Why do many law school graduates become leaders? Individuals with legal training lead government, business, civic activities, and nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the world. Of course, leaders of law firms, law schools, and offices of government lawyers have legal training, but often so do leaders of companies, universities and countries. I think that a combination of self-selection, features of the law school experience, and particular elements of law itself contributes to the sizable presence across society of lawyers as leaders—and as effective ones, at that. Does this seem right to you? I offer these thoughts in hopes of prompting your suggestions.


Credit: David Pohl

Self-selection. Many people with aspirations to serve as leaders are drawn to law school. It is a source of pride for Harvard Law School that two of our graduates are currently competing to serve as president of the United States. The commitment to lead, along with crucial talents and tenacity, contributes to the decision by many to pursue legal education. In so doing, students like Barack Obama ’91 and Mitt Romney J.D./M.B.A. ’75 follow in the paths traveled by prior leaders. Other notable Harvard Law School alumni include leaders in the United States from both political parties—among them, Dean Acheson ’18 (former U.S. secretary of State; instrumental in the creation of the Marshall Plan, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank); Michael Chertoff ’78 (former secretary of Homeland Security); William T. Coleman Jr. ’43 (former secretary of Transportation); Ted Cruz ’95, current Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas; and Elizabeth Dole ’65 (former senator from North Carolina, secretary of Labor and secretary of Transportation). The president of the Republic of China, Ma Ying-jeou S.J.D. ’81, and the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson LL.M. ’68, are Harvard Law School graduates. So are the former president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick ’81, and the current United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay LL.M. ’82 S.J.D. ’88.

Perhaps more surprising is the number of lawyers who head companies, universities and nonprofit organizations. Among them are Harvard Law School alums Sumner Redstone ’47, chair of National Amusements and founder and controlling shareholder of Viacom; Roger W. Ferguson Jr. ’79, president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; Archibald MacLeish ’19, former Librarian of Congress; Regina Montoya ’79, CEO of New America Alliance; Gerald Storch J.D./M.B.A. ’82, chair and CEO of Toys “R” Us; BET CEO Debra Lee ’80; Lloyd Blankfein ’78, chair and CEO of Goldman Sachs; former Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow ’76; New York University President John Sexton ’78; City Year founders Michael Brown ’88 and Alan Khazei ’87; Sandra Froman ’74, past president of the National Rifle Association; and Irene Khan LL.M. ’79, former secretary general of Amnesty International and now chancellor of the U.K.’s University of Salford.

One explanation is simply that many people drawn to law school emulate and retrace the careers of leaders—while aiming perhaps also to meet and connect through school with like-minded people. No wonder even our dropouts are amazing—consider John Negroponte, former U.S. director of national intelligence; Greg Mankiw, chair of Harvard’s Economics Department; Jodi Kantor, New York Times correspondent; and Cole Porter, composer.

Features of the law school experience. In conversations with lawyers leading great institutions, I like to ask what they find useful from their law school days. Almost invariably, I hear a version of this response: “I learned to analyze a problem, take it apart, see it from all sides.” Central credit goes to the traditional Socratic line of questions around complex judicial cases. As its originator, Christopher Columbus Langdell LL.B. 1854, explained, students would learn through the Socratic case method to move from particular contexts to general rules and from the general to the particular because “to have such a mastery of [principles or doctrines] as to be able to apply them with constant facility and certainty to the ever-tangled skein of human affairs, is what constitutes a true lawyer.”

Some present-day leaders also point to clinical work and case studies that helped hone their problem-solving and analytic skills. These activities, important in legal education for the past two decades, help students learn to find—or construct—facts and to navigate more dimensions of a problem than is permitted by the frame of appellate judicial opinions. It is fascinating to see lawyerly analytic skills carry over easily from law to finance, politics and administration. Alumni tell me how law school equipped them to run institutions focused on science and technology as well as civic and cultural institutions. Why? Because in law school they learned to learn by asking questions; they probed propositions and practices by asking what lies behind, what follows and even what unexpected consequences arise.

Recent research suggests that even studying for the LSAT affects the parts of the brain associated with reasoning. Practice affects the brain. Practice sharpens the thinking and reasoning relevant to reading comprehension and inference; practice helps people draw logical implications from the relationships among people, events, practices and concepts; and through practice, people evaluate the logic, coherence, completeness and flaws of arguments.

Law school classes and study groups deepen reasoning skills while shaping students in other ways relevant to leadership. Law students become adept at taking the perspective of others by devising and responding to arguments from competing points of view, by examining the origins and consequences of particular disputes, and by engaging with diverse fellow students. Legal education increasingly also draws students into generating solutions to problems. Learning to negotiate, law students find, is not simply a matter of emotional toughness. Negotiation invites the imagination to create new alternatives and allow competing sides to find shared solutions. Law students learn to expect disagreement and focus on what to do in real time.

Some of the knowledge conveyed in law school helps people lead nonlegal organizations. Law students learn useful knowledge of particular institutions—like corporate firms and international networks. Law school helps people understand the choices and trade-offs involved in designing and operating institutions: the benefits and drawbacks of centralized and decentralized authority, the power and limitations of multimember decision-making bodies, the utility of varied structures for reporting and accountability.

Embedded in legal education is information about regulated markets, dispute resolution systems, the confluence of history and politics, and the relative usefulness of rules and standards—information that assists prospective leaders. I think it turns out to be helpful, too, to understand how a regular process offers value in handling issues and to know a repertoire of formal and informal processes for tackling disputes and formulating policies. As the scholar Warren Bennis notes, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Legal education provides insights into so many efforts to do just that, along with tools for working with groups to solve problems.

Leading people. As I became dean, I read articles on leadership and particularly searched for advice about “herding cats”—one way to describe leading tenured faculty. Although animal images abound in business and management writings, that particular phrase is not common. The leader presumably is a human, but those to be led are at times cows, bees and sheep. Some see the leader as the Cowboy, who is goal-oriented; others as the Beekeeper, who is systems-oriented, helping self-directed people with resources; and still others as the Shepherd, who is team-oriented, promoting healthy, happy and productive individuals while calmly moving the group forward.

In law school, we learn to see the people we hope to lead as individuals, with minds and spirits, independence and desires: people who experiment, argue and challenge. Legal education models leading by conversing, taking turns asking questions and answering them. We proceed with the knowledge that everyone will not agree. A wise man was asked to define success, and he said, “I do not know how to define success, but I know how to define failure: trying to please everyone.”

One of my students, Peter Cicchino ’92, came to law school following years as a Jesuit, and later became a lawyer and then a law professor. He once told law students: “Take your arrogance and afflict the comfortable. Take your contentiousness and articulate genuine political alternatives. Take your sense of entitlement to act in the world—to run things—and do so: govern, lead.”

Contentiousness and a sense of empowerment, grounded in knowledge and analytic tools—these are great ingredients for leading. In a time when some question the value of legal education, I am proud that so many lawyers become leaders. I look forward to your thoughts about why this is the case.