By Becky Beaupre Gillespie, courtesy of University of Chicago Law School's Record
Photo by Becky Beaupre Gillespie

Law firms and the legal profession are moving toward a new culture—it’s becoming more business-oriented, more people-oriented.”
—Jasmina Vajzovic, JD’15

Editor’s note: This story is adapted from the spring 2015 issue of The Record, the Universtity of Chicago Law School’s alumni magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

Just three days into orientation, first-year Law School student Ian Cohen was feeling a bit apprehensive. He was about to fall and, theoretically, his classmates might not catch him.

Out in the woods in Chicago’s western suburbs, Cohen announced his intention (“taking a risk”), waited for a response (“go for it”), and allowed his body to spill back toward the sea of green T-shirts. Within a few hours, he’d be further outside his comfort zone than he expected.

Usually “trust falls” like this are more the stuff of corporate leadership retreats, not the preamble to an elite law school education. In fact, much of the new Kapnick Leadership Development Initiative that brought Cohen and his classmates out to the woods—and later would have them rethinking first impressions, practicing nonverbal speech, and learning the subtleties of influence—felt like a departure from the typical law school orientation.

In launching the initiative last fall, the Law School is doing something unprecedented among its peers: It is investing significant resources in helping students hone the communication, self-assessment, and teamwork skills that law firm and corporate leaders have repeatedly identified as critical differentiators in a market that is more collaborative, faster-paced, and less forgiving than it was a decade ago. Built around leading research and mandatory for all new first-year law students, Kapnick is at the forefront of a movement to bring the interpersonal savvy of the business world to legal education, which at the Law School means acknowledging an inescapable shift without sacrificing the analytical gravitas of the academic program.

“We start with the brightest students in the country, and then, through Kapnick, we equip them with the skills to leverage that intellect in the most effective way possible, both in Law School and professionally,” says former Law School Dean Michael H. Schill. “Our graduates have always been well equipped to compete at the highest levels of law, business, and government—and in today’s legal market that means combining exceptional intellectual preparation with an outstanding ability to build relationships, trust, and influence.”

Indeed, other law schools are already calling, looking to copy or learn from the Kapnick model.

“I imagine that within 10 years every law school will have some type of program like this,” says Kapnick facilitator Jasmina Vajzovic, JD’15. “Law firms and the legal profession are moving toward a new culture—it’s becoming more business-oriented, more people-oriented. Law schools are going to have to help students develop these skills because otherwise they’ll be sending lawyers out into the world with only the knowledge, which is just half of what they need.”

Building on the Booth model

The program, a series of eight modules that run mostly during orientation, grew out of feedback from members of the Law School’s Visiting Committee and is the result of a $2 million joint gift to the Law School and Chicago Booth by Scott, JD’85, MBA’85, and Kathleen Kapnick, JD’84. The idea was to develop a program modeled on Booth’s well-respected experiential Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD) course, which was the first of its kind when it was launched more than two decades ago. Tailored to the Law School, Kapnick is run jointly by the leadership development staff at Booth and the Law School’s Office of the Dean of Students.

Following the Booth model, carefully selected student facilitators—12 third-year law students and 12 second-year Booth students—guide first-year law students through a series of robust workshops designed to foster self-awareness and lay the groundwork for gradually developed, but enduring, leadership skills. The facilitators receive intensive training the previous spring, experiencing the Kapnick modules firsthand, working with a mentor, and developing their own leadership styles.

The program begins in September with a two-day retreat, during which the students visit the outdoor ropes course and participate in a variety of team-building activities that force them to acknowledge, and even reevaluate, their natural tendencies. Facilitators add unexpected obstacles—banning verbal communication just as a team is hitting its stride, for instance—and watch to see whether participants adjust and solve or fumble and stall. In classroom modules back on campus, students receive feedback on first impressions, explore how their own personality traits influence leadership style, learn to “captivate the audience” through public speaking, develop strategies for building effective and influential relationships, and examine business-relationship norms of other cultures. In one exercise, they work one-on-one with a facilitator to analyze a video of themselves participating in a group discussion—a sometimes uncomfortable, but often enlightening, process.

“Self-awareness is crucial, but it isn’t something that always comes naturally,” says Amy Gardner, dean of students at the Law School. “Becoming aware of the role you play in a group, both positive and negative, and learning to see yourself through the eyes of others can inform and improve your interactions immensely. It can be tough to see a video of yourself and realize, for instance, that you tend to talk over other people or that you project a lack of confidence when you speak. But it is much better to learn these things as a 1L so you can walk into your first job ready and able to win the trust of your peers, clients, and superiors.”

Domino effect of Kapnick

A growth in self-understanding was one of the two most immediate and noticeable effects of Kapnick. The other was the bond formed among the first-year students.

“We have always had camaraderie at the Law School—it’s a benefit of being small—but there was a level of closeness and trust that just happened sooner,” Gardner says. “That will pay off in so many ways, both during law school and after graduation.”

A number of first-year students described a Kapnick domino effect: The bonding grew into camaraderie and mutual respect, which made them feel more supported and, therefore, more willing to speak up, reach out, and take chances.

“One of the most terrifying things about law school is the prospect of being cold called, and having an embarrassing cold call, in front of all these people you’re supposed to be competing with,” says law student Gabe Rossman. “But I really think the whole emphasis on warmth and the friendship we built during Kapnick has mitigated a lot of people’s stresses and fears of being put on the spot.”

In a survey conducted after Kapnick concluded, almost 95 percent of students said they gained insights about working in teams, 94 percent said they received valuable feedback that would help their careers, and 82 percent said they learned how their own personalities might influence their work strategies. Nearly 98 percent said they bonded with their Bigelow sections and other classmates.

“If we can help students coming into a new environment at an important time in their lives create some connections that allow them to assimilate more rapidly and feel comfortable, we buy a lot of goodwill,” says Jeffrey Anderson, former Associate Dean for Leadership Development at Booth and one of the program’s architects. “And that opens their minds to the stuff that follows.”

Originally published on July 28, 2015.