January 25, 2013
History is bursting with examples of design leadership—from 12th-century treatise writers to the framers of the Constitution
by Professor Christine Desan
This is one of a series of six essays on law and leadership written by Harvard Law faculty for the Fall 2012 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin.
Institutional design, legal architecture, the procedures and processes of social justice—all are structures that matter enormously. People who think about how to build and operate those structures have great influence in shaping our common space. They are not always lawyers. John Locke, for example, was trained as a medical doctor. But Locke read much constitutional theory—we might even claim him as a self-taught lawyer—and he worked closely with lawyers and legislators. Law training teaches people to think about institutions and processes; it can empower them to lead “by design,” as it were, design of a future world.
History is bursting with examples of different periods and types. The constitution John Locke drafted for South Carolina never took effect, but it advanced ideas about religious liberty to a greater degree and about suffrage on the basis of lower property requirements than were then common. In England, Locke worked with lawyers like Lord Keeper Somers and members of Parliament to define both trade and monetary policy. Their intervention arguably produced the international regime that became the gold standard.
For a far earlier example of design “leadership” by unsung lawyers, we might look to the treatise writers and common-law judges. The writ of debt that they defined during the 12th and 13th centuries sent English commercial practice in a different direction from the commercial practice of the Continent. The terms of common-law debt established “nominalism” in early English exchange, a practice of holding valuations constant according to the unit of account used to quote prices. That constancy in turn influenced economic development and the way that English elites and working people bargained over its shape.
The final example is the most familiar to us today: Many of those framing the Constitution were lawyers. John Adams, James Otis, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson conceived themselves to be actively constructing a republic. The blueprint they produced changed the course of American history. It contained brilliant insights, like the importance of popular sovereignty. It embedded tragic denials of justice, including the enslavement of millions of Americans. In that sense, it demonstrates the power and responsibility that can come with leading by design.
Christine Desan’s many articles include “Coin Reconsidered: The Political Alchemy of Commodity Money,” 11 Theoretical Inquiries in Law 13 (2010) and “From Blood to Profit: The Transformation of Value in the American Constitutional Tradition,” 20 Journal of Policy History 26 (2008).
See also: "Law School and the Chief Executive," by Professor Morton Horwitz '67
From the Dean: Why do law school graduates become leaders?
Why do many law school graduates become leaders? Individuals with legal training lead government, business, civic activities, and nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the world. Of course, leaders of law firms, law schools, and offices of government lawyers have legal training, but often so do leaders of companies, universities and countries. I think that a combination of self-selection, features of the law school experience, and particular elements of law itself contributes to the sizable presence across society of lawyers as leaders—and as effective ones, at that. ...
Read the full essay on law and leadership by Dean Martha Minow in the Fall 2012 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin.