Expert Opinion: Building Leadership Skills as a Law Student

Ed. Note: this guest post from Ericka Hines, a program manager at Equal Justice Works who specializes in working with law students and junior attorneys on building leadership skills, is the first in a series of three posts that will focus on the importance of cultivating those skills.

No Matter Where Your Career Takes You, the Chance to Lead Will Always Be There…

The idea for this post came from a colleague who was going to a law school to speak on the subject of leadership.  She asked me for my thoughts on these questions and I decided that I would share my answers not just with students at one law school but as many who wanted to know.  Enjoy!

What are leadership skills?

The term “leadership skills” refers to those skills or competencies that have been identified as important to moving people to act towards achieving a common goal.   If you are reading this, you are a leader.  Or at least want to be.  At Equal Justice Works, we have defined 10 leadership competencies that we think are important for public interest lawyers (both students and our Fellows) to have.  The reason that we chose these 10 principles is because we wanted the attorneys we work with to have a toolbox of skills available to them that they could draw on as they worked for social change.

Look at them.  Are they ambitious? Yes.  But that is because becoming a leader takes effort, commitment, and skills.

Why are lawyers called upon to be leaders?

There are many reasons but here are two that immediately come to mind:

  1. Our professional oath –  As lawyers we are called upon daily to move our clients and our causes forward in order to create a better world.  We do that bit by bit, client by client, and with all of the tools and resources we have.
  2. Our analytical skills – What we learn in law school is that our intellectual currency is good not only for making a living but also serving our communities.  We get asked for advice and counsel on a number of legal matters and we are expected to be able to provide direction.  Early on in our careers, we are tapped to serve as civic leaders by local agencies.  They ask us to lead task forces or serve on boards.  We feel flattered to be asked but are afraid to serve.  Don’t you want to come to the table prepared?

You have the chance to prepare and it can start in law school.

How do I develop leadership skills in law school?

I honestly believe that the chance to be leader is all around you.  My three words of advice:  Take responsibility now.   If you participate on the mock trial or moot court team, with a community service project, or are a member of another student organization, go for the leadership position and run the organization.    Yes, it will take additional work, it will be hard and it will test your patience.  But if you have the opportunity to learn some leadership skills now in law school, you should take it.  Trust me and the advice from your peers and mentors, you will be glad that you did.

If you don’t know where to start, here are four essential skills that every leader needs:

How do I demonstrate these skills to employers quietly and discreetly?

Don’t be quiet or discreet. Why should you be?  If you take the time to learn and practice your leadership skills, you need to let a prospective employer know.   In your cover letter and follow-up interview (I am optimistic for you), talk about how you have started to learn interpersonal skills (running an effective meeting) integrated goal setting into your student group work (S.M.A.R.T. goals) or are ready to do public speaking in the community (presentation skills).  Impress them by telling them how these skills will transfer into a position with their organization.

There is no need to scream from the rooftops that you are the greatest, but highlight that the skills that you bring to the table are more than the average candidate.  It will make you memorable.  Isn’t that you want?

Why should I care?

How many of us went to law school to save and help the lives of others?  Change occurs when your efforts of working with individual clients have a cumulative effect.  That can mean that a law is changed or eradicated, better policies are implemented, or a new law is ratified.

Whether we are:

  • working at a legal aid office working to get our clients public benefits…
  • making sure that our client has a fair criminal trial…
  • trying to make sure that all people regardless of sexual orientation work in equitable workplaces…
  • or placing pressure on corporations or governments to provide clean water…

…we have the opportunity to lead.

Do not shy away from being a leader.  Embrace it. Love it.  Name it, master it and claim it.
Best of luck,

Ericka Hines

More about Ericka: My place in social change is in building the skills and promoting the connections of others. In my 14 years of experience, each of my jobs has had the same elements: identifying leaders, building up their knowledge and skills and helping them move their work and themselves forward.  At Equal Justice Works, my work focuses mainly on leadership development and conference planning.   I specialize in individual capacity building and leadership development.  I have a very strong background working with leaders at both the local, state, national and international levels, including new attorneys, grassroots leaders, and high-ranking officials from the White House and United Nations.   Ericka is a 1996 graduate of the University Of Georgia School Of Law.

I can be found here:


  1. Effective leadership skills said,

    February 19, 2010 at 12:23 am

    First of all,congrats on writing such a useful blog.
    Your points are certainly useful for every one,not just law pursuing students.Leadership skills generally evolves with experience so taking a leaders position very early in life is helpful.Even if you cannot lead a team or an organization,being leader to oneself will guide to being an ultimate leader.Taking maximum responsibility is what defines the role of a leader.

  2. Simon Raybould - public speaking trainer UK said,

    March 1, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Congrats (as above!) on useful blog!

    I’m with you all the way about needing to develop presentation skills (but of course I would be, because I train people in doing that as a way to earn my living! 🙂 ).

    That said, it’s possible to lead without presenting – and there are just a very, very, VERY few leaders who I’d suggest leave the presenting to other people: one of the strengths of leaders is that they know what they’re not good at and surround themselves with people who can fill in their skills gaps. Presenting might be one of those places.

    Not often…. rarely, in fact… but sometimes.


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