Law \ Legal


“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.[1] 

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 responsibility to 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.

If not us, then, who, indeed?

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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.

Zack Buck

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 vitalcharacteristics for 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.

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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.

Ashley Burlesci-Niukkanen

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?

Ultimately, I am continuing to learn the importance of creating opportunities beyond those given to me. And once I am awarded those opportunities, I will hold the door open for others, just like others have held the door open for me.

Ryan Jay McElhose

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

When I was asked to contribute to the Leading as Lawyers blog, I said I would be open to the idea. Later in the day, however, in relating the exchange, I had a good laugh in a session with my therapist. I have never considered myself to be a leader on campus. Mainly, I go to class and return home. I am only active in one student organization. I am on no journals. I have never made the Dean’s List. And I am slowly recovering from my grades from my first semester of law school. 

How did my first semester of law school turn out, you ask? Recall, if you will, that scene from Mean Girls where Regina George found out that Cady Heron indeed was not consistently feeding Regina Swedish weight loss bars but rather Kälteen bars to “sabotage her.” Let’s just say that Regina and I shared similar reactions when I had access to my first semester grades. 

The process of recovery is not only academic but, in my experience, very personal. For me, it was especially difficult to bounce back while reading that law professors from peer institutions across the country, such as Georgetown Law and the University of Pennsylvania, made inflammatory remarks about Black law students and academic achievement. Law school, as it stands, offers a new and more challenging way to think, write, read, and reason. It is hard enough to navigate the first year of law school under the best of circumstances; but it is even harder when some educators and legal professionals actually expect you to achieve mediocre results not because of the rigor of the academic program but because of your race. 

During this time, I also needed to apply for a summer legal internship position. I was fully aware that my GPA was not going to bring all the firms to the yard, so I tasked myself with creating opportunities beyond those typically sought by first-year law students. I knew in that moment that I needed to bet on myself. So, I did. I called law firms across the country, perused opportunities through LinkedIn, sent cold emails, and assiduously applied for 79 positions from coast to coast. As a result, I had eight interviews and landed four offers: two from small law firms, one from a judicial program, and one from a governmental agency with offices in Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada. Ultimately, I had a formative summer experience as a legal intern at Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Gentry Brown Bergmann & Messamer LLP– a criminal defense and civil rights litigation firm in uptown Des Moines, Iowa. I also began building my own legal network through LinkedIn, which contributed to securing my 2L summer internship at the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, Texas! Even though I had the perfect 1L summer experience, I was also aware that I have a limited legal network that I want to expand for myself and for the Black law students who come after me. 

As a result, while in Des Moines, I created The University of Tennessee College of Law Black Alumni Association. The objective of this group is to provide internal and external legal resources, networking channels, mentorship, and opportunities to current Black students as well as graduates of the College of Law. Why is it important to create an alumni association for Black law students and graduates? According to the American Bar Association, Black lawyers make up less than 5% of the legal community[1] and that number has not increased since 2011.[2] The number actually decreased in 2021.[3] To date, the College of Law Black Alumni Association has over 50 members. We are making plans to support law students and graduates, and we have already hosted a panel discussion at the College of Law about the criminal legal system, stemming from a children’s book written by alumna Jatrean Sanders (2009) titled Today Was Not The Same. This panel featured alumni of the College of Law, including: the Chief Public Defender of Nashville, Martesha Johnson (2008); the Director of the City of Knoxville Office of Community Safety, LaKenya Middlebrook (2006); and Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner (2002). 

Law school is academically challenging. I like to remind myself of that fact, alongside the other lessons, so I do not get caught up falling victim to my success. I have realized that a lot of my stress is the result of good decisions I have made in life. I also remind myself in times of stress that, at one point in my life, I prayed to be in this very position. It is a sobering reminder that I am currently and actively living in my prayers. 

While reading blogs from across the country that posit that law school does not teach students how to be effective lawyers, I have learned the value of balancing bar prep courses, thought-provoking seminars, and a host of practical coursework offered at the College of Law that will shape me as an asset to the workforce. Courses that I especially value include: Advanced Legal Research, Trial Practice, Advanced Appellate Advocacy, Law Office Technology, and one of our many legal clinics. I am challenging myself to engage in courses taught by professors with different scholarship and ideologies. I am refining my skills, too, so that I can have robust conversations in which I confront an issue rather than criticizing the person.  I am forcing myself to no longer sit in the back of the classroom but to instead sit in the front with something to say! I am celebrating my appointment as a Graduate Research Assistant with the Division of Diversity and Engagement. I am throwing my hat into the academic writing world, too. The paper that I wrote to fulfill my expository writing requirement for graduation has been selected for publication in a legal academic journal. I am learning that some of my peers may actually see me as a leader because of how I show up for others, even as I continue to try to figure out how to best show up for myself. Ultimately, I am continuing to learn the importance of creating opportunities beyond those given to me. And once I am awarded those opportunities, I will hold the door open for others, just like others have held the door open for me. 




