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Legal Marketplace

Forum: Australian law school takes the lead in building tomorrow’s law firm leaders

Leonard Lee  Communications / Thomson Reuters

Leonard Lee  Communications / Thomson Reuters

Lawyers spend the first years of their career primarily focused on honing their legal skills and gathering experience. Regardless of how high in the organization they eventually aspire to rise, however, leadership skills can be an important asset.

Melbourne Law School, one of the world’s most renowned law schools, recognized this need and has begun offering an innovative Specialist Certificate in Legal Leadership. The program offers unique opportunities for legal professionals to extend their business, communication, managerial, and leadership skills and knowledge.

Courses focus intensively on three core aspects of legal leadership: mindful and resilient leadership, adaptive leadership and ethical leadership. “We believe these are bedrock themes for effective legal leadership,” says Joel Barolsky, senior fellow at the University of Melbourne and one of the architects of the program. “It goes well beyond what is traditionally taught in law school to create adjunct mindsets, knowledge and capabilities that can be important complements to legal skills.”

The program does more than simply teach basic leadership skills. It helps lawyers identify the knowledge and capabilities required for legal leadership that is effective and fits within the framework of legal ethics. Considerable time is spent discussing how to deal with the rapidly developing knowledge base on legal leadership and management that is driving significant change throughout the industry.

Curriculum of legal leadership

While it’s important for participants to understand leadership theories, models, and approaches and how those factors can impact organizational performance, students also learn how to apply their own personal leadership capabilities within the context of their own teams and organizations. One of the key factors on which instructors focus is how to best apply these newly acquired skills and knowledge not only to benefit students’ own careers, but to enhance the effectiveness of their organizations as well.

Even if a practitioner doesn’t aspire to a management position, such as practice group leader, chief legal officer or managing partner, holding a deep understanding of business, communications and managerial leadership can help further a myriad of goals that may extend both inside and outside of an organization.


Courses focus intensively on three core aspects of legal leadership: mindful and resilient leadership, adaptive leadership and ethical leadership.


For example, research is suggesting it is increasingly important to young lawyers for their firm or organization to have a strong environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) mission. However, advancing that mission at all levels – within an organization, engaging clients and partnering with third-party organizations – requires effective leadership.

While the Legal Leadership program is meant to help certificate holders develop leadership skills and take those skills back to their respective organizations, it is also expected to positively impact all aspects involving communications and relationships, including lawyer-client relationships.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this program within a range of organizations, including law firms, corporate law departments and government,” says Prof. Pip Nicholson, former Dean of the Melbourne Law School and newly appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor for People and Community. “Many already invest in professional development, but they love the opportunity to use a university setting to enhance leadership skills across their organizations.”

Accessible learning

The six-month program is designed to be highly flexible, allowing participants considerable autonomy to customize study for their individual development needs. Class sizes are limited to 30 to better facilitate effective learning and interaction among participants.

Subjects are offered in an intensive executive education format for greater efficiency in learning. “We’ve intentionally designed it as a program with a manageable commitment and flexibility to enable a working practitioner to do it part-time,” says Nicholson. “It’s important that it be accessible and workable in order to fit in well within people’s busy work schedules.”

The program is available to both Australian and international participants, with curriculum consisting of a combination of interactive live sessions, prerecorded lectures and discussion boards. Subjects are offered intensively to assist those with competing time commitments.

While many organizations provide professional development, often through their HR departments, the university setting brings together a broad set of resources and experienced instructors.

“One of the real benefits from offering this in a university setting is the capacity to facilitate robust peer-to-peer discussion in our classrooms,” says Barolsky. “Young professionals will be able to talk across different contexts and address the complexity of the issues from the point of view of a government lawyer, an in-house lawyer, a private practice lawyer and so on. They will develop a broader perspective on what effective leadership looks like across the legal sector as a result of that.”