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January 28, 2008

Interdisciplinary debates and the law school mission in "The Age of Ambition"

Nicholas Kristof had this interesting op-ed, titled "The Age of Ambition," in Sunday's New York Times. Here are excerpts:

With the American presidential campaign in full swing, the obvious way to change the world might seem to be through politics.  But growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the job themselves.  These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to the student protesters of the 1960s, and they are some of the most interesting people here at the World Economic Forum (not only because they’re half the age of everyone else)....

Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs, those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways.  Bill Drayton, the chief executive of an organization called Ashoka that supports social entrepreneurs, likes to say that such people neither hand out fish nor teach people to fish; their aim is to revolutionize the fishing industry. If that sounds insanely ambitious, it is.  John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan title their new book on social entrepreneurs “The Power of Unreasonable People.” 

Universities are now offering classes in social entrepreneurship, and there are a growing number of role models. Wendy Kopp turned her thesis at Princeton into Teach for America and has had far more impact on schools than the average secretary of education....

So as we follow the presidential campaign, let’s not forget that the winner isn’t the only one who will shape the world.  Only one person can become president of the United States, but there’s no limit to the number of social entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.

Interestingly, none of the social entrepreneurs mentioned by Kristof appear to have any law school training.  And yet, as highlighted in this guest-post over at Glom, my colleague Garry Jenkins (who helped to create Ohio State's new Program on Law and Leadership) has a vision that involves law schools teaching skills that seem essential for "social entrepreneurs."  Here is an excerpt from Garry's account of why he developed a "Lawyers as Leaders" course:

I think leadership education needs to be a critical piece of legal education.  I would argue that leadership development is central to our mission.  If lawyers are to play key roles in the profession, in their communities, in government, in their organizations, they need to combine their legal skills with leadership skills.  When I talk to law students about their aspirations I become even more convinced. Indeed, this should not be surprising because law schools are a rich source of intelligent and ambitious people.  Whether students are interested in public or private law issues or pursuing non-traditional career options, leadership issues abound. Even in traditional law firm practices, professionals taking on senior leaderships responsibilities (e.g., Managing Partner, Practice Chair, etc.) or important committee posts (e.g., executive, management, promotion, compensation, or strategy) must learn how to effectively exercise leadership in environments where many of the formal sources of power and authority are limited.

Among other virtues, the Kistof op-ed and Garry's post give me insights on the raging debate over interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching in law school (TaxProf highlight the debate here and here).  In my view, interdisciplinary work in law schools is essential if a law school's mission is to produce social entrepreneurs and/or leader-lawyers.  However, if a law school's mission is to produce effective practicing lawyers, interdisciplinary work can often be a distraction (or at least an opportunity cost). 

And this takes us back Brian Tamanaha's original post on Balkinization, Why the Interdisciplinary Movement in Legal Academia Might be a Bad Idea (For Most Law Schools).  Because of their elite student populations, elite law schools can and likely should define their mission in terms of producing social entrepreneurs and/or leader-lawyers.  Other law schools, however, may justifiably need to define their mission simply in terms of producing effective practicing lawyers.

January 28, 2008 in The mission of law schools | Permalink


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Thanks, Doug. I completely agree with you that leadership development, the mission of law schools, and social entrepreneurship are closely related. Interestingly, while none of Kristoff’s examples were law graduates, there are many young legally-trained social entrepreneurs making a splash (many of whom were familiar to me when I worked for the Goldman Sachs Foundation—a leading funder of social entrepreneurs). To name just a few Suzanne McKechnie Klahr (www.build.org), Richard Buery (www.groundworkinc.org), Sara Horowitz (www.freelancersunion.org), Melvin Yee & Matthew Sirolly (www.wagejustice.org), Brent Foster (www.columbiariverkeeper.org) quickly come to mind. By the way, the aforementioned are graduates of Stanford Law and Yale Law as well as Buffalo Law and Lewis & Clark Law... In addition, I’ll note that Bill Drayton, the CEO of Ashoka (the organization that supports social entrepreneurs mentioned in the NYT column) is a lawyer.

Posted by: Garry Jenkins | Jan 28, 2008 6:04:59 PM

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