Through mindful collegiality, Ubuntu, civility, and other conduct reinforcing inclusion, a lawyer-leader can motivate action and loyalty in and outside their law practice.

Joan MacLeod Heminway

Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership

Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law

University of Tennessee College of Law

The way a person expresses an idea can be important to its acceptance.  This is a simple maxim that is sometimes given short shrift in leadership.  A successful leader has and expresses a vision for their team and the purposes it serves that motivates action and loyalty.  As a result, effective communication is so important to leadership, in and outside the legal profession.  How many of us, for example, have watched a putative thought leader lose their audience because they have failed to communicate sufficiently—or at all—at a key juncture? Worse yet, how many of us have witnessed a leader lose momentum or a following because of the way a significant message was conveyed?

In law practice, we often talk about the need for and benefits of collegiality.  Collegial behavior does not require giving up one’s viewpoint or pretending to agree with others.  It requires cooperative collaboration or friendliness in completing required tasks and, ultimately, a sharing of power and authority.  Collegiality therefore necessitates communicating disagreement considerately and with sensitivity to the “repeat player” nature of many working relationships  (which is not to say that one should behave differently—more poorly—in one-time contacts or cabined or short-term relationships . . . ).

I recently was introduced to Ubuntu, a term coopted from the Zulu and Xhola languages that is grounded in sub-Saharan African moral philosophy described in the following way in the abstract of an 2010 academic article: “According to our African moral theory, actions are right roughly insofar as they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honoring communal relationships.”  The word acknowledges and encourages consistent recognition of interpersonal human connectedness.  Blog posts here and here define and describe it in context. 

Collegiality and Ubuntu both set the stage for civil discourse—which is important to leadership in and outside the legal profession. Online educational resources published by the U.S. federal courts include a webpage with many helpful strategies, tactics, and tips for engaging in civil discourse.  A number relate to my overall theme in this post—that, as leaders, we should pay more attention to the way we deliver messages and engage in messaging, colloquy, and debate.  For example, the federal courts webpage guidance specifically asks and responds to the question: “What are you doing to create a welcoming environment for differing opinions?” One related tip: “Don’t embarrass yourself or disrespect others by making demeaning or inappropriate comments, facial expressions, or gestures. No eye rolling, sighing, or checking out of the conversation.”  Student-developed suggestions on the webpage include: “Moderate your tone, so that you don’t sound aggressive.”

On this last point, it is important to note that bullying behaviors of any kind are inconsistent with collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility.  Bullying behaviors (e.g., threats, hostile physical postures, demeaning and belittling communication or actions) are considerable problems in and outside the legal profession in the United States.  They disrupt teamwork by their nature, creating or affirming power hierarchies that may suppress discourse altogether—or lead to unproductive shouting matches.  To communicate and lead effectively, one must exemplify norms of collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility through one’s own actions and confront bullying and other conduct norms (including arrogance) that diverge from those norms.

Collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility are all important to sustaining values that lawyer-leaders hold near and dear.   Key among them is inclusion, which has gained wider public attention due to highly publicized incidents involving—and responsive campaigns against—racial or other social injustice. Inclusion is inherent in collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility. In helping to foster continued and increased inclusion, a lawyer-leader must therefore adopt and promote to those in the leader’s sphere of influence both a deep level of introspection and a willingness to rethink and alter the ways in which messages are communicated and dialogue is engaged. Those who feel welcomed by communications from and interchanges with others—even where they may disagree—are much more likely to engage and become invested in any joint enterprise. 

Just because a person can say something in the exercise of their rights to free speech, does not mean that the person should say something. And if someone chooses to say something, the way in which the communication is made can make all the difference.  Through mindful collegiality, Ubuntu, civility, and other conduct reinforcing inclusion, a lawyer-leader can motivate action and loyalty in and outside their law practice.

