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The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School

 

Fall 2015

 

Volume 41, No 2

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Students participate in team-building and leadership exercises during the first Professional Development Orientation

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Table of Contents Featured Article


Collaboration and Leadership: The Next Frontier in Legal Education

by KENNETH BERKOWITZ | PHOTOGRAPHY by CHRIS PRITCHARD and LINDSAY FRANCE
In the working world, lawyers collaborate in virtually everything they do-especially as new attorneys. But that's rarely the focus in law schools, where students are admitted as individuals, trained as individuals, and graded as individuals. Then, once they begin their careers, they face a learning curve as individuals.


That's about to change.


"This is the next frontier of legal education," says Eduardo M. Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, talking about the Law School's new Professional Development Program. "Law school pedagogy is very individualistic, and law students are rarely trained to work together in a systematic way. The goal of this program is to begin teaching them to collaborate with one another, which will make them better lawyers. It's going to infuse our educational system, help us graduate more effective practitioners, and over time, it's going to be one of the things that distinguishes us as a law school."

Even before becoming dean, Peñalver had identified professional development as one of his main talking points. By the time he delivered his first State of the Law School address, within weeks of arriving on campus in the summer of 2014, professional development was already an important part of his vision. Now, a year later, it is at the center of Cornell Law School's newest program, which includes a dean-level position to integrate this new focus into the rest of the curriculum.

"What do we mean when we say professional development?" asks Elizabeth Peck, assistant dean for professional development and clerkships, who transitioned to her new job in May. "We start with this really, really smart group of students: Cornell 1Ls. And in three years, they need to become professionals who will be representing clients. Who will be reporting to supervisors. Who will be supervising staff. Who will be in multicultural workplaces, in intergenerational workplaces. Who will be working with technology in ways none of us have seen before. So when we talk about developing this program, how do we know what to teach? How do we decide what's most important?"


For Peck, the first answers to these questions were provided in 2007, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published a landmark study called Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. Two years later, two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, Marjorie Schultz and Sheldon Zedeck, authored a widely influential empirical paper about a new way to predict the future effectiveness of lawyers. Unlike LSAT scores, which aren't strongly predictive of professional performance, the Schultz-Zedeck tests identified twenty-six highly predictive on-the-job effectiveness factors, based on models from industrial psychology, with no significant bias for racial, ethnic, or gender differences.


"They are the touchstone of everything we do in the world of professional development," says Peck, who used the Schultz- Zedeck factors as the starting point for her own research. A few months into Peñalver's deanship, Peck joined a fifteen-member faculty/administrator committee at the Law School, chaired by Professor John H. Blume, to outline a plan for designing and implementing a vision for the Professional Development Program. The committee developed a consensus on the essential ingredients. This year, Professor Blume will lead a smaller version of that same group to examine more closely the specifics of the program.


To do so, they will look at the wide array of professional skills and competencies, then winnow them down based on feedback from employers and alumni. These factors fall into three main categories.


"The first bucket is practice readiness, which involves communication, collaboration, leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, risk assessment, handling mistakes, giving and getting feedback," says Peck. "The second is what we call professionalism: judgment, reputation, behavior, cultural competence, assessing and meeting expectations, emotional intelligence. Then there's a third bucket that contains career development, including self-assessment, market assessment, job-searching skills, and long-term career planning. That's a lot of ground to cover, and we can't cover it all. What's going to drive the content of our program are the alumni employers who are on the receiving end of our new graduates. Because they get it. Because they know exactly what kinds of things our students need to learn. Because they recognize that this program is a game changer that could make us national leaders in the field."


"It's like adding a turbo-charger to a legal education," says Jack L. Lewis '69, who's funding the program's first year with a gift in honor of Albert Neimeth '52, who was dean of admissions when Lewis entered Cornell Law School. "To give students a grounding in collaboration and leadership is really going to enhance their education, even if they're not things law schools have traditionally taught. These are important skills, and if students don't gain them in school, it's going to be much harder when they reach the point in their careers where leadership skills are an absolute necessity."

At Lewis's firm, as at many others, business consultants are contracted to teach some of these skills to new associates, with workshops offered once or twice a year. But for Lewis and Peck, there are clear advantages to teaching those lessons earlier, in a much more structured way. There's no reason Cornell can't hire some of these same experts, says Peck, bringing them to Ithaca to teach parts of the curriculum. And there's no reason the Law School can't find some of that same expertise at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management, where Risa Mish '88 has led student orientation since 2007, when she arrived after working for thirteen years as an attorney practicing employment law.

