Nation & World

The business of law

6 min read

HLS inaugurates executive education program

Harvard Law School (HLS) is the place to look for the arcana of legal scholarship and practice — and for the latest on evidence, procedure, contracts, property, crime, torts, and taxation.

As of this year, it is also the place to go for something new in the legal world: executive education. In its inaugural program this spring, “Leadership in Law Firms,” HLS pioneered an intensive five-day course designed to sharpen the leadership skills of the lawyers who run law firms.

From May 20 to 25, participants from law firms worldwide wrestled through 12-hour days of case studies, lectures, directed discussions, and working dinners. The 43 men and women discussed the best strategies for recruiting, hiring, promoting, building, and leading a firm’s diverse set of talents.

The course, approved by HLS Dean Elena Kagan last fall, is the first executive education program to come out of the Law School’s new Center on Lawyers in the Professional Services Industry.

“This course is one way of ensuring that academics are close to practice,” said Ashish Nanda. He’s faculty chair of the program, research director of the center, and a leading scholar of professional services.

Harvard’s is likely the first course that focuses on leadership in law firms, said Nanda.

“This is exactly what law schools should be doing,” said 20-year legal practices scholar David B. Wilkins ’77, HLS ’80, Harvard’s Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law, and director of the Program on the Legal Profession. “Law schools have not been offering executive education or leadership training in quite this way.”

HLS has the best U.S. program in negotiations and mediation training, Wilkins said. And it’s a place where leading scholars come to study regulatory practice or constitutional law. “But this course focuses on the profession itself as an object of study.”

Nanda teaches a similar course at the Harvard Business School and has for 10 years. But that is designed for professionals in a variety of business settings, not just law — and classes are large, at 160 students in each program. “Leadership in Law Firms” is a small-group endeavor, he said, and intensely focused on leadership issues in the legal profession.

Over the five days, students addressed several broad themes, said Nanda: the role of strategy in a law firm, organizational culture, the changing needs of the marketplace, and staff development. “Leading lawyers have very distinct profiles,” he said, and this can set up treacherous crosscurrents for a manager. “How do you ensure that highly skilled lawyers are well organized, enthused, and involved?”

A law firm is not quite like any other business, said Wilkins. There’s a “core tension” at the center of law firms, he said, because unlike most other work environments, the manager is both a supervisor and a producer.

Law firms are run by people “trained to be terrific lawyers,” said Wilkins, but they may not have parallel training in management.

Managers also have to grapple with the steep learning curve their new lawyers face. “They get a lot of training on how to think like a lawyer,” said Wilkins of legal novices. “But they don’t get much training in how to be a lawyer.”

Leadership skill in law firms is more important than ever, he said. The practice of law has gone from “a 19th century, artisanal, geographically bound, relatively small, noblesse oblige pursuit,” said Wilkins, “to a 21st century, global, multinational business.”

At the same time, he added, the practice of law “still has to stay true to the ideals and traditions that make law a noble calling and continue to attract the best and the brightest who want to make it a career.”

The global reach of law firms was evident in the first class in May. More than a third of the participants came from outside the United States — from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Colombia, and Australia.

Executive education is one of several ways the new center is building bridges between academics and practitioners, said Wilkins. Another is a high-power advisory board for professional services, which first met in 2006.

Another is the center’s senior fellows program, which started in 2005. The first fellow, still at Harvard, is Benjamin Heineman, former general counsel for General Electric Co. (He’s also a senior fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.)

By building these bridges, HLS gets “access to sophisticated thinking about real problems going on among high-level practitioners,” said Wilkins. In turn, practicing lawyers get insights into current academic inquiry.

But of all the new bridges between the academy and the world of legal practice, the new executive education component is the most visible, and has had a fast start. “In the very short space of just nine months,” said Wilkins, “we were able to put together what all the participants thought was a world-class program.”

The May course had a faculty of five, including Wilkins, Nanda, and Heineman.

There was also John Coates IV, Harvard’s John F. Cogan Jr. Professor of Law and Economics, and New York-based Daniel DiPietro, a visiting faculty member who is client head of the law firm group at Citigroup Private Bank.

The five days of the first “Leadership in Law Firms” were intense, beginning with working breakfasts followed by a full day of classroom work, with no BlackBerrys allowed. (Between sessions, participants had 30 minutes to conduct business.) There were lectures, breakout sessions, and even some role-playing. “We try to engage them in the actual process of decision making on key issues,” said Wilkins.

Group dinner meetings every night were part of the curriculum. “We go until 9 o’clock — or,” said Wilkins with a laugh, “until the last Brit calls it quits.” After that, there’s homework for the next day.

The program — to be repeated in May 2008 — is likely just the first installment of a series of law-related leadership development programs at Harvard.

Even more leadership education courses for the law profession may roll out over time — but not at the expense of excellence. “Everything we do,” said Wilkins, “has to be of the highest quality.”

Plans are already in the works for a 2009 program focusing on corporate counsels. Details for both programs are available from program manager Stephenie Girard or call (617) 496-3268.