Sure, some individuals may more openly display the characteristics we tend to associate with leaders, but research shows that “leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices . . . it’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others.”

Grace Malone Ewell

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

There is no such thing as a natural born leader.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back.

There is no such thing as a natural born leader.

Sure, some individuals may more openly display the characteristics we tend to associate with leaders, but research shows that “leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices . . . it’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others.” [1] If you don’t believe the experts, believe me, because I’ve experienced it.

During my 1L year here at UT Law, I took the VIA Character Strengths survey. The survey is a self-assessment that provides respondents with a ranking of 24 character strengths. Notably, everyone possesses all 24 character strengths, one of which is leadership, in varying degrees. Ergo, the best kept secret: everyone has the capacity for leadership.

A person’s top five character strengths identified in the VIA Character Strengths survey tend to remain static throughout life. During my 1L year, however, leadership was ranked 14th on my list of character strengths. Today, as a 3L, leadership is one of my signature character strengths, second only to love of learning.

So, how did this happen? Importantly, exercising leadership does not require a traditional leader role. Instead, I like to think of leadership as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more powerful it becomes.

Prior to entering law school, I always had wanted to be a leader in the traditional sense. I ran for nearly every organizational leadership position possible: middle school student council president, high school class president, various undergraduate organization positions, and president of my undergraduate professional business fraternity (twice). What did these campaigns for leadership positions all have in common? I lost. I lost each and every one. Naturally, consistently being denied the ability to exercise that leadership muscle causes it to weaken. I became concerned that without a corresponding position of power to validate my leadership, I couldn’t be a leader at all. These failures make us believe that because others don’t see us as a leader, so we shouldn’t see ourselves that way either.

Law school and the COVID pandemic, however, thrusted me into various leadership roles, culminating in my election as the President of the Student Bar Association. Suddenly, I felt that I was given permission to view myself as a leader. This position, in turn, gave me the confidence to continue to exercise my leadership skills and look for opportunities to push myself to learn and apply principles of leadership in my everyday life. Leadership became one of my key strengths, in large part, because I worked to make it so.

What is the point of all this rambling, you might ask? I would argue that successful leaders aren’t born as such. Rather, the trait most leaders share is grit. Angela Duckworth, a renowned researcher on grit, defines the term as “sustained perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Those of us who aren’t so called “born leaders” oftentimes are born with, or can develop, the determination and grit to become what I call “learned leaders.”

“Learned leaders” are characterized by a high tolerance of failure and the initiative to attempt to display leadership and learn from others. One of the most helpful tools I have found to develop my own leadership skills is to ask for candid feedback from peers. This exercise not only allows you to get valuable information to apply to your development, but also the opportunity to accept criticism and turn a negative review into a positive result. The news is rarely all negative, however. Garnering feedback can be a uniquely uplifting experience as you receive positive feedback of yourself through the eyes of others. Through these sessions, you may find out something unexpected and new that others see and appreciate in you. This self-awareness allows you to recognize and own those strengths and skills and harness them for use in your leadership journey.

My advice to you? Don’t count yourself out before you have even allowed yourself to enter the game. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you simply do not have what it takes to be a leader. Just as a person has the ability to strengthen a muscle through physical exercise, everyone has the ability to become a stronger leader with a little legwork (pun intended). Seek out opportunities to develop your leadership strength, believe in yourself, and the rest will follow.

[1] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations. 

The next time you are tempted to network with intentions besides relationship-building, take a step back and remind yourself of the important things in life. Not only will your personal life, mental health, and stress levels thank you, the promise of a fulfilling professional life may follow close behind.

Andrew York

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

First of all, it is an incredible honor and privilege to have been asked to write a blog post for Leading as Lawyers, especially when I think about the amazing pieces from my peers that I have the opportunity to follow.

When brainstorming potential topics to discuss, I thought back on my life and my time in law school, and one thing stood out to me. When I first started law school, and throughout my time as a business (accounting and economics) major at Tennessee Technological University, I remember hearing consistently about the importance of networking.

“You never know who you are going to meet, Andrew. You never know what doors will open for you just by the power of networking.”

Upon entering law school and hearing more reminders to network, I decided to give it a shot. I really did not enjoy networking, despite relationships being one of my favorite parts of life. By the time I sat down at the end of 1L year, I realized that my most fulfilling relationships were with my friends, my family, my professors, and with my co-workers at my summer internship. These relationships did not feel like work and were something that I enjoyed strengthening, so why was networking different?

