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Leadership Starts from the Heart


By Lisa Holton.

Jillian Berndt, 3L at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, probably won’t have much trouble adjusting to a busy schedule as an associate once she gets a job. Since her first year, she’s carried a full academic load while serving in officer positions in both her school’s student bar association and the State Bar of Michigan Law Student Section.

And her leadership activities only start there.

In 2011, Berndt began law school focusing on leadership experience and a professional goal of practicing immigration law on behalf of large organizations. Knowing that this practice area may be a “tough specialty to break into,” she sought opportunities where she could meet lawyers in her desired field. Early on, she got actively involved in the International Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. She has also held several officer positions within her law school’s student bar association. Her leadership experience may give her an edge in securing her desired position. Meaningful extracurricular activities may be critical for law students hoping to position themselves for careers in a still highly competitive job market.

Leadership experience can be shown many ways. From managing a team to supervising a project, legal employers are increasingly interested in leadership experience.

“When I started, I already knew how important [leadership experience] was,” said Berndt. “People told me it was strange to see a first-year student at these meetings; that I should be home studying. But I’ve always cared about public interest law. You view your education differently when you put yourself out there.”

Law school is demanding enough without work and volunteering jockeying for time in a busy schedule. But employers are taking a closer look at student leadership activities when making hiring decisions. Leadership experience wouldn’t have been a factor in legal education a generation ago.

Now, some law schools are responding with leadership training that didn’t exist a few years ago.

“Leadership experiences were always great, but I don’t think they were as essential as they are today,” said Erin Rhinehart, of Dayton, Ohio-based Faruki Ireland & Cox. “Not only do you have to have solid lawyering skills, you have to find ways to stand out from the crowd.”

Rhinehart graduated from University of Dayton School of Law in 2004 at what she described as “the height of the legal market.” During law school, Rhinehart received the Presidential Scholarship, served on the school’s Honor Council, and wrote for the Dayton Law Review. At graduation, she said, “I had a lot of choices. I was part of a seven-attorney class in a 30-attorney firm in a thriving legal market.”

What employers want

University of Detroit Mercy Assistant Dean Markeisha J. Miner took her position in 2008 as head of career services and outreach after a career as a commercial litigator with a large firm. If anything, a student’s academic performance and outside activities— whatever they are—have to serve a more coherent narrative to future employers than ever before. “The world as we knew it had just ended,” she said, referring to the legal recession that began to deepen in 2009. “Today, we tell our new students, ‘Your career begins now.’”

In short, today’s students need to make sure their leadership activities and training opportunities are more relevant than ever.

Gil M. Soffer, managing partner of Katten Muchin Rosenman’s Chicago office, said leadership experiences are very important to the firm’s hiring process, but there’s no set formula for what they’re looking for. “They range from starting up one’s own company to serving as a big brother or school mentor. We’re looking for experiences that reflect a student’s interest in and aptitude for positions of responsibility,” Soffer said.

And firms grill candidates for a believable story when they read a résumé.

“In general, simple membership in one or more organizations without evidence of a meaningful contribution to or leadership in the organization doesn’t carry much weight,” said Soffer. “On the other hand, activity that reflects the student supervising or exercising responsibility over things, or leading a team of people, however small, or spearheading a project—these are often signs of genuine engagement or leadership.”

Kathryn Mlsna is the chief strategy and governance officer for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, the largest Girl Scouts chapter in the world. Immediately after joining the organization as its first in-house counsel in 2010, the Northwestern University (NU) alum signed up with her alma mater’s internship program that hosts both NU law and business students to assist nonprofits throughout the Chicago area. Internships that blend community service with legal and business skills are increasingly valuable in the workplace, said Mlsna.

“I think it’s actually very important for a student to have nonprofit experience, an understanding of mission, business skills, and the law,” said Mlsna. She added there’s plenty of work to do and onsite interaction of students from both legal and business disciplines give students a richer leadership experience. “We stress hands-on work, and students who come out of our program simply function at a higher level.”

Cmdr. Frank Hutchison, the deputy director of Navy JAG Corps Recruiting and Diversity in Washington, D.C., pointed out that military attorneys don’t necessarily have to have a military background to join any service branch’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “We don’t consider the military alone in its development of leaders,” said Hutchison. “If someone was a sports captain and has performed well in law school, you see someone who can lead under pressure,” he said, noting that they look for volunteer opportunities where individuals handle responsibility and decision-making well.

Gaining leadership experience

Opportunities to gain leadership experience are everywhere. Within the ABA Law Student Division, there are over 90 national leadership positions and dozens of circuit-based lieutenant governor spots. See pages 62–63 for a complete listing and application deadlines. Circuit governors are the the representative voice for each of the Division’s 15 circuits. As a lieutant governor, students gain experience managing projects and initiatives at the local and regional level. Liaisons work with specific ABA entities on substantive or policy initiatives.

Adena Leibman, the ABA Law Student Division’s immediate past chair, just finished her term representing 41,000 student members around the country. Whatever leadership experience students choose during law school, they need to be “more than just a title” on a résumé. “Students need to be genuinely passionate about what they take on,” said Leibman. “Some of these leadership positions take more time and attention than a part-time job. It needs to be something you believe in.

“No longer does good grades, law review, and moot court experience automatically translate into your own office and embossed business cards. Now, law students are expected to expand their own legal experiences during law school to proctor as many connections and real-life legal and leadership experiences as possible.”

