Inside the Classroom: Lawyers as Leaders


Lawyers as Leaders, the leadership project that Professor Elizabeth Reilly envisioned, brought together this essence of collaboration and tradition in more ways than one.  Not only was this project a test of collaborative teamwork internally, but also a quest to unite and build a sense of community externally. By focusing on these two things Akron Law students have created a visible tradition that will hopefully have a lasting impact through the support of our alumni.  Much thought was put into developing the specific pieces and parts of this tradition.  These include the creation of a formal registry of graduating students, a unique lapel pin to be given to graduates during commencement and alumni-only ties and scarves available for later purchase.

Professor Reilly designed the class to be a place where people learned about leadership and hoped they would then be able to transfer that into using it in their professional lives.  To do that, she believed the students needed to experience working together on a project they designed and implemented themselves. The project was to be something that the students were responsible for from start to finish that would enable them to practice, learn and reflect upon leadership and leadership skills, as well as to have what they did make a significant contribution to something they cared about. Here is what the students had to say about their collaborative experience and fulfilling their project goals of community-building, visibility-enhancing, tradition, and sustainability.

Some of you are graduating this year and some in 2011, how do you see what you learned from this project being applicable to your skill set when you enter the legal field?

Dion Romero:  “How does law school train you to be a leader, train you to work with people, and where do you get that from” were all hot topics we discussed in great detail within this class.  We all know collaborative group efforts are not the main focus while studying in law school.  However, one of the things that we can take from this is that we can work together in a committee and we can be attuned to offering respect and gratitude to our group members, specifically in group settings.  I am sure that beyond graduation we are going to remember each other and remember this even more than if it would have been a large group. We were a small group that grew together.

What kind of challenges did you encounter?

Dion Romero:  I think the biggest challenge we had was figuring out the best way to finance our ideas. As law students we have become experts at doing research, and we have no problem talking to people. But the new thing to us was actually going out finding people willing to finance our ideas.

Nicholas Smith:  I was going to say the same thing.  Basically, the biggest problem we came across was the funding issue as Dion mentioned. The second biggest problem was that we all came in with passions and our own big original ideas which made us really evaluate and dissect all the best possible ideas.  We really had to take a step back and reassess each plan and say, “How does it impact the goals we are trying to achieve? How can we create tradition out of this and build community?” Once we stepped back a little bit, we realized that some of these ideas accomplished our goals a little better than others, and we really needed to focus on how to put them in action. That is when we started to get into some of the funding issues and also realized some of the ideas would be very expensive, some relatively cheap, meaningful, not meaningful etc.  We then went from there.

One thing that I am hearing a lot is passion, funding, and time management.  How did you take those things and apply it to the three ideas:  the lapel pin, tie and then the book?

Genevieve Evans:  I think one of the best aspects of the class was we did not jump into the project right away.  We were able to have lots of discussions amongst each other that really allowed us to get to know each other initially and therefore allow us to grow to know each other and in turn respect each other and each other’s ideas.  Even if it was not your idea or the one you were personally passionate about, you could still see the value of the other person’s idea. This allowed for personal and group empowerment by being able to focus on the project that was most aligned with our ultimate goal.

Professor Reilly, how did this fit with your original vision of the project?

Professor Reilly: I was, as I told them all, really blown away by what they did.  My original vision was to give them total control and let them experience from the very beginning what it means to come up with the idea; to implement it; to work with each other; and to ultimately have something at the end that you could be really proud of.  I was really blown away by how ambitious the project that they chose was and that they wanted to get it completed and on the ground in a very short timeframe.  I was also very pleased at how well they did working together and at the willingness to deal with all the bumps in the road, specifically through the execution work.  One of my other goals for this project was for students to understand the difference between an idea and the full-blown completion of that idea.  I wanted them to really understand how long and how much it takes to get from here to there and how you have to continue recycling back to make sure you picked up any loose ends.   

One thing I heard mentioned was that this really allowed for all of you to work in a group setting, which is something you don’t often do in law school. What advice would you have for other students about working together in a group?

Dion Romero:  Any sort of group project is difficult when you have conflicting ideas.  As Chris said, it becomes difficult when you have a bunch of people come together and everyone knows that they are right.  And one of the things I learned from this class is you have to be able to return the humility, because if you can’t, then you can’t work effectively in a group.  And if you can’t be humble enough to say, “you know what, I was wrong” or “hey, that was a great idea” you are only going to be a damaging asset to the group.

Is there anything else about this experience that you would like to add?

Dion Romero:  I did want to add one thing building on what Genevieve and Dean Reilly said.  One of the things that I noticed with all of us was that tradition was important and a building block for this project.  No one looked at this as a short-sighted project, and that is what really blew me away with working with this group. Everyone wanted to do something that would start a tradition; and last way beyond our time here.

Professor Reilly:  I think the other piece that hasn’t been mentioned is that each student took an entire week of the semester to help make the class. These students basically led the class and continued leading the class through the development of both class and personal mission statements.  These mission statements were developed on the idea as if we were actually creating an enterprise.  But, as it turned out, the class mission statement really came to bare in doing the project and it really helped keep the project on track by calling people back to what we all were admitted to focus on doing.

All of you seem like very comfortable confident people. Was there anything that you took on that was outside of your comfort zone?

Nicholas Smith:  To answer your question, no.  But, with that being said I have been lucky enough to have been able to come to this class with some public speaking experience as well as having experience in project presentations.  But, what this experience did allow for me to do was to refine the abilities I already had.  It helped me be able to not just lead discussion but also understand the dynamic of the room I was presenting to and the feedback I was getting.  Then I could change the presentation midstream to touch on the things that seemed more important to the class; changing on the fly.

Genevieve Evans:  I am actually very uncomfortable with public speaking.  And the terrible irony is that I was a Penn State cheerleader in front of 110,000 people, and I was turning bright red in front of five doing my presentation. But, ultimately, this class has really helped with achieving a comfort level with that kind of thing and has really translated into other very relevant areas throughout.

Nicholas Smith: The overall majority of classes in law school do not involve any sort of collaboration at all.  It almost is exclusively competition.  So, in terms of this idea of collaboration, a quick piece of advice:  be open.  This class was one of the few times that we were able to use collaboration, and in order to be effective, the group must be open to all different kinds of communication, both critical and positive.  You also have to be open enough that you know where and how to use this type of feedback.  Because once you do it’s going to be extremely rewarding and beneficial, probably in all aspects of your life.

What do each of you want to do after law school?

Chris Ingram:  Right now, I am interested in criminal law but, I am also interested in litigation.

Genevieve Evans:  I would like to go into sports and entertainment law, hopefully in an agent capacity.

Nicholas Smith:  I am trying to gear myself towards some sort of corporate or business law although, I’d love to own a sports franchise.

Tony Granata:  I am very interested in business entrepreneurship.  I’d like to develop business models and plans and perhaps own my business someday.

Dion Romero:  My background is in criminal law and that seems to be my passion.