There was a nuance to networking that I brushed away for a quantity-over-quality approach. Instead of nurturing relationships, listening to others, and caring deeply, my focus was shifted to surface level contact consisting of professional questions and a “what can you do for me” attitude. This type of approach left me feeling like networking was a waste of time, with little to be gained but frustration.

What I did not realize was that I was networking with people around me constantly. But when I focused on “networking with professionals,” I was not able to build the relationships that I valued so highly. Despite my lack of awareness, my professors were correct; I did not know the importance of the people I was meeting and the doors that were opening.

During my 1L year, I was an average student. I did not make the Dean’s List or CALI a class. But I prioritized meeting other law students and learning about their lives. At the beginning of law school, I became good friends with Tyler Ring, and at the end of 1L year, I asked him what he would be doing over the summer. Tyler told me that he was going to be doing research with Professor Joan Heminway, and he told me that I should apply as well. I ended up applying, and I received the position.

During the summer of my 1L year, I was struggling with imposter syndrome, and I really felt that I was not cut out for law school. Due to my research position with Professor Heminway, I set up an appointment to discuss my future at UT Law. She encouraged me to challenge myself and use the opportunity to learn about myself. I remember her mentioning that if the difficulty of the curriculum was the reason I wanted to drop out, then I needed to push myself to finish. Her criticism was exactly what I needed, and I decided to challenge myself to continue. We set up progress meetings to help me figure out my goals and aspirations.

As a result of my mentorship and friendship with Professor Heminway, I stayed in law school. I ran for a position with Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law as Editor-in-Chief. I lost the election to Sam Rule, but instead of being disappointed, I was excited to learn from Sam’s leadership in my time on the journal. Sam nominated me to be the managing editor, and our friendship grew through planning events, stack checks, and meetings. About halfway through our time on the journal, during the process of job applications and figuring out plans after graduation, Sam received two job offers and ultimately chose one over the other. Thankfully, he told one of the firms to interview me, and they ended up offering me a job as well.

Stories like the three I mentioned above are just a few of the highlights of a law school career that has been filled with networking—networking that looks a little different than I originally imagined it to be. I did not set out in my relationship with each of the three friends mentioned in this post with the intention that they would do something for me in the long run. I became friends with Tyler because we both enjoy watching Jeopardy. I became friends with Professor Heminway because I valued her candid feedback in a sensitive situation and because she saw potential in me. I became friends with Sam because of his love for Tennessee football and basketball. Then, because of my relationship with Tyler, I met Professor Heminway. Because of my relationship with Professor Heminway, I stayed in law school and became better friends with Sam. Because of Sam, I have future opportunities to build relationships in my job at Hudson, Reed, and Christiansen after graduating and passing the bar. 

These three relationships and the connections they provided to me are things that I would not have been able to plan even if I tried. There are many other relationships and connections that I have made that have not blossomed into any type of opportunity. However, if you want my honest opinion, the relationships that were formed along the way are even better than anything that could come from those connections. Regardless of any opportunities that would have arisen from our relationship, Professor Heminway is a lifelong friend and mentor, and because of her urgings to continue in law school in Knoxville, I met my wife, Jenna; Tyler was a groomsman at my wedding; Sam and his wife Kelsey are people that Jenna and I will stay in contact with long after graduation, and his friendship is something that I value immensely.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that quantity-over-quality networking is overrated. The next time you are tempted to network with intentions besides relationship-building, step back and remind yourself of the important things in life. Not only will your personal life, mental health, and stress levels thank you, the promise of a fulfilling professional life may follow close behind.

When it comes to teaching as a form of leadership, few offer more valuable lessons than Coach Pat Summitt.

Michael J. Higdon

Professor of Law and the Associate Dean for Faculty Development

University of Tennessee College of Law

Proudly displayed in my home office is a basketball autographed by Coach Pat Summitt.  Now, this may not sound particularly noteworthy—indeed, I imagine there are many such basketballs adorning numerous homes and offices across the country.  If you knew me, however, you would know it’s quite odd that I would even own a piece of sporting memorabilia, much less count it among my most prized possessions. The reason stems from the inspiration I have gained from Coach Summitt when it comes to teaching as a form of leadership and, more specifically, the enormous impact a leader can have simply by focusing on the needs of those she serves. But before I say more about that topic, let me provide some background on how I came to appreciate this legend in the world of sport.  

