Leaders strive to be known for creating spaces where people feel understood, important, and celebrated
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2025
It is universally agreed that Fred Rogers was everyone’s neighbor.
Fred Rogers (known to millions as Mister Rogers) hosted children’s TV shows from the 1960s to early 2000s that educated virtually every business leader, school administrator, and politician who shapes our world today. This outsize influence came as no accident for the larger-than-life figure who connected with others in unique and special ways. Rogers was memorable, sincere, and above all else, a trustworthy companion to those who watched his shows.
Ask any leader what superpower they wish they had (or had more of) and virtually all will answer with some variation of “empathy” or “connecting with others.” Leaders, now more than ever, are judged by how their conduct inspires others to bring their true selves to work and be comfortable in environments that might be daunting, uninviting, or intimidating. Leaders strive to be known for creating spaces where people feel understood, important, and celebrated. Doing so is difficult to pull off, even for Mister Rogers.
Early in his career, a frustrated Fred Rogers was struggling to find the secret to connecting with children through television, so he turned to friends for help. Rogers asked Gabby Hayes, a prominent actor known for playing the ever-loyal character in western films, what Hayes thought about when looking into the camera. Hayes responded, “one little buckaroo.”
Who was this “one little buckaroo” that Hayes was trying to connect with? Undeniably, “one little buckaroo” was more than just another cowboy to Hayes, whose characters embodied the trust and sincerity that Rogers was after. Hayes achieved these traits and connections by steering away from generic performances that get lost against the backdrop of the other generic performances people encounter every day. Instead, Hayes created memorable and sincere connections with his audience by focusing on the omnipresent, most important person in the room – that one little buckaroo. His advice to Rogers: “to connect with others, make them the most important in the room.”
Armed with this advice, Rogers crafted every single detail in his shows around one person: that one little buckaroo. Rogers distilled his scripts to simple language that children could follow. His speech slowed, so that no child would be left behind. His actions became methodical and deliberate so children would not be distracted or startled by quick scene changes. Rogers obtained the superpower of empathy simply by inviting others to enter into a world where they were celebrated, worth everything, and the most important person in the room.
A senior executive at a previous employer of mine once quoted Fred Rogers, saying “the most important person in the room is the person right in front of you.” We can all think about two scenarios: one where someone made us feel like just another person in the room and another where someone made us feel like the most important person in the room.
Next time you find yourself struggling to connect with others, ensure those around you feel understood, important, and celebrated. Think about that one little buckaroo and make them the most important person in the room.
Some of us will choose to embrace the Three Ps, and we may become very successful lawyers but may find that we have sacrificed more than we bargained on in the process.
Jack H. (Nick) McCall
Retired Senior Attorney; Tennessee Valley Authority
Recently, I was discussing some of the challenges that often make the practice of law so vexing and grueling with my longtime friend Rodd Barckhoff (a UT Law adjunct professor and fellow Ritchie, Fels & Dillard clerkship colleague from law school days). As we talked, Professor Barckhoff and I discussed three of the most treacherous traits that arise for many lawyers and law students (and perhaps judges, as well) as we experience the legal profession. “Have we ever talked about ‘the Three Ps?’” Rodd asked.
Those three Ps? Perfectionism. Paranoia. Pessimism. The three Ps make for a potent and, if unchecked, deadly cocktail that can affect the outlooks, personalities, and psychological well-being of so many lawyers. Unfortunately, aspects of the legal profession tend to summon forth and reinforce each of these attributes in many – if not most – of us.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote that “the law sharpens the mind by narrowing it.” Following this analogy: if law sharpens the mind like one sharpens a pencil, what is left after this process is completed can often be hard, pointed, and sharp. As part of the processes of forming the lawyer’s mind and stripping away what’s unessential, the Three Ps begin to take over our thoughts and outlooks subtly – even for those of us lacking a predisposition to them – while we are law students. Like so many things that are good, even necessary (in reasonable doses), the attributes behind the Three Ps can become too much of a good thing if allowed to flourish without checks or restraint. In short: the Three Ps are truly two-edged swords: powerful tools for focusing the lawyer’s thoughts, yet fully capable of causing self-harm.
Consider each of those powerful words and their effects. How can we cope with them – better yet, how can we modify them – so that these aspects of the lawyerly mind, which guide our development and implementation of sound legal thinking, neither overwhelm us nor drive us or others crazy? Set forth below are a few observations on the perils of the Three Ps, followed by some related reflections.
Perfectionism: For so many of us, the quest for perfection begins with law school – arguably before it – as we strive for the highest scores on our LSATs to secure our place in the law school of our dreams. Naturally, the “paper chase” of high class rankings and grades further fuels the drive. If we have not gotten a range of law professors and classmates speaking of perfection or vying for it in our academic lives, we get a full measure of it as young lawyers and associates. From partners’ interrogations of, “Is this work perfect? Don’t turn it in to me until it is perfect – but you have to get this done by the time I get back to the office,” to our zealous desire to measure up to the canons and rules of professional responsibility to those little professors and mini-partners that live in our heads and critique us every day, perfectionism is ever-present. Our own high standards – resulting in the drive for perfection – are highly admirable and necessary to push us towards greatness. In the process, though, we become perfectionists. Catch the nuance here between the search for perfection and actually becoming a perfectionist. The first is an aspiration, a goal; as to the second, if a thing is not perfect, it is devalued. And, on those days (and, those days do happen to us all) when we fail to satisfy the little professors and mini-partners in our heads, we can devalue ourselves all too easily.
