July 2021Volume 52Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Leadership, U.S. Presidents, & the University of Illinois College of Law

The University of Illinois College of Law recently launched The Leadership Project to develop leadership skills in professionals in the legal field. The project is taking a four-pronged approach: Classroom experiences for current U of I College of Law students, leadership lecture series, book discussions, and leadership seminars. Successful completion of The Leadership Project will provide students a certificate of completion. Greg Miarecki, the project director, shared that this program’s aim is to bridge the gap between the typical legal education and real-world leadership acumen that employers crave in new lawyers. But, programming is not limited to law students. The University of Illinois College of Law held a June 9, 2021, CLE as part of its Leadership Project. The online event was attended by over 200 alumni to discuss Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times.

The panel consisted of Judge Debra Walker, Lee Reichert, and Ajay Shah. All three panelists graduated from the U of I College of Law. Judge Walker has served in the Cook County Domestic Relations Division for more than 12 years. She has served as president or as chair of a plethora of organizations including Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, Illinois Bar Foundation, and Illinois Judges Foundation. She is an active alumna of the College of Law, mentoring several law students each year. Lee Reichert works as the chief legal & government affairs officer for MolsonCoors. He spent about 20 years in private practice and has been in-house counsel for about 10 years. Ajay Shah has been the CEO of Globetrotters Engineering Corporation for almost four years. Shah also serves on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness. Greg Miarecki moderated the panel. He serves as the executive assistant dean of career planning at the U of I College of Law. Before becoming dean, he was a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP.

While the general topic of this panel was leadership, discussions were centered around six key leadership traits outlined in Leadership in Turbulent Times. Dean Miarecki began each subtopic by detailing Goodwin’s analysis on how successfully, or unsuccessfully, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln displayed the six key leadership traits. The panelists then added their own experience with how to best embody these leadership traits in today’s legal environment.

The six key leadership traits were:

  1. Keep the focus on your teammates or your colleagues;
  2. Set the vision and tone, and make it appealing to the team;
  3. Communicate well and often;
  4. Provide a diverse, inclusive environment that encourages debate and discussion;
  5. Be as optimistic and persistent as possible; and
  6. Project humility and be willing to change course when necessary.

Keep the Focus on Your Teammates or Your Colleagues

Judge Walker began this section by reminding the audience of the adage: “There is no ‘I’ in team.” She shared that, especially during the pandemic, the court staff has been working overtime to serve the public. Showing gratitude has been an important part of Judge Walker’s leadership style. She recommended for those who find expressing thanks more difficult, that they make it a regular part of their day.  It can even be calendared to make sure colleagues are acknowledged.

Lee Reichert noted that the priorities for individuals are different in private practice versus in-house counsel. Lawyers in private practice are often focused on their own career advancement and less on the team’s success, whereas lawyers serving as in-house counsel are focused on the success of the company and their team. Ajay Shah added that appreciation must be authentic to be effective. Knowing your colleagues and employees makes giving specific, genuine appreciation easier.

Set the Vision and Tone, and Make it Appealing to the Team

To begin discussions on this key trait, Dean Miarecki noted that Leadership in Turbulent Times portrayed FDR’s ability to bring Democrats and Republicans together during the Great Depression and LBJ’s explanations of The Great Society to create a national vision as a way that they both enhanced buy-in.
Judge Walker has spent time educating lawyers and judges on civility as part of her tenure on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. She noted that civility is often created top-down, with the leaders needing to set that expectation so that others follow their example. Judge Walker shared that in proceedings like the ones in domestic relations, it is crucial that she establish civility at the very beginning. Specifically, she warmly greets the courtroom staff and attorneys and expects them to follow suit.

Reichert shared that while his company isn’t saving the world, a shared vision is still necessary. Bringing people together over beer is something that his team can rally around. Further, since his company has been branching out from being just a beer company to now being a beverage company, the team is working to figure out how to successfully navigate this new space.

Shah remarked that it is a question of framing. He explained that almost all lawyers use framing in their practice by strategically presenting facts or the law from the perspective of their clients. Shah noted that setting vision when an issue comes up means framing it positively, but authentically in a way that inspires people. He explained that his company’s focus on infrastructure is not on its face something in which everyone would be interested. But, when framed by saying that working on infrastructure means dealing with things that people use every day to live their lives, the topic is more interesting and the vision is more inspiring.

Communicate Well and Often

Dean Miarecki noted here that FDR’s fireside chats told people what they can expect and what would be expected from them. This was effective communication. Alternatively, LBJ failed to communicate with the country how long and costly the Vietnam War would likely be.

Judge Walker uses different ways to communicate. In her role as a team lead judge, she holds meetings with the other judges on the team. Judge Walker emphasized that giving those judges the opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process helped them feel heard.