Right about now, you might be thinking that I, as a faculty member at The University of Tennessee, chose Coach Summit as the topic of this guest post in an attempt to curry favor with “VolNation,” the enthusiastic (to put it mildly) fan base of The University of Tennessee where Coach Summitt spent thirty-eight years coaching the Lady Vols to achievements too numerous to count.  Well, you’ll soon change your mind when you read what I have to say next.  Namely, when I moved to Knoxville in 2009, I had never even heard of Pat Summitt.  And, no, I was not living in a cave somewhere or calling into question the extent of her celebrity outside the state of Tennessee.  I just have never been much of a sports fan and, thus, am fairly oblivious to things related to that topic.

Nonetheless, one cannot live in East Tennessee and escape the legacy—richly earned—of Coach Summitt.  Indeed, she is everywhere here—from an actual statue of her on campus to the numerous people you cross paths with who will proudly share (often with tears in their eyes) stories of interactions they once had with the woman Sports Illustrated called “a force of nature.”  Despite my relative disinterest in sports, I am a student of leadership and am fascinated by those who lead effectively. Thus, intrigued by reverence that accompanied all things related to Coach Summitt, I decided a few years ago that I wanted to learn more about her and what had inspired so much admiration among such a broad cross-section of people.  I knew she had an impressive record of success—indeed, at the time of her retirement, she had the most career wins in the history of college basketball—but I would soon learn that there was so much more to this amazing human being.  

I ended up reading a number of books, watching several documentaries, and even talking with people who had worked closely with her.  What I found was someone had a deep appreciation for leadership (which she defined as “a form of temporary authority that others grant you”) but not as a means of winning, but instead as a means of inspiring others to achieve excellence in their own right.  That, by itself, was inspiring enough. However, given that I consider myself to be first-and-foremost a teacher, what most struck me most was the way in which she saw her role as a teacher to be merely an extension of her role as leader. To illustrate, consider the following quotes—some of my favorites—from Coach Summitt: 

  • 1. “The reward of being a teacher is to watch the widening of young eyes when they experience something new.”

One of the things I love most about Coach Summitt is that, despite her considerable celebrity, she absolutely relished her role as a teacher.  And that joy came not from standing in front of these young women and basking in their worship of her (and, let’s be honest, how could they not worship her?), but from the platform her coaching role gave her to guide these young people. She saw her players not as tools that would help her secure another NCAA championship, but as people who were looking to improve themselves and needed her assistance. And assist she certainly did. Of course, the players had to put in the work, but she was there to help guide them on their journeys. As Coach Summitt herself said, “I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.”

  • 2. “I’d learned the single most important principle of teaching: they don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” 

When I started my own career as a teacher and was worried about falling flat on my face in front of a roomful of students, a wise mentor (thank you, Professor Terrill Pollman!) told me that students would forgive almost any mistake if they truly believed you cared about them and were invested in their success.  It is clear that Coach Summitt followed a similar path.  When she sadly passed in 2016, countless former players came forward to tell stories of how Coach Summitt had gone out of her way to get to know and to care for them as wholistic human beings.  She was notoriously tough on her players, but she always made sure that they knew that she saw them and that she cared.  As Coach Summitt once said, “[m]y demandingness was based in a fundamental sense that every kid had potential greatness in her—and they understood that, because I made it clear to them.”

  • 3. “When a player makes a mistake, you always want to put them back in [the game] quickly—you don’t just berate them and sit them down with no chance for redemption.” 

For Coach Summitt, winning and losing were eclipsed by the personal journeys of the people she led, and she endeavored to never lost sight of that.  This quote, which concerns the need to give players a chance to redeem themselves, illustrates perfectly that aspect of Coach Summitt’s leadership. Inherent in that philosophy is how, the knowledge we as teachers bring to our students means nothing if it isn’t ultimately being passed on those students in a way that they can wield it for themselves.  Opportunities for redemption are key to the transfer of knowledge, and so is feedback.  Coach Summitt knew that feedback was essential, having once said that, “in the absence of feedback, people will fill in the blanks with a negative.  They will assume you don’t care about them or don’t like them.”  I imagine few people have the demands on their time that Coach Summitt likely had during her career, which makes it all the more admirable that she would take the time to ensure that her team was receiving the instruction and the feedback they needed.  

  • 4. “Winning is impermanent . . . what lingers is not the cold metal trophy but the feeling of warm exultation you shared with one another.”

