Leadership in law

It’s Monday morning and you haven’t even had your second cup of coffee when the call comes in. Your heart sinks as you discover that millions of dollars have been embezzled from your firm’s biggest client — by one of your legal assistants who has disappeared.

Is it the wave of adrenaline or the flood of questions that hit you harder? What will you do? How do you tell the client what happened? What about other clients? Prospective clients? How do you handle the media? How do you win back trust? Can you lead your firm back, 
or is this the end? Law school didn’t prepare you for this…

This scenario — which actually happened in Taiwan — was given to students at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Their task was to devise a strategy to lead their firm through this crisis, answering all those questions and several more. After formulating their plans, they heard from guest speakers, including a managing shareholder of the Columbia office of a national firm, who revealed how they would have handled the situation. Only then did the group learn how leaders at the Taiwanese firm actually reacted, and brought their practice back from the brink.

It was just one component of the School of Law’s new Konduros Leadership Development Program, which tasked students with learning different communication strategies and reinforcing their problem-solving and relationship-building skills. The ultimate goal: 
to equip them with the necessary tools to assume leadership positions in an increasingly 
complex world.

The program was launched last fall, thanks to funds provided by 1954 alumnus Jim Konduros who credits the law school with helping him develop the strategic thinking and counseling skills that guided him throughout his successful career.

“Often, you have an opportunity to participate in leadership development programs once you’re actually in practice, but the Konduros program brings that element into the law school, so you’re getting it before you even leave,” said Dean Rob Wilcox. “This is the kind of unique program you can’t get anywhere else. It acknowledges that we are looking to prepare students more fully for practice, and  leadership is a key component of that.”

The highly selective program is based on other successful leadership development initiatives such as the Liberty Fellowship, which brings together successful individuals who are already active in their communities. It is also entirely voluntary, meaning that all the requirements are performed in addition to regular coursework, and for no academic credit.

“We chose 15 students to participate in the inaugural class. There were a large number of applicants, so it was a very difficult decision,” said Jill Kunkle, associate director of career services who helped create the format and coordinates the program. “Likewise, the students who applied knew that this was going to be a big commitment, but the payoff in their future careers would be worth it.”

“As a future lawyer, this program reaffirmed some leadership techniques that I had already acquired, while helping me learn new ones more specifically tailored to the legal profession,” said Rosanne Prim who graduated in May. “But as a student, the program provided unique networking opportunities for me and my fellow Konduros classmates. 

“Spending time with established professionals is a great reminder of why we worked so hard in law school, and it provided the extra motivation to keep pushing through with our best efforts to the finish.”

In addition to the seminars and intensive networking opportunities, students also worked in groups to come up with solutions to problems facing South Carolina. Projects included a plan to change the public perception of vocational schools, attracting more students interested in high-paying manufacturing and technical jobs in the Palmetto State; working with the S.C. Attorney General’s office to address cyber-bullying and sexting incidents; and a program to help law students learn healthy coping mechanisms now, so they’ll be ready to handle the stress of practicing law later.

“Law school can be stressful, and it doesn’t get any easier in practice. Substance abuse is a huge problem in the field,” said recent graduate Ashlea Carver. “I think it’s really important to teach law students how to manage stress and take care of themselves so they can have healthier and more fulfilling lives when in practice.

“Programs like the one we’re advocating will help create a more open dialogue surrounding mental health as well as give students some practical ways to take care of their mental health and wellness.”

While the third-year students who completed the program have since graduated, spread out across the Southeast and are now preparing for the bar exam, all of the participants remain committed to the law school, agreeing to serve as mentors to future participants, and helping build 
a network of Konduros Leaders across the nation.

“I really look forward to staying in touch with this class and seeing where their careers take them,” said Kunkle. “They are a very talented group, and it says a lot about them — and their investment in the program — that they want to stay involved.”