Pessimism: We all learn from childhood that, in the United States, people are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved. Yet, we quickly learn to flip this presumption once we become lawyers! It is so very difficult not to do so. Many of us become lawyers because we are already risk-averse, and the life of the law only enhances the traits that can go along with this outlook. While we do not often think in these ways, much of learning the law focuses us on risks and risk management. We soon learn in law classes that we must spot legal risks at every turn and quickly identify those risks to advise our clients of courses of action.
Combine that with the bleakness, greed, negativity, anger, and impatience we often see in our cases and legal matters. Lawyers undoubtedly face as much of the worst of the human condition as any profession (and fortunately also are exposed to some of the highest aspects, on occasion). Moreover, as many a criminal defense lawyer or plaintiff’s lawyer might say to themselves: “Your client always lies.” All this is a potent recipe for turning one into a pessimist.
Paranoia: Paranoia readily travels hand-in-glove with pessimism. Being trained to search for risks and dangers behind every corner – an exploding package on the track of a daily commuters’ train (think: Palsgraf) or a banana peel on the floor every time one goes shopping at the supermarket – is a tough way to live life. Then again, many a lawyer can also relate to the truth of the saying: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t some [one/other lawyer/irritated client/ex-client/angry supervisor] out there trying to get you.”
Is it any wonder why the legal profession suffers from high rates of depression, substance abuse (perhaps as self-medication), thoughts of self-harm, and other challenges to one’s mental well-being when so many of us are often driven by the Three Ps from the time we started law school?
Frankly, I am not sure that there are easy answers when it comes to curbing the powerful and pernicious effects of the Three Ps on members of the legal profession. This is easily a lifelong challenge for all of us, and of necessity, how one copes with it must vary from person to person. Some of us will choose to embrace the Three Ps, and we may become very successful lawyers but may find that we have sacrificed more than we bargained on in the process. Some of us may find counseling beneficial, as we learn that too much of the Three Ps can not only challenge our relationships with others but also actually drive us to exhaustion. Personally, I have observed that being able to unplug – and I mean really unplug – from the law for a while can help greatly. Seek those things that help you keep balance and equilibrium. Whether that is exercise, yoga and meditation, hiking, running, or reading for pleasure, each of us needs to find that nugget of joy that helps us to retain our personality and what we love outside the law.
As lawyer-leaders and managers, we must not only stay attuned to the Three Ps as they work on ourselves, but we also must stay heedful and observant of their effects on others with whom we work and whom we lead. Being mindful of what the Three Ps can do to us – and how they can cause us to act out on others – is only the very start.
A former UT law professor often said, “The law is a jealous mistress.” The life of the law is demanding, it is challenging, and it can push us to extremes. We, however, and we alone, have to be the ones to set the ground rules and keep that jealous partner – and those little professors and mini-law partners living in our heads – from taking over our lives, our loves, and our outlooks on life.
A leader’s happiness alone may serve as an inspiration to others.
Joan MacLeod Heminway
Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law
Leadership, like mindfulness practices, involves understanding that each moment is unique. Each moment offers a new opportunity to develop a new and powerfully positive habit, to reach out to someone and form a new human bond, to refocus energy and attention on what is good and what is right. Each moment offers a new opportunity to lead and be happy – and the two are related.
A few years ago, Rajeev Peshawaria authored a piece in Forbes entitled Happiness: The Most Important Pre-condition for Powerful Leadership. In that article, he notes that “research now shows…the happiest people make the best leaders… In fact, the best leaders put their own interest ahead of others and are happy as a result of doing so.” He offers that effective leadership is not, then, about sacrifice, but instead about choice. Each moment offers an opportunity to choose happiness – to choose what to emphasize or de-emphasize to make us happy. How do we make these choices?
It turns out there is a host of learning around happiness that provides key insights. I have been exposed in the past to happiness principles from positive psychology. Specifically, I have been enlightened about PERMA (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment) – five factors important to human flourishing (i.e., happiness and well-being). I am learning that this frameworks exists among others that all have utility in context.
I recently had occasion to listen to a brief talk given by Harvard University Professor Arthur Brooks. In that talk, he outlined the three “macronutrients” of happiness: enjoyment (a cognitive processing of pleasure), satisfaction (the joy associated with a job well done), and purpose (a life with meaning—a meaning that is bigger than oneself). Each of these macronutrients is created in part by the thoughtful use of individual, unique moments (the rest—about 50%–is genetic, according to research cited by Professor Brooks).
In “Choose Enjoyment Over Pleasure,” published in March 2022 in The Atlantic, Professor Brooks explains that enjoyment is a choice by exploring its relationship with pleasure.
Enjoyment and pleasure are terms often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Pleasure happens to you; enjoyment is something that you create through your own effort. Pleasure is the lightheadedness you get from a bit of grain alcohol; enjoyment is the satisfaction of a good wine, properly understood. Pleasure is addictive and animal; enjoyment is elective and human.
To cultivate enjoyment, then, a leader can take those unique moments of pleasure and process them to achieve enjoyment as a building block of happiness.
