Some people are put in circumstances where they are asked to do things,” said Oh, noting that she just happened to be involved with the Korean American bar and community organizations, and known for her interests in civil rights at the time. An ordained Buddhist priest of the Rinzai Sect, Oh attributed her many positions of leadership over the years to karma. “It’s not my karma to be left alone,” she said. “My karma is to be engaged.”

“The system that you are entering … is flawed in many ways and has disappointed time and time again on questions of racial and economic justice,” she continued, adding that the United States legal system is still one of the best in the world. “It’s not perfect … so it becomes very, very important for people to know who they are, where they stand, what their level of courage is, what their level of tolerance is for ambiguity, what [their] level of tolerance is for facing the possibility of violence, because it’s all there.”

Webcasts and a photo gallery of the Duke Law Leadership Experience are available.