Leading in Law School (Before It’s Too Late)


Alex Brent, University of Tennessee College of Law Third-Year Student

When I started law school, I thought I was “too cool for school.” I’m embarrassed to write this today, but I thought I had all the friends I needed, and because I heard how competitive law school was, I entered school with a toxic and selfish mindset. My plan was to focus on myself, my grades, and my career—nothing else mattered. Forget leadership, I wasn’t even interested in interacting with my classmates outside of school. Man, do I regret that decision. I missed out on valuable experiences and relationships that were obtainable had I shown initiative. Because of my experience, I decided to write this post to hopefully persuade young law students to lead early and to build relationships with their peers, rather than focusing solely on their individual goals.

The law school experience offers ample opportunity for “formal” leadership roles. Whether it’s through student government bodies, student interest groups, or law journals, students can lead groups formally—official title and all. These groups are vital to the law school community, and I would highly recommend joining at least one. These groups offer an excellent chance to hone your leadership skills, and you do not need to be the “President” or the “Editor-in-Chief” to do so. Every executive member, no matter the title, has an opportunity to lead. For example, the “Treasurer” leads by ensuring the organization is financially stable, and the “Secretary” leads by ensuring the organization’s administrative procedures run smoothly—what is important is that these groups require the devotion of your time, intellect, and passion, which are requirements for any leadership role in any organization.

But what if you are further along in your law school career and leading through a formal organization just isn’t feasible? Professor Joan Heminway wrote an excellent blog post about informal leadership, which I found insightful. Her post encourages lawyers and law students to lead through relationship building, something I have tried to do since I decided to fix my selfish mindset. She writes, “[b]eing a leader involves the cultivation and nurturing of trust relationships that are likely to be challenged in major and minor ways. The integrity of those trust relationships through the inevitable tribulations is a mark of sustained leadership.” I agree with Professor Heminway—a leader with a prestigious title is no leader at all if he or she lacks the ability to form relationships that withstand adversity.

I think this concept fits well with leadership in the law school setting. Regardless of what anyone tells you, law school is full of trials and tribulations, and you constantly compete with your peers. This competitive atmosphere can (and has) destroyed many relationships and friendships. Our goal should be to lead our peers through that competitive environment by forming trusting relationships that maintain their integrity despite the curved grading system or the highly competitive job market.

To me, there is no better way to lead than by placing people and relationships over individual success. While this is extremely difficult to do, others will notice, and (hopefully) they will follow.





Resilience in the Face of Trauma – The Anniversary of Route 91 Shooting


Joseph Peter Ostunio, University of Tennessee College of Law Second-Year Student

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy

October 1, 2017: exactly two years ago today my life changed forever. The previous three days and two nights leading up to that Sunday evening two years ago had been filled with fun, friends, and amazing country music. As we entered the Route 91 festival grounds for the last time, the beautiful Las Vegas skyline gleamed in the background with the Mandalay Bay and Luxor towering over us. We were filled with joy and excitement despite wistfully knowing that everyone had to be back at school and work the very next morning. Little did we know that none of us would be reporting to class or work the next day and in only a few short hours, we would be running for our lives trying to escape what can only be described as a complete massacre.

When the sound of bullets first began, few even noticed; it wasn’t until the music stopped—quickly followed by the stage going dark and Jason Aldean exiting the stage—that we knew we needed to drop to the ground for safety. As our group crashed to the ground, my friend I’d been hosting for the weekend, Kristin Babik, who at the time was a third-year law student from the University of Florida, was shot in the back. Luckily, together we made it out of the venue alive.

After the shooting, I neglected all the warning signs that were right in front of me. The biggest sign was a significant decrease in my logical reasoning skills, followed with long and short-term memory loss. Despite all this, I started from scratch and retaught myself the skills needed to achieve a decent LSAT score. While still ignoring the warning signs, I bowed to the pressure of those around me and accepted admission to The University of Tennessee School of Law. In all honesty, I probably should have sat the year out and focused on taking care of myself and earning a higher LSAT score.

Nonetheless, quickly after I arrived in Knoxville, things went from bad to worse. I faced a laundry list of issues both inside and outside of school. Finally, around the 1-year anniversary of October 1, I broke. The anniversary hit extremely hard, and it didn’t help that Kristin was dealing with even worse issues. Sometime before finals during the fall semester, I had my first nervous breakdown. Sadly, I didn’t snap out of it in time for finals, because I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I thought all of it was completely my fault.

The following semester I hoped for a fresh start, but things quickly returned to the way they were. I started EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) a treatment for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that helped, but I was still in denial about my other issues. On Easter weekend, I had my second nervous breakdown, which was followed by panic attacks. I decided to go home for a week right before finals and reboot. Luckily, thanks to friends and family in both Nashville and Las Vegas, I managed to get through it before I sat for finals. Following finals, however, I didn’t have much time to rest and recover. I finished finals and quickly turned around to catch a flight to Europe to study counterterrorism, international arbitration, and comparative corporate governance law in Venice. While my time in Venice was amazing, I was incredibly busy and was not able to fully continue my healing process. Needless to say, these past two years have been a whirlwind.

However, if these past two years have taught me anything, it’s the meaning of resilience. The Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” In essence, resilience is a quality that is developed by someone who is knocked down or transformed by some kind of adversity and is made just as strong—if not stronger. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in these past two years is that resilience is an incredibly valuable quality in a leader. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law Professor, identifies resilience as a distinguishing characteristic of leadership in her book, Lawyers as Leaders. Specifically, she says, successful leaders in the field of law are distinguished by “a strong sense of their goals, resilience in the face of setbacks, and a capacity to learn from advice and from experiences that chance has thrown their way.”

Before entering law school, and while studying for the LSAT, I become very connected with the survivor community. Call it survivors’ guilt, but my main goal in connecting with the community was finding ways to help those in need. An opportunity finally presented itself when it became apparent that several survivors were having issues with getting the academic support at their Colleges and Universities that they so desperately needed. I saw a need and, in response, created a non-profit organization called The Route 91 Foundation. The Foundation was created to help provide support to victims of mass shootings, to provide scholarships, to promote lobbying for common-sense gun legislation, and to help survivors access needed services. In the end, I managed to help several students from all over the United States get the academic support they needed. One student managed to get her tuition reimbursed and her transcripts wiped clean. Other students managed to reclaim their scholarships, and some were even allowed the option to repeat their midterm and finals. In the end, every student that came forward received academic support. The Route 91 Foundation, however, has had to be put on hold for several reasons, including conflicts of vision among its original board members and my enrollment in law school.

Regardless, these past two years have been a journey to say the least. It has tested my limits beyond anything I ever imagined I was even capable of handling, and it has taught me that resilience is an invaluable quality in both life and leadership. Yasmin Mogahed, an Egyptian-born American Muslim scholar, summed it up perfectly when she said, “resilience is very different than being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt. You fall. But, you keep going.” And I couldn’t have said it better myself.







Grit in the Face of Injustice


Willie Santana
Assistant Public Defender for the Third District

Anyone who has sat through any of Buck Lewis’ lectures on leadership will relate to the word “grit.”  He defines “grit” as a combination of passion and perseverance.  In fact, grit is how people not only survive but thrive in difficult situations.

Grit changes paradigms.  Grit changes the world—not only because it allows individuals the passion to be bold and courageous, but because it allows individuals to be patient, persistent, and resolute.  Making difficult change requires both passion and perseverance—it requires grit.

I recently started reading Ordinary Injustice by Amy Bach.  In this book, she says“[o]rdinary injustice results when a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them.”  That line from the introductory chapter of the book captivated me. Respect for the rule of law is one of the defining concepts of the American way of life, and I hold this notion as one of my core values; it is fundamental to who we are as a people.

In my relatively short legal career, I have had the privilege to serve as a prosecutor and as a public defender.  Both jobs are the best jobs I have ever had. When I was a prosecutor, I loved my job,because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice. Indeed, the prosecutor’s role is special.  Their job is not to win the case but to seek justice. Currently,as a public defender, I love my job,because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice.  And if the rule of law means anything, it means that it is not just citizens who must follow the law—the government must as well.  Specifically, public defenders (and criminal defense lawyers more generally) hold the government accountable.

Those ideals are easy to articulate, but what does one do when the government does not follow the law?  Or even worse, when the violations of the law are “a pattern of lapses” that erode the basic foundations of the justice system in such incremental and insidious ways that it is hard to pinpoint how and where it all went wrong?  What does one do when your caseload is so large that it is a lot easier to just trudge through the trenches than to worry about the systemic issues?  Or when it becomes overwhelming to think about tackling wider issues and your clients’individual cases simultaneously?

Challenging a system that has warped gradually over time requires not only so many resources, but so much work, energy, effort, and patience that the easy answer to those questions is “nothing.” However, leaders must resist the push to do nothing.

Challenging such a system requires grit, which means it first requires a willingness to be bold and courageous.  The most dangerous sentence in the English language is “we’ve always done it this way.”  This sentence is dangerous on two levels. First, it can be used as a shield for the status quo. The status quo makes us complacent because it is comfortable and easy.  We’re often caught thinking if it has always been this way, then there must be a reason for it.  Or, if others are okay with things “this way” then we should be too.  Secondly, it can be used as a sword by defenders of “the way.”  “This way” works; it works for everyone else and it has worked for years. Who are you to say that it must change?  “This way” is “our” way and if you want to be one of “us” then you must conform.  Resistance to “this way” can be challenging, because nobody wants to be the “other.”  To withstand the sword and shield of “we’ve always done it this way” requires boldness and courage.