Professor Brooks clarifies that satisfaction also involves choices made in individual moments. Satisfaction essentially involves getting what one wants. Accordingly, a key way to achieve greater satisfaction, according to Professor Brooks, is to decrease one’s wants (rather than increasing one’s haves). He explains this in a February 2022 column in The Atlantic, “How to Want Less.”
The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.
Managing wants involves re-evaluating and controlling what we want from moment to moment. The blind pursuit of wants is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
Finally, Professor Brooks suggested in his talk that finding one’s purpose results from knowing why one is here on the Earth and what one is willing to die for. For me, these are uncomfortable questions to answer. I sense that they involve considering, in each relevant moment, who I am (including my core character strengths and personality attributes) and what I believe (what my values are—especially those that I am unwilling to compromise). I also sense that there is great benefit in life and leadership to working through both questions. However, I believe they are uncomfortable to answer because it requires facing one’s own actual mortality and because many of us are still unsure as to our true purpose on Earth.
On can posit many reasons why a happy leader is an effective leader.
A leader’s happiness alone may serve as an inspiration to others. A leader’s positivity can be contextually transformational. A happy leader may be a motivational asset in marriage, parenting, community service, and other work. In a profession plagued by substance abuse, mental and emotional health concerns, and burnout, a lawyer-leader’s happiness may create a more positive, healthy work environment. It’s also imperative that the happiness a lawyer shows is genuine, because fleeting happiness is easily noticeable and can ruin credibility.
A happy leader may even serve as a model for their team, generating happiness in others. This is significant not only because happy families and other personal relationships are desirable, but also because happiness has the capacity to increase team performance in the workplace. Researchers from Saïd Business School at Oxford University identified a positive relationship between worker happiness and productivity—finding that “workers are 13% more productive when happy.” Leading as a happy lawyer is a laudatory goal. If we understand more about the science of happiness, we can take meaningful strides to achieve it in our personal and professional lives, making us better, more sustainable leaders. By taking advantage of each inimitable moment to consciously establish the three core building blocks of happiness identified by Professor Brooks (enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose), we can better lead as lawyers.
“There is no better rival than the person you were yesterday.”
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023
I remember an embarrassing story from when I was in second grade. We were playing this game where it was a one-on-one competition to say the answer to the math question first in front of the class. I was cruising along and crushing everyone in the class until I abruptly lost. The class exploded in cheers and I remember bursting into tears and crying into my arms in front of the entire class. I wanted to beat everyone and when I failed to do so, the pressure I put on myself resulted in an embarrassing collapse. I wanted to compete with others more than I wanted to compete with myself, and my desire to win clouded my vision of the bigger picture, which was to improve my basic math skills. This story is amusing to think about now, but I imagine that it isn’t that hard to believe when it’s read by a group of lawyers and law students. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the readers of this blog post recall a similar story, maybe not bursting into tears in front of the class but definitely losing a school contest and becoming more upset than they should have.
I consider myself a competitive person; I like to win. When I’m playing basketball, video games, or boxing, I enjoy coming out on top and feeling the emotions that come with triumph. I have observed that many people who come to law school enjoy the feeling of winning and the goal of winning for future clients, whether it be in the courtroom, a settlement deal, or a merger. The idea of winning in the legal field is something that we all likely yearn for, and I imagine the feeling after winning my first case will be so euphoric that I will have no idea how to contain myself if and when it happens. Yet, I think people can get caught up in the adversarial system of law and law school and become so competitive with others it might do more harm than good. I believe that a single-minded focus on besting others is the wrong approach to law school, law practice ,and the legal system as a whole; in legal education and lawyering, competition with oneself is far more healthy and productive than competition with others.
Competing with the person you were yesterday indirectly makes you a more formidable opponent in areas of life and the legal field. There is no anger, hostility, or aggression directed at any specific individual, group or organization when your biggest opponent is yourself. When aggression founded in competition with others isn’t properly channeled, it is detrimental to a person attempting to achieve goals. When people are focused on victory by any means necessary and are unable to properly control their emotions, they are far more likely to make mistakes and create obstacles for themselves.
Competition with others can be helpful and productive in certain situations. Yet, it can also turn some people bitter and vindictive. This happened to me when I was younger, in a non-law school-related situation. I wanted to compete with everyone in school and sports, and I became aggressive and unfriendly because I was too focused on being the best. There is nothing wrong with working hard and striving to be the best in any field; however, that passion to achieve must be harnessed and channeled in a healthy way. If not, that passion can grow into a burning flame that won’t be able to be extinguished, and could become volatile.
In sum, competition is healthy. The world is a competitive place and people have a natural desire to come out on top in all arenas of life. Competing with others is natural and often healthy, and can instill feelings of competency and triumph in individuals and groups. Yet, if a person’s competitiveness is not properly harnessed and channeled in a productive manner, that spirit can turn into arrogance and unpredictability. As we go into the world as leaders and lawyers, I think it is quite important to maintain a competitive fire and desire to be victorious while maintaining composure and realizing that there is no better rival than the person you were yesterday.
In order to succeed as lawyers while leading, we must react and cooperate, advocate with empathy, and earn respect by giving respect.
Sarah Beth Cain
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023
As a child, I quickly recognized what would certainly be one of the most dangerous enemies that I would confront in my adult life: hot lava. To prepare myself mentally and physically for the day on which I would inevitably be faced with my nemesis, I spent entire afternoons jumping from couch to couch in the living room – perfecting the movements necessary to avoid the molten rock that would one day be bubbling beneath my feet. I got to know my enemy by building small replicas of its home, constructing perfectly canonical mounds of hard clay and artfully mastering the complex topography of those unknown terrains. I rehearsed my encounter with the explosion from the safety of my parents’ back porch, using a deadly cocktail of acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate. I was ready.
As it turns out, my chances of encountering a lava-spewing volcano were low and the explosion produced by my “deadly cocktail” was a simple neutralization reaction. The product, carbon dioxide, is lighter than air so it bubbles up through the top of the solution, producing the satisfying lava-like foam that flows down the sides of the homemade mountain. Although not always so dramatic, there are few things that would function properly in a world without reactions. By the time you finish reading this sentence, billions of them will have taken place in your cells – with a net result of the perfect balance necessary to sustain life. It is this balance of action and reaction, occurring in perfect harmony and neutralizing the threats to our system, that maintains our constant internal homeostasis.
The importance of balance in life, of course, extends far beyond the biochemistry of the human body. Success requires balance. It is an axiom that applies across cultures, industries, and the arts – a fact to which any ballerina worth her salt would surely attest. This applies equally to leaders (lawyers and nonlawyers). I have had the good fortune to work and study under mentors who are exceptional leaders. Over time, I noticed shared characteristics among them – including the balancing of options when making decisions and the deliberate and measured nature of their reactions.
Observing my mentors’ interactions with others taught me some important lessons about how to be a strong leader, even during times of conflict. I learned that, when faced with an emotionally charged or hotly contested issue, a good leader rarely throws her hands in the air and declares absolute neutrality: she reacts appropriately. Of course, the reaction is not as strong as a volcano or as fast as the human metabolism; it is thoughtful and filled with intention. Even when the goal is to neutralize an apparent threat, strong leaders know that failing to react can be a danger of its own. When tensions are as high as Mount Vesuvius and conflict abounds, inaction can easily be interpreted as abandonment by those whose interests are at stake. In other words, although neutrality may be the goal of this balance, it cannot be the starting point.
When the country splits on nearly every issue down ideological lines, leaders must be sensitive to the potential for oppression. This is when diplomacy – not neutrality – becomes paramount. For, as a wise man once said, “if you are neutral on situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Just as the absence of reactions in our cells would cause them to fail in their primary purpose of sustaining life, the absence of reactions on matters of oppression would cause lawyers to fail in our primary purpose of upholding justice. As students and future practitioners of the law, we face daily calls to action, and we must react accordingly. We are not just encouraged but required to zealously advocate on behalf of our clients. As lawyers, we advocate for one position, and one position only in every case.
Leadership, however, requires more than one-sided advocacy: it requires diplomacy and discretion. Specifically, leaders must serve those around them by facilitating communication, demonstrating appreciation of each person’s right to their own beliefs, and exemplifying respect for everyone. The adversarial nature of our judicial system may permit lawyers to dispense with some degree of tact, but the cooperative nature of life requires that we exercise the highest degree of empathy and compassion. It may be a challenge to strike the right balance, but it is a challenge that strong leaders embrace.
In order to succeed as lawyers while leading, we must react and cooperate, advocate with empathy, and earn respect by giving respect. It is that ability to balance humanity with passion that will allow us to achieve success in our professional and personal interactions and maximize our potential as lawyers and leaders.
We should all treat our positions of leadership as if today is the last day.
Director, Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee
I have a half-completed Leadership Institute blog post on my computer that I began about a month into the pandemic. I naively thought that I would have dozens of helpful ideas to share about navigating the leadership of an office at the conclusion of the pandemic, which was surely going to last a few weeks at most. A year and a half into having moved everyone in our 50+ federal defender organization to remote work, I was struggling to come up with one helpful idea, let alone a dozen. I was deliriously happy when I was able to stomp out a few fires and keep the work of the office moving.
Fast forward two and a half years. My organization has returned, mostly, to its brick-and-mortar offices, but we continue to be affected by the pandemic. There is a mixture of possibly permanent changes sprinkled in with the constants of our work. Like others, I found that the pandemic gave me time to engage in heavy-duty self-reflection. I decided that it was time to retire from being the community defender and try to identify new challenges.
The thoughts I share here are not about how I came to the retirement decision after having been in the office for thirty years, however. Instead, they are about the experience of leadership during the process of transitioning away from a leadership role. I found myself thinking about the unique challenges of continuing to lead while knowing that one’s tenure has an end date. My pondering then took yet another turn. No matter a person’s age, aren’t most of us leading while leaving?
The questions with which I am grappling are several. When should you think about an exit or succession plan? What does an that kind of plan look like? These thoughts may be useful even if you have no immediate plans to undertake big professional changes.
After a couple of drafts, more coffee, and a bit of indecision, I have decided that it is never too early to think about leaving. As a criminal defense attorney, I always started thinking about the potential sentencing of my client the day we first meet. Although I never wanted any of my clients to be sentenced, decisions made at the beginning of the case often have affected a sentence that was imposed months later. As CEO or executive director or managing partner of a law firm of any size, we should begin to think about leaving as soon as we step into the role of leadership.