"For years, business schools have been at the cutting edge of teaching people how to collaborate," says Peñalver. "They understand that successful business people need to communicate well with others, persuade others, work well with others. Those are skills that can be taught, and business schools have been very successful teaching them. At Cornell, we have the benefit of a business school with a really strong leadership program, where one of the leaders is a graduate of the Law School. Risa understands exactly where our students are heading, and can tailor very effectively the lessons they'll need to learn as law students and lawyers."

"Law schools do an absolutely exceptional job of honing students' critical thinking skills, and the analytical training students get in law school is unparalleled," says Mish. "But in business school, there's a greater emphasis on teamwork. Students develop a greater sensitivity to how problem solving changes when there's more than one person solving a problem, how to incorporate differing perspectives, how to become attuned to other people's needs, preferences, and ideas. There's a focus on leading self, leading teams, and ultimately leading organizations. If we can borrow a little bit of that at the Law School, we can make students more effective at working collaboratively."


Mish has been part of the Law School's Professional Development Program from the beginning, and when the Class of 2018 arrived this summer, her new orientation curriculum was already in place. For the first time, 1Ls were given five days of orientation, not just two, starting on day one with self-assessments and hands-on lessons in leadership styles supervised by 3L mentors. On day two, those concepts were put into action with a set of exercises that challenged students to work together, confronting a problem with deadlines, conflicting points of view, and lots of room for human emotion. On day three, they moved from the classroom outdoors, tackling the Hoffman Challenge Course with Cornell Outdoor Education. After that, feeling transformed, they were ready to come back inside for two more days of meetings and the first day of classes.


"This three-day professional development orientation is the first step in a slow, deliberate process," says Peñalver. "It's three days to plant the seed, followed by three years to build more collaborative skills into the curriculum, add professional development programming for 2Ls and 3Ls, and end with a capstone experience as students head out to begin their careers. No other law school is doing this, and if we can teach our students to do a better job collaborating, they're going to stand out in the employment marketplace. And ultimately, as they reach the workplace, they're going to stand out as better, more effective lawyers, which is why we're all here."


On the Ropes


THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY CONQUERED the HOFFMAN CHALLENGE COURSE.

"Before coming to law school, I was a little bit nervous—actually a lot nervous—about what Cornell was going to be like," says Kimberly Petrick '18, who tackled the course as part of the Law School's first Professional Development orientation. "Would people be super-cutthroat? Would it be every man for himself? The ropes course was the first sign that people here were going to be really welcoming."

Like the rest of the 1L class, Petrick started that morning with only two pieces of information: She'd be out in the woods and she'd need sunscreen. The rest of the instructions came once she reached the course, located five miles outside central campus, with a set of fifty high and low elements designed to challenge anyone's abilities.


"I think we all really enjoyed it," says Dara Brown '18. "People didn't hesitate when it came to activities. We went with the flow, embraced it, adapted to all the different situations. We had to trust people, even if we'd only met them that day, and learn how to work as a team."

Helping them along were ten 3L mentors, who started with the classroom exercises on Friday and Saturday, then moved outdoors to the challenge course on Sunday, working with different 1Ls each step of the way. For Taylor Stoneman '16, who built some of her strongest friendships on the high ropes two years ago, when she negotiated the course with the Environmental Law Society, the importance of the experience was clear.


"Obviously, when you're working at a law firm you're not going to be stepping along high ropes," she says. "But the underlying lessons you can learn from a ropes course are essential. So much of law is about teamwork, and whether you're cocounsel or part of a team working on a case, you can't do it all on your own. If you're going to succeed, and if you're going to serve the client in the best way, you need people you can depend on."


Early on Sunday, mentor Zellnor Myrie '16 observed the students in his group starting tentatively, taking care not to step on anyone else's toes. But by the end of the day, he saw people simply being themselves, recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses, growing more comfortable around one another, and learning to rely on each other for support, especially the 1Ls who chose to navigate the high ropes blindfolded.


"When you enter law school, it seems like a daunting thing," he says. "It's like you have to walk along a tightrope. What people forget is that you have a harness, just like on the high elements. You have a support system to help if you fall, and when you do, there are people to help you get right back up. No lawyer is successful working alone. You have to do it as part of a team. That's the analogy here, and that's why the weekend was so useful."



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