I close with this quote because it makes one point abundantly and beautifully clear. Underlying Coach Summitt’s entire leadership philosophy (and, indeed, all the other quotes I identified above) is the understanding that leadership isn’t about the win; it’s about the relationships and the opportunity one has as a leader to lift others up.  Coach Summitt believed that, as teachers, the most enduring legacy we can build is through those we help and inspire along the way.  As someone who lives in East Tennessee and is regularly confronted with the reverence that continues to exist for Coach Summitt, she has certainly proven herself correct on that score.

When it comes to teaching as a form of leadership, few offer more valuable lessons than Coach Pat Summitt.  Indeed, for all that Coach Summitt has taught me, and despite my relative ignorance of all things sports-related, I now consider myself a huge fan of her work and her vast legacy.  As I continue on my own journey as a teacher, I keep that autographed basketball as a source of inspiration for the responsibilities and, more importantly, the rich leadership opportunities that come with that role.

So I challenge you to read, walk, get your hands dirty, provide joy to a senior citizen, let someone else go first in line, smile at a stranger, compliment someone, accept a compliment. Service is self-care and self-care is service.

Meaghan Denniston

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

Burnout is not a new phenomenon. Traditionally talked about within the healthcare field, the global pandemic has raised the curtain on these feelings throughout the American workforce. Burnout is still present in healthcare but also manifests in other contexts, particularly in education and the legal profession. 

To define, burnout is a prevalent feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and detachment that seeps into personal areas beyond the career field. Burnout is not, generally, self-inflicted. Instead, it stems from the burdens and expectations placed on a role without the adequate balance of rest or mental recouperation required to alleviate the constant stress. Sometimes interchangeably referred to as “compassion fatigue,” burnout is really the beginning component of the overall phenomenon. Alleviating the stress that burnout places on one’s physical and mental health can stop the escalation into the overwhelming and all-encompassing condition of compassion fatigue.

A solution to alleviating the burdens and redefining the expectations of our professional and personal lives presents itself as a large task—a task much larger than one person can accomplish. But the magnitude of the task does not eliminate the benefit individual steps offer towards breaking the burnout cycle. So, what can we do?

It’s simple. Service

Now hear me out. I know some of you are thinking: “I am overwhelmed, exhausted, and depleted. How am I going to give more of myself?” And I understand that. So, let me clarify. 

Beyond the student, the attorney, the parent, the caretaker, we are people. Individual people with hobbies and interests that, believe it or not, extend beyond the professional and societal roles we hold. What if we could tap into those interests and not only help the community but also help ourselves?

In the legal profession pro bono work is a well-known method of service. Providing easier accessibility to the justice system is an important ambition within our current society. The law can appear to be a broken, disjointed, and complicated system of rules that preys on or burdens the disadvantaged. While providing free legal services to the underprivileged is important, this post is not about pro bono work. Rather, I am talking about a broader concept of service. 

Expand your horizons and your interpretation of service, especially within the legal profession. Is it not service to read to school children and broaden their awareness of their world? Is it not service to volunteer at a pet shelter, or a horse rehabilitation program, or a senior citizen center? Is it not service to help plant a community garden or clean up a park? 

These acts of service help the community. They also provide a tangible connection between the community and the legal profession. Providing a non-legal service has the potential to change the image of the legal system. A new vision on who a lawyer is—an individual that cares about the person needing assistance—can foster an enhanced level of trust in the justice system for those that need these services the most. People may be more willing to seek access to legal services if they have a positive and supportive interaction with a lawyer that is unrelated to a legal need. 

But most importantly, service humanizes our role as lawyers. When we have moments of peace, moments of giving, moments of satisfaction in our task, we heal. Beginning this healing process elevates the work we can do for our clients. When we start to heal, we can continue, or maybe restart, to thrive—within and outside our profession. But when life becomes too entrenched in a role instead of a holistic view of being, the apathy begins. And once it begins, it is an all too easy descent straight to burnout.

So, I challenge you to read, walk, get your hands dirty, provide joy to a senior citizen, let someone else go first in line, smile at a stranger, compliment someone, accept a compliment. Service is self-care and self-care is service.

As a lawyer, valuing the process illustrates a unique ability to lead in the midst of any circumstance.