About 15 years ago, I looked around and thought “Oh, my goodness, everyone here is going to hit retirement age at the same time.” Obviously, that would not be very good for any office. My first step toward leaving happened long before the word “retirement” had formed in my mind. I completely changed my attitude toward hiring and expanded my notion of what a qualified candidate might look like. There are many types of diversity, and it is important not to overlook age diversity (while, of course, being mindful not to engage in age discrimination). Hiring people of different ages, of course, avoids the mass exodus that occurs when everyone hits Social Security age at the same time. It also brings in new ideas and different attitudes about work and work values.
Younger lawyers and paralegals have different priorities, and baby boomers need to listen and incorporate those new attitudes into the workplace culture. In our office, the new ideas shared by those just beginning their careers have led to us making changes that ultimately help our clients because they help the defense team. The most glaring example is telework. Before the pandemic, my telework policy was that we do not telework. After the pandemic, I was convinced (mostly by the younger folks in the office) that telework with some restrictions was good for morale, which trickles down to being good for clients.
My second moment of temporary clarity occurred about five years ago when I realized that no one else really knew what I did, and no one inside the organization would be qualified to become the community defender if I were to be hit by a bus. (We call this the “Mown by a Bus Principle” in our office.) When I was patting myself on the back because I was superwoman doing it all, I was really putting the organization at risk by not sharing opportunities to lead. This was also evidence of a paternalistic attitude that presupposed I knew more about the individuals in the office than I did.
At one time, I thought that I was helping remove barriers to my colleagues doing the important work of representing clients. However, I have discovered that most people want to know how an office works and that they become happier with more transparency. Many would like to have job duties outside of the traditional lawyer work. We moved toward having a true leadership team in which I delegate, do more listening, and communicate more often.
In my position, I do not get to do the kind of succession planning through which I pick my successor. However, I have had the authority to ensure that several people in the organization could step in if the board of directors were to choose them to be the community defender. (I digress, but do not forget that, as a lawyer, you need to be thinking about succession planning and your clients. The KBA has a resource for that process. See www.kbar.org)
Coffee and contemplation have led me to a happier place in my own leadership transition process and to clearer ideas about the inherent, pervasive role of leadership changes in the practice of leadership. We should all treat our positions of leadership as if today is the last day. Thinking ahead, even decades ahead, is a good practice.
As leaders, we must understand that others are counting on us to be imaginatively compassionate.
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2025
I delivered these remarks to peers and college administrators at my MBA graduation dinner in Louisville, KY on September 15, 2022. I dedicate my efforts to becoming a compassionate leader to my mother, my hero.
My childhood home enjoyed stillness most of the time, other than the hums of a washing machine, the pitter-patter of kitten paws on hardwood, and the soft rumbles from passing cars. But one day, this stillness was disrupted by a voice singing the catchy melody of a school tune. The voice was sharp, clear, a bit off-key, but bold enough to rattle the aging home.
The singing belonged to my sister. At first, I treated her singing as nothing but a slight inconvenience. But as her volume increased, her singing invaded the home and threatened the stillness we had previously enjoyed.
Wanting to liberate the home of this inconvenience, I stormed to my mother, who smiled at dirty dishes below her weathered hands. In a tone that I had no business using at my age, I questioned my mother: “Aren’t you going to stop her singing!? We can barely think!” My mother turned to me, smile now gone, and responded, “Paul, you know exactly why I will never stop your sister from singing.”
And she was right. I did know.
When my sister was young, it was discovered she had a small opening in the roof of her mouth, which prevented her from speaking loudly and clearly. During most of her childhood, her voice was little more than a whisper. She was often cut off, ignored, or overspoken by those with stronger voices.
Eventually, she had the small opening surgically repaired, and after years of whispering, she was finally able to fill a room with her voice. Her singing was not her attempt to bother the home, but rather, she was enjoying a new voice that she had never had before.
This story demonstrates two interesting facets of life and leadership, the first being that compassion requires imagination. Humans spend a startling amount of time daydreaming, yet, when it comes to imaginative compassion, we are not very skilled.
I had used all my imaginative brain power to dream up storylines about how I was affected by my sister’s singing. Without realizing it, I isolated myself in my own world. Had I been imaginatively compassionate, I might have stumbled upon better explanations for my sister’s singing and what singing meant to her. Maybe she was happy that her best friend agreed to a playdate that weekend. Or maybe she had just endured a difficult math test and was singing to cope. Or maybe she was exploring a new voice she never knew she had. The interesting thing about this idea is that the more you practice imaginative compassion the more you realize how often your conclusions about the world may be wrong.
The bottom line is that in life and leadership, we do not tend toward imaginatively compassionate thinking, but we should. It is a critical skill we must develop so that when we lead, we may guide ourselves and others toward a path of understanding and community.
The second facet of life and leadership this story demonstrates is that everyone finds their voice at different times, in different ways, and, more importantly, in ways that might interfere with our own expectations. Someone’s voice is their own creation, crafted out of personal introspection, confidence, and vulnerability. When we use imagination to isolate ourselves, we destroy opportunities to build relationships and communities that encourage safety, understanding, and acceptance.
By setting expectations for others in our minds, we construct boundaries for our own voice. Instead of being open to new ideas, we close ourselves off; we choose a static path, rather than one founded on exploration and perpetual forgiveness.
