Inspiring Effective Social Justice Leadership in Tomorrow’s Attorneys
By Robyn Brown (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2012), and Sarah Gillaspey (J.D. Class of 2011)
To further integrate the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s emphasis on social justice and ethical leadership in a practical way, the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions offered a unique two-credit course in Spring 2011 entitled “Ethical Leadership in Social Justice.” This course was developed and taught by Judge Wilhemina Wright of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Holloran Center Fellow Hank Shea. The format of the course incorporated weekly guest speakers, lively class discussions, group projects, and journaling assignments.
Students were attracted to the course for many reasons. Many were interested in the subject matter, while others sought practical experience and knowledge in this field of law. Students were challenged to rethink their role as attorneys and discover how they could affect change in their communities and in society as a whole. Judge Wright explained, “Our goal as professors was to prepare law students to address social justice issues in the multitude of leadership capacities in which they will encounter them in the profession. Our course was designed to prepare law students for the ‘real world’ challenges of serving.”
In a typical week, students were given preparatory reading and journal assignments, and then they met as a class for two hours. The first part of each class usually featured a guest speaker, giving students role-models from the various issue areas. Speakers included scholars, exemplar professionals in the field, and community leaders. The remainder of each class involved group discussion. During this second half, students were encouraged to discuss ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys in this field, share personal stories that could illuminate the topic areas, and challenge their assumptions through facilitated conversations. Each student was required to develop a personal credo and vision statement. These assignments were exercises in reflective writing, pushing students to consider their life goals and the integration of their own morality into their present and future lives. In another unique component of the course, teams of students led the class in 60-minute case study analyses and discussions. Students drafted their own case studies, each focusing on a different ethical dilemma identified in the social justice arena. The class then discussed these case studies, applying various leadership models while determining what could be done and what should be done in the situation.
Emphasizing the need for professionals to understand and engage with the needs around them, Judge Wright described her hopes for students in the course: “University of St. Thomas School of Law graduates will occupy positions of power and influence. I hope that the analytical tools, legal strategies and diverse perspectives that we addressed in Ethical Leadership in Social Justice will inform their judgment and actions as ethical leaders in the profession.”
For more information on effective pedagogies for fostering engagement and student development, we recommend the following:
David W. Johnson, & Roger T. Johnson. (1997). Academic Controversies as a Vital Instructional Tool; 21 Civil Law-Update on Law Related Educ. 17, ABA Association.
See Johnson & Johnson article online at: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/ulred21&div=36&g_sent=1&collection=journals
Roy Stuckey et. al., Best Practices for Legal Education: A Vision and a Road Map (2007).
See Chapter 4: Best Practices for Delivering Instruction (see section on p. 120 on promoting collaboration) http://www.law.sc.edu/faculty/stuckey/best_practices/best_practices-04.pdf
Patricia M. King, & Karen S. Kitchener. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Reflective Judgment website: