Expert Opinion: Developing Public Interest Leadership Skills – A View from the Law Student Perspective

[Editor’s Note: this is the final installment in our three-part series on the importance of public-interest minded law students and junior attorneys developing leadership skills.  In parts one and two, we heard from public interest attorneys who work on a daily basis to help the next generation of advocates cultivate those skills.   Today, we hear from Todd Belcore,  a third-year law student at Northwestern who has worked tirelessly to become a well-rounded public interest advocate and who has already emerged as a humble and dedicated leader among his peers.] 

Todd Belcore is a third-year law student at the Northwestern University School of Law.  He is the president of the Student Bar Association, and was awarded the 2009 PSLawNet Pro Bono Publico Award in recognition of his outstanding commitment to promoting public service in his law school community.  After graduation, Todd will serve as an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.   

Six Tips for Developing Leadership Skills in Law School  

  1. Listen.  Leaders help others to solve problems.  As a leader you must be able to discern the needs and interest of your audience – whether it’s clients, coworkers, or others – as quickly as possible. The good news is that people usually tell you what their needs and interests are. The bad news is that we advocates are sometimes too busy to really hear them. Listening is a perennially underrated skill that informs or implicates nearly all others. In law school, just like any other setting, you have the opportunity to learn more about interests, personalities, opinions and perspectives of others. Listening does three invaluable things: 1) it will broaden your perspective; 2) make you communicate in a more responsive and responsible manner; and 3) help inform how to approach an issue in a way that addresses others’ needs rather than simply your perception of their needs.
  2. Make ideas come to life.  Everyone has ideas. Fewer can turn ideas into real programs, events, classes or policies.  Leaders get those results. This phenomenon is actually a developable skill. If there is something your law school doesn’t offer, a program that hasn’t been implemented, an event that hasn’t been made available, an organization that hasn’t been formed, don’t be afraid to come up with some ideas and mobilize around changing that. This process alone will require you to plan, gather resources, build a base of contacts, and determine the audience you must convince to make that idea come to fruition. This process will essentially be mimicked no matter the level of the project you take on so the more experience you get with it, the better.
  3. Make yourself uncomfortable.  A leader has to be in touch with his or her limitations. However, in order to learn precisely what those are, you must challenge any assumptions you have of yourself. What are you uncomfortable doing? Do you perceive that to be a weakness? Can it change? There is no better opportunity to answer those questions than in law school where there are a plethora of curricular and extracurricular opportunities. I have friends who came to school “knowing” they would never be oral advocates who are now on the trial team because they challenged their assumptions.
  4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  Leaders know they may have done something well, but they can always do better. Don’t be afraid to admit and learn from mistakes. There is often no better way to grow and learn than to make a mistake and ask for constructive criticism. Fortunately, law school is typically a good place to receive feedback but in the event you are not getting any or enough feedback, seek it out. You can’t fix areas that could use improvement unless you know about them, so ask for feedback.
  5. Learn to manage personalities.  All leaders need help, and good leaders know how to get it. As society becomes more diverse and complex, it becomes more vital than ever to be able to work with – and influence – people with varying personality types, backgrounds and power. (Even amongst people with similar backgrounds and personality types, differences in work style will emerge; you should learn to notice those and learn how to work with all people based on their individual characteristics.) Law school provides you with an opportunity to recognize personality traits and work styles of your peers and coworkers, and to learn how to work efficiently with them.  Take advantage of this opportunity as frequently as possible.
  6. Find your voice.  Leaders are true to themselves. Law school is the ultimate place to not just learn about case law, but to learn more about yourself. However, it is also a place where you can lose yourself amidst the briefs, reading and argument. Therefore, it is critical to think about who you are, who you want to become and how law school will help you get there. Don’t just engage the law, but consider the law in light of your personal history and experiences. Don’t just take a side, but let that side be informed by loved ones and people you have met along the way. Finding your voice is not only personally fulfilling; it makes everything easier to communicate. It also reflects a level of comfort with oneself that makes a favorable impression on those around you. Every law school experience is a chance for you to find your voice, and to use it.

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