The insight from this story is that, as leaders, we must understand that others are counting on us to be imaginatively compassionate. When faced with frustrating circumstances, we can serve as a beacon of understanding and acceptance in a world that so often forgets that everyone, at one point in their life, discovers the previously unknown voice that makes them who they are. It is upon leaders to create environments in which new voices are discovered and supported and all voices are heard.
“To Whom Much is Given, Much Will be Required” (Luke 12:48)
Jack H. (Nick) McCall
Retired Senior Attorney; Tennessee Valley Authority
Given the demands and high expectations that most lawyers and law students have to contend with, the thought of yet another demand, expectation, or duty is enough to make even the most hard-working and dedicated among us sometimes feel beleaguered. That is a natural enough feeling; anyone who does not acknowledge that the list of expectations, obligations, and to-dos for the average lawyer can feel ponderous must have a very different practice or legal experience from the experiences of so many of us.
Still—yet—there are some things that lawyers, and only lawyers, are called forward to do; that only we have the training, expertise and acumen to do: not only for our paying clients and those who employ us, but for the betterment and maintenance of society. As lawyers, as officers of the courts, as those tasked with developing and upholding the rule of law, it falls on us to undertake certain roles and functions—regardless of the nature of our practices, the time we spend with non-pro bono client needs, or how much money we do or do not make.
Fortunately, we also have a very wide range of methods and tools that we can use to meet these needs and expectations. We can pick and choose, to a sizeable degree, how we undertake them. And, maybe best of all, the needs are such that we can often find opportunities for leadership and personal growth—I am not talking about simply learning new areas of the law, although that can surely be a part of it—and, maybe, even some enjoyment as well.
I am, of course, speaking of the need for lawyers to provide their services to ensure equal access to the law. Be it through pro bono help to clients in need; service on bar associations’ committees devoted to equal access programs; working with non-profits that need legal help—there are numerous ways and opportunities for lawyers, law students and law professors to engage.
One major common thread here is that, when it comes to community and pro bono needs requiring the application of legal skills and talents, in our society, well, folks, that is us: the lawyers. This can be reduced even more simply to the question: If not us, then who? Any doubts about that can be resolved in large part by turning to the preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct:
[A]ll lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.
I submit, this is about as clear a statement evincing our obligation as lawyers to lead the way when it comes to this role as we can expect to get, even if the word is a “should,” not a “must.” Not only does this formulation exist in Tennessee’s professional conduct rules; other states’ rules of professional conduct share this same general direction.
One can further turn to Chapter 6, especially Rule 6.1, of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct for more guidance as to the broad range of ways in which we can achieve this end. While many lawyers do this through pro bono case representation—often, of those who meet Legal Service Corporation standards—Rule 6.1 makes it clear that is not the only way that lawyers can rise to the occasion and meet this responsibility—and yes, Rule 6.1 uses that exact term, responsibility. Although the number of hours recommended by Rule 6.1 is an aspirational fifty hours, that aspirational standard sits close by that heavy word, responsibility. The tone of Comment 1 to Rule 6.1 also appears somewhat more than merely aspirational in its word choices:
Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional work load, has a responsibilityto provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer. [Emphasis added.]
Once one ponders Rule 6.1 and its accompanying comment, it may be difficult to come away with any impression other than that pro bono work is important to our profession and our courts. These rules express the formal outlook of our courts towards why lawyers are the ones to pick up the torch and lead when it comes to the challenges of ensuring equal access under the law and supporting those groups and activities intended towards that goal.
But, what about those who may bluntly ask: why do this kind of work if it’s not all about money and if the rules do not absolutely require me to do it?
Pro bono and equal access-related work is something that is intrinsically good to do. It gives wider perspectives and teaches broader legal (and life) skills from what many of us see and do on a daily basis. It can be a great antidote to cynicism. After five or six hours of helping a pro bono client in real need, one may come to realize that a lawyer’s life is not so bad at all. Plus, the intangible (psychological, reputational and spiritual) benefits for helping lighten the load of others less fortunate can also be enormous.
I also often have counseled that we need to honor these expectations not just because the rules say “Thou shalt” or “Thou ought,” but because it is also what we ought to do as committed, skilled, principled human beings. I have also often opined that equal access and pro bono work may not ever fully obliterate the negative view of our profession held by many Americans. A New Yorker cartoon from some years ago captured the cynical view held by some of our fellow citizens: one well-heeled lawyer smirkingly says to another as they leave a courthouse: “Remember, it’s the money we make from the anti-bono that pays for all the pro bono.”
However, a little well-placed volunteer service may help at least influence the lives of a few. We can have the satisfaction of doing something beyond just doing our “day jobs.” And—given the range of needs that exist, and the opportunities they present—even young lawyers and law students may find that they have an exceptionally good opportunity to rise to the occasion and become leaders in their local, state or federal equal access communities.
Last: in a time when the rule of law itself is under stark challenges; when we can look not only overseas, but in our own nation, to see legal processes and systems at risk of being broken, ignored or subverted—it will take lawyers to stand up and deliver on the promises of equal access to justice, of rule of law and by law, of justice for all. Nobody else but our profession can truly do that.
Indeed, when I think of the most important leadership characteristics . . . I think of empathy, humility, consistency, and commitment to a goal larger than oneself. These positive leadership characteristics are manifest in the supportive listener, the service-oriented lifelong learner, the one practicing or working when no one is watching.
