Mickey Edwards, JD, believes lawyers have the skills to be leaders, and he wants his law students to prepare themselves not just to practice law, but to change the world.
"The whole idea is taking your legal training and using it for good," he says. There's nothing wrong with preparing wills, writing contracts and defending clients. But, he adds, "We're trying to get lawyers to do more than that."
Edwards, a visiting professor whose day job is vice president of The Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, is teaching a seminar at the University of Maryland School of Law called "Law and Public Leadership for Social Change." It's a course he has offered at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and he also teaches at Georgetown and George Washington. But this is the first time he's taught the leadership course in a school of Law.
Edwards, 72, exercised his own leadership skills during an eight-term tenure in the House of Representatives as a Republican from Oklahoma, becoming chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. He started his career as a journalist, and earned a JD on the side. He turned a lifelong passion for politics into a staff job on Capitol Hill, and became a candidate when, he says, "I decided I could do the job better than they were doing."
While he's glad not to be part of the "nastiness" he sees in Congress now, Edwards says he misses having his hands on the levers of power and "being able to take direct action." On the other hand, he tells his students: "You can change society without holding elective office. You can say, 'I'm sick of this,' and change it."
In his seminar, students study social movements with an eye on the leaders, their messages, allies, and strategies. They also look at how lawyers helped the movements succeed, whether by using their expertise in certain areas of law, through court challenges, or by helping to change laws. Edwards, who still claims his conservative Republican credentials, says he doesn't care which side of an issue his students take so long as they are sincere about trying to help society.
The class is part of the School of Law's LEAD (Leadership, Ethics, and Democracy) Initiative. Among other things, LEAD aims to help future generations of lawyers conduct their careers with a goal of improving their communities and with their values intact. Guest speakers include Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.
The rise of social media has made it easier in some respects to promote causes, says Edwards, but it is also easier to be led astray by bad information. At the same time, he adds, major media are becoming more polarized in their viewpoints and - instead of simply reporting verified facts - are more willing to promote agendas.
"There's a change in standards," he says of journalism, because people tend to go to news outlets that reflect their existing beliefs.
"Sometimes, if you get an honest picture of the other side, you may change your mind."