Leibman joined the ABA at her law school orientation. As a 1L, she was a lieutenant governor for the 12th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. As a 2L, she served as its governor. And as a 3L, the Division’s chair. This progression up the leadership ladder allowed Leibman to manageably accumulate skills, while simultaneously providing new challenges and responsibilities.

At a student’s local level, there are opportunities to lead in SBAs. In every SBA, there are several positions that can develop leadership skills. “I think that students should understand that you don’t have to be the president of an organiztion to be a leader, being actively involved in something is beneficial to character development, leadership skills, and learning about one’s own strengths and weaknesses,” said Berndt.

Law schools with leadership programs are not yet common. However, the reality for new lawyers requires more extensive leadership experiences.

Elon University Law School, based near Greensboro, North Carolina, created a multi-year leadership development program. As 1Ls, students work in model law firms. As 2Ls, students take assignments at nonprofits and public agencies., As 3Ls, students may participate in an optional capstone project working for municipal authorities and community groups. According to Faith Rivers James, director of Elon’s leadership program, the program emphasizes “producing work on a short time frame” from the beginning and has them working with executive coaches on leadership development strategies.

“The important benefit of leadership development is that you have an opportunity to learn how you’re perceived by others outside the work environment,” said James. “It’s everything I wish I knew when I walked into a law firm 20 years ago,” she said. There’s a pro bono emphasis in the program because giving back to the community is “part of the privilege of the license to practice,” she added.

Leadership opportunities outside law school are valuable too. Leading a charity’s volunteer project or serving on a nonprofit board are good ways to gain leadership experience. There are also organized leadership development programs that are available by application or appointment.

“A couple years ago, I applied to be a member of the Leadership Dayton Class of 2012,” said Rhinehart. “Cities across the country have similar leadership programs. It is not a ‘leadership training 101’ course. Rather, it is an intensive ten-month program that involves learning the history of your city, its concerns, and needs—both past and present—through monthly seminars hosted by various community leaders [like corporate, nonprofit, or political leaders]. It forces you to think critically about what you can do to better yourself, your profession, and your community by engaging with myriad influential people from all professions, backgrounds, and ages.”

Following a plan to develop leadership opportunities is wise.

Building Leadership Skills in Law School: A 10-Point Checklist

  1. Know yourself: Your law school may offer personality or skills assessment tests. If not, make it your job. Check with your university career services office and ask if there are free or discounted opportunities to take such psychometric questionnaires as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Talk to trusted colleagues or law firm talent officers about any assessment tools they use to evaluate current and future employees. You might gain insight into your strengths and weaknesses and what leadership experiences will fit you best.
  2. It’s about the passion, not the résumé: There’s a difference between meaningful leadership experience and “résumé filler.” Smart employers can tell the difference in seconds. Whether you choose to work with charitable, nonprofit, or for-profit ventures during law school, you have to care and you have to believe. Belief helps you sell yourself during a job interview.
  3. Take the holistic view: Personal and professional interests change throughout a career. It’s important to choose leadership opportunities that introduce you to substantive issues that you may tackle professionally and voluntarily in the coming decades. Leadership experiences should shape you as a lawyer, professional, and individual.
  4. Participate in bar associations now: The ABA Law Student Division is a good starting point for career and leadership development during law school. Through positions as a national officer or circuit governor, liaison to an ABA entities, or regional lieutenant governor within a circuit, the Division offers a variety of substantive, practical, or managerial leadership experiences (see pages 62–63 for Division leadership positions). State and local bar associations offer leadership opportunities in your community.
  5. Make your networking make sense: If there is a particular industry, nonprofit, or special interest group that appeals to you, research it by attending events or public meetings to get a feel for what it does. Familiarize yourself with its leaders, priorities, and activities. Then, you can meaningfully contribute.
  6. Tune up your time management skills: Don’t assume the time management skills that have served you academically all these years will support the intellectual and time pressure of law school or extracurriculars you hope to take on. Talk to outside mentors and busy upperclassmen about how best to handle the load.
  7. Diversify your training: The LL.M. is on the rise to help lawyers specialize in particular industry areas. But you don’t necessarily need to aim for a master’s program to diversify skills. Volunteering with a charity or nonprofit board can provide valuable leadership experience. Depending on the focus, you could develop skills like asset and personnel management, budgeting, or marketing.
  8. Embrace technology: Demonstrate your leadership through innovation. It’s smart to consider the impact of hardware and software technology on leadership experiences as well. You don’t have to be a computer engineer to identify tasks and processes that can be automated to save money and time. The ability to think in technological and operational terms is very valuable.
  9. Start slow: Legal education is the foundation of your career. It must be well built. If extracurricular activities interfere with your education, disaster could be looming. The key is to find a balance between academic performance and additional things you can do to grow personally and professionally. Developing a semester-by-semester plan makes it easier to achieve your goal.
  10. Mistakes are good, too: If a group, work experience, class, or volunteer effort doesn’t quite fit or work out, don’t just write it off as a failure and walk away. Make notes. What didn’t you like about the experience and what would you have changed about it? The responses shouldn’t just be about the people or the opportunity—it should include an honest appraisal of your goals, personality, and anything else that didn’t quite work out. Use that data to better evaluate the next experience.



Lisa Holton ( is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinios.

Vol. 42 No. 4

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.