Associate Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law
Leadership is a tricky topic. It is one of those characteristics achieved most successfully by those who don’t seem to be trying.
Don’t get me wrong. Confidence, intentionality, self-awareness, and commitment to hard work are vitalcharacteristicsfor those who are developing as leaders. Obviously, those who don’t apply themselves or who don’t put effort into the task at hand cannot lead others. This is non-controversial.
But, in my experience, it is not the ones who loudly and brashly set out to be leaders that are most effective. Instead, true leadership is achieved through a selfless commitment to other projects. Far from forcefulness or garishness, those who seem to be the most affecting leaders, those who naturally attract others, seem to have developed and fostered a set of quiet qualities.
Indeed, when I think of the most important leadership characteristics that I’ve learned throughout my professional life, I think of empathy, humility, consistency, and commitment to a goal larger than oneself. These positive leadership characteristics are manifest in the supportive listener, the service-oriented lifelong learner, the one practicing or working when no one is watching.
Unfortunately, what seems to too often pass for the cheap hallmarks of leadership in our modern society today—publicity, power, resources, prestige—are in many ways the antithesis of these simple values. Those with the loudest megaphone, the biggest platform, and the shiniest lights ostensibly achieve influence and acquire the leadership mantle.
But true leadership is something else. It is humble, quiet, and—in some ways—disinterested in leadership. That’s the paradox.
Indeed, as a student, lawyer, and now an associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, I have had the opportunity throughout my life to learn from leaders who embody and exemplify the values of leaders. I have been fortunate to learn from incredible teachers and mentors and others—from elementary school teachers to college professors, from law firm partners to judges, and now from law students and law professor colleagues alike. So many of them are leaders—in their families and communities, in their practice areas, and in their academic fields of study.
But one indelible image of leadership—the quiet, servant, humble type of leadership—has always powered me. When I think about the type of leader I aspire to be, I think of one picture.
I attended high school in central Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis, in a town that had just opened a brand-new high school building. In fact, I was part of one of the first classes to graduate from the new building, and the community took great pride in the sparkling auditorium and the massive basketball arena. But by midway through my sophomore year, the novelty of the building had worn off. It had become just normal.
I don’t remember too much about my high school principal up to that point. I do remember that he was a charismatic speaker who encouraged us to pursue our dreams. But his persona, beyond that, is blurry. I, of course, was one of a thousand high school students, and—presumably thankfully—I had not attracted the attention of the front office for any reason by my sophomore year.
Back to the leadership image.
I was a writer in high school, and I served on the school newspaper staff. The staff would meet early in the school day, and we’d decide on our assignments and stories for the next issue. I was always a news writer, and was interested in keeping the student body informed and focused on whatever the major issues of the day were in a small-town high school. Only important things, of course—like what kind of chips the new snack bar in the cafeteria was selling, or some parking controversy between the seniors and juniors.
This morning, we had finished our news meeting, and I set out into the hallways of the school to see if I could arrange interviews with the main subjects of the story I had been assigned. The journalism room was right near an intersection of two major hallways in the new school. Had this been between classes, the hallways would have been packed with students. But this morning, in the middle of class time, the hallways and major intersections were empty.
Not quite empty, that is.
I quickly came around a corner, journalist’s notebook in hand, and nearly tripped over my high school principal. It took me a minute to recognize him. I was disoriented because I had thought the hallways were deserted, but was confused mainly because he, my high school principal, was in a crawling posture on his knees on the carpeted ground, in the middle of the hallway. In his hands were a pair of office scissors.
I don’t remember what words we exchanged, if any. But it quickly became apparent to me what he was doing.
A corner piece of the carpet that had covered the well-traveled hallways had begun to pull. Threads—not many, but enough that they were barely noticeable—had begun to pull up from a seam, right in the middle of the major high school intersection. My principal was on his hands and knees—in a suit and tie—with a pair of scissors, cutting the threads that had pulled up from the school’s carpet. He was the only one in the hallway.
I hurried off to the interview for my important news story. But thinking back on it, I know I missed the bigger story that day.
This moment, to me, is the essence of true leadership. It is not when my high school principal gave a commencement speech, or was interviewed on the local news, or waved from the back of a convertible in the homecoming parade. It was this moment. By himself, in the middle of an idle weekday, cutting back pulled threads from the two-year-old carpet in the school he loved.
There were other specifics that I would reflect on later.
First, it was detail-oriented. He had to notice the threads, which, to me, suggests that he knew—in detail—every inch of that school, at least on some level.
Second, he did it himself, and it was intentional. He could have thought it was someone else’s job. Indeed, as a high school principal, he surely could have asked someone else to do it, or he could have called the school district maintenance office, but he didn’t. He grabbed scissors from his office, and walked to the other end of the school to take care of it himself.
Finally, he could have turned it into an act that brought him attention. He could have made it into a persona or, today, even a meme—he was the wacky principal who prowled the hallways with scissors looking for loose threads. But he didn’t do that either. He did it quietly, without fanfare, and without any external accolades.
That—humble, selfless, detail-oriented, community-focused—is my image of leadership.
I suppose I should go check the law school carpets.
If there’s one piece of advice I would want to share with first-year and second-year law students, it is that they should not readily abandon heartfelt goals and passions when faced with challenges but, instead, identify and explore alternative paths to overcome those challenges.
