The Leadership Lab

At Fordham Law, opportunities abound for up-and-coming leaders.
By Suzi Morales
Khasim Lockhart headshot

t’s a situation to which nearly any New York attorney can relate: Khasim Lockhart ’18 was stuck in traffic on his way to work. As his stress level rose, he navigated Manhattan rush hour driving while calling—hands-free, of course—into his office at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, where he is an associate, to manage his morning schedule.

Then Lockhart remembered a recent discussion on stress management he’d had with the students in his Peer Mentoring & Leadership course at Fordham Law. “My class topic was on stress and how to make stress your friend,” said Lockhart, an adjunct professor at the Law School. “So, rather than getting down on myself, I remembered the class I’d taught.”

Lockhart’s leadership mindset hasn’t helped him only in traffic. Now a fifth-year associate, he is already serving on firm committees. As the chair of the firm’s racial justice task force, he—as a midlevel associate—leads biweekly discussions attended by firm leaders.

Lockhart credited his leadership mindset in part to what he learned at Fordham Law: “Fordham always told me yes.”

digital illustration of birds flying and faces on their wings

A Leader in Leadership

Jordana Alter Confino headshot
“Leadership involves having a sense of strong self-awareness about your core mission and purpose, and being able to communicate that to others in a way that motivates them. It also involves lifting others up in furtherance of a shared goal or mission, and modeling integrity and standards of behavior that are worth emulating for the better[ment] of all involved.”
—Jordana Alter Confino, Assistant Dean of Professionalism
Linda Sugin headshot
Many law schools boast that they produce leaders, but few take the targeted and holistic approach that Fordham Law does in training leaders equipped to handle the challenges of real-world leadership, from the momentous to the mundane. Fordham’s professionalism and leadership initiatives reflect the vision of Professor Linda Sugin, former associate dean and currently the faculty director of the Office of Professionalism. Sugin started the Peer Mentoring and Leadership program in 2018 to provide support for second-year students and build leadership skills for third- and fourth-year students. In her first year as associate dean, Sugin noticed that, while first-year students were provided a lot of structure, second-year students needed more support.

“Just at the moment when they need to make decisions about classes, jobs, and co-curriculars, they were on their own,” said Sugin. “I started the program to help them navigate the beginning of their second year, which is a uniquely challenging time.”

Rich Ross headshot
Rich Ross ’86 was an early cheerleader for the program and has underwritten funding for mentoring-related activities and the growth of the program through hiring adjunct professors. Lockhart was the first adjunct professor Sugin recruited to teach in the program with her because, she said, “he embodies the Fordham spirit of kindness, generosity, creativity, and wisdom.”

Over the past few years, Fordham has further enhanced its leadership training efforts, growing the peer mentorship program, adding other leadership courses, establishing a fellows program for upper-level students associated with first-year sections, and building a pipeline of diverse leaders.

Fordham Law’s Office of Professionalism is at the forefront of the school’s leadership initiatives. The office’s head, Assistant Dean of Professionalism Jordana Alter Confino, was recruited to Fordham by Sugin in 2019 to collaborate with her in developing and building Fordham’s offerings and to implement Fordham’s innovative House System. At that time, Confino wasn’t aware of any other law school so committed to professionalism and professional identity that there was an office dedicated to its development.

Leadership and training through the Office of Professionalism take several forms. Within the House System, first-year sections are grouped into “houses” that offer 1Ls programming and social events throughout the year. Each incoming student is assigned a mentor through the Board of Student Advisors (BSA). Each BSA student mentor leads two sections of first-year students, meeting with them as a group and as individuals throughout the year.

digital illustration of birds flying and faces on their wings
Kaleb Underwood headshot
Kaleb Underwood ’23 had a firsthand look at the challenges of the first year of law school before he applied. Underwood had been a high school chemistry teacher prior to entering graduate school in a program he eventually learned was not a good fit for him. Around the same time, his girlfriend—now wife—was a law student. From her experience, Underwood learned not only of his own interest in law school but also the inherent challenges of the first year.

“1L [year] is hard,” said Underwood. Now, in his second year on the BSA, he gives first-year students the benefit of his own experience. One of the main challenges for his mentees, he said, is prioritizing all the challenges and opportunities before them. Their questions frequently boil down to, “Do I have to care about this right now?” As a mentor, he’s learned to meet mentees where they are and gauge what kinds of interactions work best for them.