Courage is important, but so is patience and persistence.  Change is hard; change is slow. As Nelson Mandela put it, “[change]seems impossible until it’s done.”  The truth is that systems that result in “ordinary injustice” were not created overnight.  It is also true that “ordinary injustice” was never the goal of these systems.  In the same vein, the people currently participating in these systems are not shadowy conspirators seeking to impose injustice.  Indeed, the reasons behind insidious erosions to the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, and the rehabilitative function of the law happened gradually over time for innocent reasons. Reasons such as the need to better manage court dockets; to more efficiently use the resources of the taxpayers; or to save on court costs, time, and resources that are already restricted by budgetary constraints.

Because these changes happened gradually over time, walking these changes back will also happen gradually over time.  Change to these systems will require careful strategic planning and the patience to carry out that plan.  It will require employing multiple strategies: practical, legal, and political.  Change will require recognizing where the biggest impact can be made, while simultaneously balancing the risks to the people hurt by the system—your current and future clients.  It will not only require the patience to challenge small practices and to build a record to tackle larger issues, but it will require a willingness to collaborate with internal and external players whose resources, timelines, and approaches may differ from yours.  In a few short words, it will require patience and perseverance.

A review of Ordinary Injusticecontains another line that has stuck with me:“[the criminal justice system has embraced]an assembly-line approach that. . . puts the interests of the system above the obligation to the people.”  Simply, an “assembly-line” approach to justice is injustice.  The victims and witnesses of crimes, the criminally accused, and the convicted are all people.  People with complex lives, with mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. They are the product of their choices and their environment—they are us. The only way we can treat their lives as sprockets in an assembly line is if we cease to see them as people.  And we do. We have developed a wealth of apathy and a dearth of empathy.

Can we overcome these problems?  I think the answer is yes, we can. But challenging this ordinary injustice will require us to substitute our wealth of apathy and dearth of empathy for a wealth of both leadership and grit.

The “Six Pack Series”

In 2017, the Institute for Professional Leadership launched its “Six Pack Series,” featuring interviews of a number of prominent leaders around various professions. Those interviewed are asked the same six questions centered around their leadership journeys. The wisdom shared is meant to provide leadership lessons around the experiences and philosophies of leaders who are passionate about guiding the next generation. Thus far, the series has featured judges, law professors, lobbyists, former University of Tennessee presidents, and a West Point law instructor.

This series provides listeners with practical leadership lessons through the lens of accomplished professionals. Each video offers a new perspective, a new voice. The professionals interviewed have different leadership styles which have been honed and built upon throughout their diverse careers. Despite differences in style, common themes of leadership remain emphasized: active listening, authenticity, empathy, courage, work ethic, and integrity.

Through the unique journeys of prominent leaders, we can find the tools to apply to our own leadership journeys—and that is the goal of “Six Pack Series.” The Institute is happy to announce that during this academic year, the Six Pack Series will expand to reach even more leaders! Of course, everyone has their own unique leadership journey, but wherever your path may lead you, make sure to check out this series to see what techniques you can implement in your own practice.

Watch out for a new interview coming soon—you won’t want to miss it! To catch up on the latest videos visit: https://leadingaslawyers.blog/six-pack-series/

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love TV


Lucy Jewel
Professor of Law and Director of Legal Writing

After watching the end of Game of Thrones this summer, I’ve been thinking about the connection between great television shows and leadership in the law. But first, a bit of context.  I love watching television.  It started early. In the 1980s, nearly every day after school and work, my mom, sister, and I sat down to watch “our” soap opera (As The World Turns) on the VCR. We were immersed in the narrative of the show, always wondering what would happen to the characters next.  The show had drama: mean people, nice people, and many reversals of fortunes. As it turns out, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was also a fan of soap operas; he once remarked to fellow Justice William Brennan that one can learn a lot about life through soap operas.  After the daytime soap opera heyday was over, I began to avidly watch several shows that came about in the so-called “golden-age” of television, shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, science fiction shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, and other shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and its spin off Better Call Saul.  Right now, I am watching Big Little Lies and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (both touch on legal issues).

Great television shows connect to law leadership because they teach us about what motivates people, how people deal with conflict, and why and how good people make terrible decisions. I believe that many leadership skills can be cultivated through observation. That observation can happen in real-life, but there are also valuable lessons to be learned from televised fiction.  Good leaders know how to project charisma in a way that motivates people.  (Just think about Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.) We can also learn about conflict management from watching television drama.  And finally, watching a story unfold in a great television show causes us to deeply empathize with flawed characters who do not always do the right thing.  Empathy is an important skill for interfacing with clients, many of whom need legal counsel because they did not do the right thing.

It is good leadership practice to find downtime to give our brains a rest and to think about things that are unrelated to our work.  Many successful professionals read, exercise, meditate, and do other hobbies.  After an intense day, I savor the ability to lose myself in the narrative of a great television show. It is a wonderful experience–to get involved in fictional people’s problems and not have to think about my own stressful issues. But even when I am getting lost in someone else’s story, like Justice Marshall, I learn a lot from watching television.