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022
I came to law school to be an environmental law litigator. Now, going into my last semester, I am planning on being a transactional attorney. My involvement in the UT chapter of Animal Legal Defense Fund and independent animal liberation activism led me there. Are you curious why?
I don’t think I’m a leader at heart, nor do I particularly like to lead. I get anxious at the thought of delegating responsibilities, because I worry that I will appear bossy or full of myself. I find myself trying to balance my tendency to be independent with an organization’s need for teamwork. Growing up with autism, it took me a long time to be able to read emotions, tone, and inflection. I still doubt that I can truly understand how people are reacting to what I am saying. That being said, I have been filling leadership roles for as long as I can remember, usually because nobody else wants to take the role. These roles (which I assumed that nobody else could see) were the very roles that have allowed me to be seen as a person, professional, and leader.
I’ve been a vegan activist for four years now. In the two-plus years I’ve been at The University of Tennessee College of Law, I know I’ve been loud about it. I found myself itching to get out of the contracts classroom when we discussed replevin for a cow, because I knew the value of the cow depended on more than just her ability to produce young. I knew that if she was not barren, she could be used another season to produce milk for human consumption. I knew that if she existed in today’s industrial agriculture complex, her young would be stolen from her and placed in another pen. I knew that if she gave birth to a male, he would be sold for veal, and if she gave birth to a female, her baby girl would be left to the fate of the dairy industry. I found myself crying in a classroom because I read the newest Tennessee agricultural report, which cited that billions of chickens had died in Tennessee in 2019.
The truth is that I take all injustices personally. I find myself sick to my stomach at the very idea of the law making a mistake, which it does more often than we’d like to admit. It feels like the bad guy wins often, whether it be because someone else was convicted for his crime or because the law doesn’t provide for a remedy against his evil. The sickness, the tug on my throat that I feel in the face of injustice, hinders me in some ways. I find myself filled to the very brim with anxiety when I discover that there’s simply no way to find a path to victory in a certain matter. I get loud when I feel threatened; I get quiet when I feel targeted. I get told often by my colleagues that I’ll need to calm down when I start practicing, because it will be hard to earn respect. The potency of my emotions and my inability to truly keep myself from falling apart in the face of injustice led me away from litigation.
I am starting to realize that the very things that I so often see as weaknesses may also be strengths in certain contexts. I may not be able to speak about my passions freely before a tribunal, but I can write about them with reckless abandon. Sometimes my writing comes off a little too strong, but it is still pure passion. I’ve found that when others can feel tangible passion in the air around them, regardless of what the passion is for, it inspires them to move. On the other hand, I have also seen the very same passion that inspired people to move towards my goal inspire others to rail against it. Pretty much everyone loves animals in their heart, and it can feel like a threat when you hear someone suggest that the way that you love animals is painful to them. This is why not only the volume of my speech must be tapered, but also the tone of what I say. Activism, along with strong friendships and incredible mentors, has allowed me to expand beyond the stigma of how neurodivergent people communicate because I can still exude confidence and passion without fear of judgment while controlling my message in a respectful way.
I have chosen business transactions as my focus in law school as a way of keeping my loud activism separate from my work life. I wanted to be able to negotiate with companies, come to agreements, and try to understand why they make certain decisions. I wanted to be able to help farmers avoid exploitation by large agriculture companies by negotiating contracts. I wanted to help workers in the food industry by advising companies towards different policies. I wanted to share my research with undereducated people so that those I can reach will have the opportunity to learn how the law shapes injustices. I want to help animal lovers like myself open non-profit sanctuaries. Transactional business lawyering opened some of those avenues—avenues that I did not know existed beyond litigation, which is so much more apparent than transactional legal work in day-to-day life.
We talk a lot about work-life balance in law school, but when you’re an activist, it becomes work-life-activism balance. When you see an injustice as a law student, or even as a lawyer, you can’t just jump in the middle. When I go to a slaughterhouse or an animal farm, I have to fight the urge to join the others who sneak around the back to get photos. Instead, I have to act within the law: picketing, protesting, and educating. Not being able to be loud and understanding that my passion might inhibit me as a litigator pushed me to find other avenues in the law to pursue. I’m thankful that I’ve found transactional business law and been able to strike a balance.
If there’s one piece of advice I would want to share with first-year and second-year law students, it is that they should not readily abandon heartfelt goals and passions when faced with challenges but, instead, identify and explore alternative paths that overcome those challenges. Exploration can look like so many things. Meet with professors one on one to discuss your goals. Ask them to connect you with other professors or professionals who have similar interests. Take classes that you never plan on using just because they look interesting. Attend speaker events frequently and spend some time thinking about questions that relate to your interests. Get involved with organizations in Knoxville while you’re here because this city provides an incredible representation of groups who are doing great work for our community. Lastly, if you think that an organization can be improved or needs some TLC, be the one who puts in the work to improve it. It’s worth it.
When I came to law school, I was so scared of “selling out.” I thought that transactional law was the route straight there. It turns out that choosing a path that utilizes my strengths and foregoes my weaknesses was never going to be “selling out.” Choosing transactional law is going to equip me to help animals and people in ways that I had never imagined prior to law school.
So, yeah, maybe I don’t see myself as a leader. But two years ago, I didn’t see myself going into transactional law. Who knows what’s next?