Brady John

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

Imagine pitching in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series with the score tied,  bases loaded, and two outs. You throw a 93-mph slider that is perfectly located on the corner of the plate. The batter, fooled by the pitch, swings way too early but happens to catch the ball right off the end of his bat. The ball falls just over the first baseman’s head, and the game is over. You lose the World Series. The headlines the next day will act as if you, the pitcher, failed. After all, you gave up the game-winning hit that cost your team the World Series. But such a viewpoint considers only the result of the event. This “results-oriented approach” shortsightedly neglects the process, the role played by luck, and every other possible intervening occurrence. 

Take another example—one from football. It is 4th and 1 on your opponent’s 45-yard line. You go for it and call the perfect play. But the ball carrier, well on his way to a first down, slips and falls an inch short of the first down marker. You turn the ball over and proceed to lose the game. It appears to be another failure, at least for those who only care about the results. But, again, such a viewpoint completely discredits other intervening events that helped contribute to this perceived “failure.” In reality, however, each situation involves successes that far outweigh the failure to achieve the desired results. 

The two examples above illustrate how easily people engross themselves in the outcome, rather than focusing on the process that led to that outcome. By merely flipping the results of both examples, the entire dynamic changes. In the baseball example, if the batter fails, the pitcher is a world champion. Likewise, in the football example, if the ballcarrier does not slip, the decision to go for the first down is genius. This shifting dynamic exposes the problem with a “results-oriented” approach. Pure luck was the sole intervening occurrence in both examples, yet it caused the outcome to change drastically. The process in both examples was sound. Each failure should have been a success. 

Unfortunately, our professional world often values the results over the process. Within the legal community, we tend to amplify even further the importance of results. Far too often, lawyers beat themselves up over wins and losses in the courtroom or in the negotiation of transactions. Theoretically, this emphasis on results makes sense. Results lead to promotions, fame, money, and admiration. Those with the best and highest results tend to be the most revered. A lawyer that consistently wins cases or closes deals retains more clients. In turn, more clients mean more money and more rewards. 

But a leader sees right through these temporal and often futile achievements. Leaders value the process over the results. Why? Because being a leader is about much more than money, fame, and a tally-box of cases or negotiations won and lost. Leadership involves demonstrating each and every day the commitment, belief, confidence, and maturity that individuals must possess both in success and failure. Leadership, however, does not quantify how much “winning” is necessary or expected. In fact, quite the contrary. Lawyer-leaders understand that failure (as measured by outcomes) is an expected part of the process. As demonstrated above, sometimes you just get unlucky, especially in the legal profession where we consistently deal with diverse judges, parties, and juries. Nothing is constant in the law, which makes it impossible for us to demand perfection from ourselves. But what can be constant is our approach. Trusting your process yields consistency amid an otherwise unpredictable profession. 

I want to be clear that trusting the process does not serve as a crutch for complacency. Instead, a “process-oriented” approach helps specifically in a leader’s reaction to a defeat. If a lawyer loses a case or a point in a negotiation, rather than immediately questioning her abilities and everything she had learned up until that point, by trusting the process, the lawyer need only assess the factors that may have led to the unfavorable result. Sometimes, that answer may simply be that the substantive law was the deciding factor. Other times, it could be that the lawyer slipped up, missing an opportunity to adequately address a matter in the moment. Nevertheless, the reaction is the same. Calmness over meltdown; poise over panic. One bad result never signifies a fatal flaw in talent or ability (or even advance planning). 

What makes trusting the process especially challenging in the legal field, however, is the fact that we rarely know what causes our defeats. Was it a lucky swing by the opposing counsel? Was it an unlucky slip in front of the first down marker? Or was the factfinder just having a bad day or a potential transactional partner being unreasonably obstinate? These unknowns in our profession are exactly why the process matters more than the results. Your process gives you a definite answer. In fact, in a profession with largely randomized results, the process is your one constant.  

As a lawyer, valuing the process illustrates a unique ability to lead in the midst of any circumstance. We, as humans, tend to follow those who maintain dignity and self-respect in the face of any situation. And as members of what should be one of the most prestigious and respected professions, lawyers must initiate the movement toward “process valuing” leadership in every situation, whether positive or negative. In so doing, it will then be much easier to lie down at night knowing you did everything you possibly could, even if the outcome fails to meet your expectation. But if you choose to value randomized results left largely in the hands of others or in the hands of chance, then good luck ever getting any sleep.

Be a lawyer-leader. In a world defined by results, choose to Trust Your Process.