Leadership in law school

Issue September/October 2017 By Jill A. Collins

They say law school is a marathon, not a sprint. Like many runners, incoming law students want to know the secrets for maximizing their performance. They focus on the grades because they are told (or come to believe) that grades are the only measure of success in law school. While there is truth to that, attorneys know that there are many additional skills required for success in practice that are not reflected in grades alone.

One of the best ways for law students to enjoy their law school experience and develop non-legal skills is by getting involved in extra-curricular activities. Students who get involved, especially those who take on leadership roles, develop many skills that are relevant in legal practice. Among the most beneficial are event management, networking and collaboration.

The first skill set, organization and event management, is practical:When new attorneys initially get involved in their workplaces and their communities, they are often called-upon to organize committees or plan events. Student leaders sharpen these skills in law school. They understand what it takes to start with an idea and make it a reality, whether it's organizing an orientation for new journal staff or planning a major fundraising event for public interest scholarships. Peter Alvarez, a 2014 graduate of Boston University School of Law (BU Law) and current associate at Choate Hall & Stewart LLP, was the vice-president of the Student Government Association and Black Law Students Association. He reflected that, "[l]eading student organizations honed my organization, communication and management skills that I use in practice. It also gave me an avenue to engage with upper and lower classmen, professors, administrators and alumni, and I have maintained those relationships to this day."

Peter's insight offers a good segue into the second skill set, networking. In practice, networking is a skill that can make or break a career. When law students assume leadership roles in student organizations, they quickly learn how powerful it is to network around shared interests. Yasmin Ghassab, a 2014 graduate of BU Law, held leadership roles in the Legal Follies, Middle Eastern Southeast Asian Law Students Association (MESALSA) and OutLaw, and offers a compelling example. "I received my first job offer from a firm where an alumnus of a BUSL student organization introduced me to the firm's recruiter. I have personally recommended individuals from student organizations for positions (with a high success rate of offers being extended), and even referred clients to attorneys I met in student organizations at BU." Yasmin is currently an associate at DLA Piper.

Obtaining a desirable job is an ideal outcome of networking. Outreach made through student organizations, however, can also help to build networks for engagement outside the law office, which is often where clients are cultivated. Brian Balduzzi, BU Law 2013 JD, 2014 Tax LLM, agreed. "Acting as Treasurer for OutLaw encouraged me to become more active in the LGBTQ community in Boston and helped me become more authentic in the workplace and classroom. I would not have had the conviction to join the MA LGBTQ Bar Association Board or SpeakOut Board."

The third skill student leaders develop is management of others. Jared Shwartz, BU Law JD 2014 and former president of the Student Government Association at BU Law, shared that "[t]aking a leadership position in a student group taught me the importance of effective communication and managing expectations, two skills that are invaluable in providing efficient client service." Jared is now a corporate associate at McLane Middleton, and explained that, "I better understood how to find a middle ground when considering the competing interests of my fellow group members - a challenge that I am tasked with every day as a practicing attorney." Brian Balduzzi echoed these thoughts. "For me, serving as co-president of the Public Interest Project at BU Law allowed me to collaborate and think strategically about impact beyond the classroom and how to lead a team. …I had more empathy, purpose, and patience when working at a law firm." After several successful years in practice, Brian is now in his final year of a two-year MBA program at SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University.

For those students wondering if engagement is something to put off until second or third year, Yasmin Ghassab offered this advice: "The best decision I made in law school was to get involved, and to get involved early…. [S]tudent organizations allow first years the unique opportunity to form meaningful relationships with second and third years who provide great advice (and outlines) during law school, and access to employment and professional development opportunities after law school."

I am fortunate to observe, time and again, the truth of Yasmin's statement. Like the Boston Marathon runners who get high fives from the crowd to help propel them to the finish line, law students reflect fondly on their law school experience when they get involved early and take on leadership roles. Moreover, they arrive at the finish line better prepared to serve their clients and their communities. I encourage all law students to consider engagement and leadership as essential parts of the law school experience.

Jill A. Collins is the associate director for student affairs at Boston University School of Law. After practicing for more than five years in the area of trusts and estates, Jill transitioned to her current role in which she supports law students in many different ways, including their engagement with student groups.

School of Thought is a regular column geared for law student members.