Reichert realized that, during the pandemic, he became a more proficient communicator. The remote nature of working required more intentional communication. He started holding weekly calls with team members, monthly “all hands” calls, and listening sessions. Reichert also pointed out that the storytelling theme from Leadership in Turbulent Times is something he has used. He uses stories to make points or give lessons. Judge Walker noted that this also makes leaders more human and empathetic.

Shah pointed out that to have useful communication, leaders need to ask themselves certain questions, such as “Who is the audience?” and “What do we want to communicate?” He also mentioned that leaders need to be mindful of non-verbal communication. Stopping by a person’s desk to ask a question is more organic than a phone call.

Provide a Diverse, Inclusive Environment that Encourages Debate and Discussion

Dean Miarecki remarked that both Lincoln and FDR surrounded themselves with people who had diversity of thought and opinion while LBJ ostracized dissenters to the Vietnam War. Judge Walker explained that diversity purely of thought is certainly beneficial; but diversity is also about differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, geography, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and more.

Judge Walker explained the difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is being invited to an event. Inclusion is being asked to dance at that event. In the legal field, diversity is hiring people with different identities and backgrounds. Inclusion is bringing those people into important discussions. Walker teaches judges and lawyers on the benefits of diversity and inclusion. She emphasized that input from diverse people is crucial, especially in marketing.

Reichert built upon this by sharing that his company sells to all different types of consumers, and they need to have people who know those groups and can give their insights. Reichert did note that while private practice seemed diverse, upon reflection it was not nearly as diverse as his current company. At Coors, the leadership team is made up of people with all different backgrounds and identities and having those perspectives allows for diversity of thought.

Shah pointed out that, as leaders, it is our responsibility to give people opportunities so they can rise to being “at the table.” Dean Miarecki noted that he had an experience with a leader who expounded upon the benefits of diversity and even made sure teams were diverse, but that this leader would not listen to those diverse people. This embracing of diversity but rejection of inclusion does not foster an environment of debate and discussion.

Be as Optimistic and Persistent as Possible

Judge Walker noted that being an optimistic leader goes along with setting the tone. Only optimistic people can truly be persistent because those who do not believe that they will achieve their goals will give up on them. She challenged the audience listening to the panel to explicitly state their personal and professional goals and then think about how they can persist in achieving those goals. In her own life, Judge Walker had to persist and stay optimistic about her goal to become a judge. Dealing with the politics of getting appointed to the bench proved challenging. She worked for nine years to get on the bench and finally achieved her goal when she decided to run for an elected judge position. She has now been on the bench for twelve and half years.

One of the most difficult times for Reichert in remaining optimistic was after a tragic incident in 2020 when one of the breweries faced an active shooter situation. Five people were killed by the active shooter. Reichert shared that he had moments of self-doubt during this time, but other General Counsels reached out to help and give advice based on their own experience in dealing with the aftermath of an active shooter. Through this difficult time, Reichert prioritized authenticity and transparency.

Ajay Shah cautioned that while optimism is important to creating a vision, balance is prudent. If a leader is too optimistic, the team may lose faith in that leader or think they are not taking the situation seriously. Effective leadership is not just optimism, it is confidence.

Project Humility and be Willing to Change Course when Necessary

During Judge Walker’s new judge training, Justice Warren Wolfson imparted a piece of wisdom that she well remembers: Avoid “robe-itis." He explained that while people stand up when a judge enters the courtroom, it is because a person with a gun is telling them to do so. Walker informed the audience that after serving as a team lead judge, she realized her skills from being a CPA were not being best utilized because financially complicated cases would be heard by other judges. Sometimes being humble means being able to admit that something is not right for you.

Reichert shared that his team operates using a “fail fast” culture. It is okay to be wrong, celebrate the mistakes, and learn from them. Shah likened this trait to sailing a ship. The leader is the captain and they make decisions about what direction the ship should take. But sometimes course corrections are necessary. If the captain does not take the time to make those corrections to get the ship back on course, the ship will not get where it needs to go. As a leader, Shah tries to ensure that his team openly gives him feedback.

The leadership lessons to be learned from this panel were numerous and wide-ranging. Ultimately, the theme that seemed to emerge was honesty: honesty in delivery, in appreciation, and in knowing your own limitations. Whether it is the leadership of presidents, judges, CEOs, or in-house counsel, effective leadership must be centered around candor and intentionality.


Judge Debra B. Walker has served in the Cook County Domestic Relations Division for over 12 years. She has led many organizations including Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, Illinois Bar Foundation, Illinois Judges Foundation, and is currently the chair of the ISBA’s Bench & Bar Section Council. Andrea Fischer is working as Judge Walker’s extern this summer. She is a rising 2L at the U of I College of Law. She will be working in the Federal Civil Rights Clinic this upcoming year. Fischer serves as the secretary for the Student Bar Association and as the community service chair for the Women’s Law Society.

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