Maya FitzGerald headshot
According to Assistant Director of Professionalism Maya FitzGerald, the goal of the BSA is to provide first-year students with peer support, guidance, and an opportunity to connect with upper-level students. Currently, each group of eight students is connected with two BSA mentors. The mentors interact with their mentees at least once a week, either by email or in person, and also participate in panel discussions on subjects ranging from memo writing to mental health.

BSA mentors are overseen by Professionalism Fellows, upper-level students who receive a stipend to facilitate programming and organize BSA mentoring. The Professionalism Fellows program was established to give select students experience leading programs alongside faculty and administrators. They provide support and guidance to a large group of students, navigate conflicts, facilitate discussions, and serve as advocates and liaisons to the administration.

“It is wonderful to see the fellows grow into their leadership roles as they build confidence and expertise—students can do amazing things if the institution supports them,” said Sugin. “I believe that students can often be more effective than faculty or administrators in facilitating learning.”

Most fellows oversee two sections of first-year students—a house—while two fellows organize interhouse activities. Programming facilitated by fellows includes everything from sessions on course selection to kickball games.

The fellows also work closely with the Professionalism Office team to develop a series of programs focused on professional identity formation, newly required by the ABA, but which Fordham has been delivering since 2018. Following careful training, the BSA mentors facilitate discussions with first-year students during both the August and January orientations about connecting their values and backgrounds to their development as lawyers. According to FitzGerald, these responsibilities help BSA mentors and Professionalism Fellows gain skills that help them transition to practice, like mentoring, collaboration, and working on a team toward a common goal.

Brandon Small headshot
Professionalism Fellow Brandon Small ’23 laughs when asked why he came to law school. “My sister told me, ‘You like to argue, you’re on the debate team, this is the logical next step,’” he said. But the more serious reason is that he was drawn to opportunities to serve the Black and LGBTQ+ communities, of which he is a member. Small’s first year in law school was mainly online in virtual classrooms, so he missed the opportunity to connect with upper-level students on campus. When he had the opportunity to apply for a Professionalism Fellowship in his second year, he was eager to fill the gap for others that he had felt in his first year.

Small says that, while the Office of Professionalism sets a schedule for the house program that guides the Professionalism Fellows’ programming on topics like clerkships and résumé building, it also gives fellows the autonomy to schedule their own programming throughout the year based on the needs and interests of their houses. “If I see that my house is struggling with legal writing, or grades and feedback, then I’ll have a legal writing [teaching assistant] come in and talk about that,” said Small.

In Theory and In Practice

“Leadership is investing. It’s an investment made in people in some sort of way, whether it’s through your time, whether it’s through services, it’s an investment.”
—Khasim Lockhart ’18
Zandra Cuevas headshot
All Peer Mentors take the Peer Mentoring and Leadership course created by Sugin, which has also been taught by Lockhart, Confino, and recent graduate Zandra Cuevas ’22. The course teaches soft skills like vulnerability and empathy, with the scholarly backdrop of the science of leadership, cognitive biases, and more. According to Lockhart, the class is “reimagining leadership as we know it.”

Confino says the class often caps out within seconds of the opening of course registration. “The class really is a unicorn in law school,” said Lockhart, noting that it is rare to have a class “where you can come in and learn about the soft skills that will help you excel as an attorney, but also, and importantly, will help you excel as a human.”

Paul Radvany headshot
But at Fordham Law, unicorns are not in short supply. The school offers courses that allow students to explore other aspects of leadership and professional identity. One such course is Leadership for Lawyers, taught by Clinical Professor of Law Paul Radvany. The former deputy chief of the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Radvany also leads the Securities Litigation and Arbitration Clinic. His scholarship on teaching leadership in the clinical setting is the subject of an article in the prestigious peer-reviewed Clinical Law Review.

While leadership positions in many organizations often go to lawyers, Radvany says leadership has not traditionally been a focus of law school coursework. He notes that business schools often offer such courses.

The course is discussion based, with students sharing their thoughts on readings and writing assignments that help them learn about various aspects of leadership. The course also provides an opportunity for students to learn more about their own leadership capabilities.

“Although students come with preconceived notions of leadership, they frequently tell me that the course has provided them with a better understanding regarding which characteristics and styles of leadership can be most effective,” said Radvany. Top lawyer leaders in government, public interest, and the private sector also regularly come to the class to discuss leadership.

Diversifying the Pipeline

“Leaders build movements, and leaders build other leaders. Leaders understand that everyone’s strengths are different, and that they all have a place at the table because there are several problems which need innovative and distinctive solutions.”
—Shivani Parikh ’24
Shivani Parikh headshot
Shivani Parikh ’24 is the daughter of immigrants from India. Since 2016, she’s put a lot of thought into her identity and how South Asian people experience race in the United States. Prior to her first year at Fordham, she learned about the Realizing Excellence and Access in the Law (“REAL”) Scholars Program, then in its inaugural year. It seemed like a good fit as she considered issues of personal and professional identity and worked toward the career she hopes to build as an advocate for the South Asian community.
digital illustration of birds flying and faces on their wings
Started in the 2021–22 school year, the REAL Scholars Program is a leadership development program for first-year students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in the legal field. It provides a pre-orientation course to complement the traditional first-year orientation, as well as programming throughout the year to address the unique challenges these students face early in law school.
Kamille Dean headshot
According to Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kamille Dean, the REAL Scholars Program’s three focus areas are academics, wellness, and professionalism. Although academic success is a major component, said Dean, “We’re not just focused on grades—that comes once we have students in a place where they feel they belong. You’re giving students that level playing field, and we’ve found that they rise and exceed our expectations.”

Calling the REAL Scholars “an elite group with a special bond,” Dean said she’s been pleasantly surprised by how many of the REAL students have stayed connected with each other and committed to helping the incoming cohort once they move into their second year. Parikh, now a mentor to this year’s REAL cohort, said she is intentional about forming relationships and guiding first-year students to other connections and resources. She noted that learning how to build connections will help her and her mentees in their legal careers.

David Tanen headshot
REAL operates alongside the IDEAL Pipeline Program, which helps undergraduate students prepare for the LSAT and apply to law school in collaboration with Fordham and other New York City–area colleges and universities. Both programs were enabled by benefactors such as David Tanen ’96, a member of the Dean’s Planning Council who has been an instrumental ally in helping the Law School invest in enhancements to its educational environment. So far, in the first two years of REAL and IDEAL, two IDEAL students have become REAL Scholars, and others are enrolled at peer law schools or working in law-related professions.

While it is still early in the history of the REAL Scholars Program, Dean said initial results have been overwhelmingly positive. All of the REAL students in the first class took prestigious legal internships in the summer after their first year of classes, and a vast majority are now on journals or competition teams, with many in leadership positions in student organizations such as the SBA and affinity groups.

Forming Connections

“It’s no coincidence that mentoring is a major part of all the various leadership training initiatives at Fordham. Forming connections among peers, with law school administrators, and with practicing attorneys helps students develop their own leadership skills and gives them opportunities to use those skills.”
—Brandon Small ’23
Part of building the leadership pipeline through the REAL Program is connecting students with an array of legal employers. Dean noted that students in the program are interested in a variety of legal careers, so the REAL Program helps them connect with attorneys from firms, nonprofits, government agencies, startups, and more. These connections come in the form of workshops, presentations, and meet-and-greet networking events. Parikh, who came to law school knowing she was not interested in working for a firm, said the program has helped her build connections with alumni in public interest roles. Similarly, the Office of Professionalism connects the houses with liaisons in administrative offices such as Career Planning and the Public Interest Resource Center.

Small said one of the benefits of being a Professionalism Fellow is the organic connections with administration. Rather than simply making an appointment to address a particular challenge, being a Professionalism Fellow has allowed him to build relationships through more casual interactions. “It’s nice to already know and have relationships with these administrators, so that when I actually do need help with a résumé or something of that sort, it’s not the first time that I’m barging in their door to ask for help,” he said.

digital illustration of birds flying and faces on their wings
Just as he’s been involved in various communities at Fordham, Small said he’s interested in making connections at any organization where he eventually practices, both informally and through committees or other formal initiatives.

In addition to taking leadership-centric courses and other training, many REAL Scholars are also leaders on competition teams, journals, affinity groups, student government, and more. Even as they start law school, many first-year students in the REAL Scholars Program are taking leadership roles in campus organizations, which Dean said is “unprecedented.”

Leadership Beyond Law School

“I tend to think of leadership not from a top-down approach where there’s a built-in power dynamic. I think of it as being in a position where you are able to influence others.”
—Zulkifl “Z” Zargar ’21
Ultimately, the leadership skills students learn and the connections they make give them confidence when they graduate and take their first legal jobs.

As a student and young alumnus, Lockhart says he felt the freedom to champion his own ideas. “Fordham doesn’t put students in a box,” he said, noting that he doesn’t feel the Law School instilled a mentality of hierarchy that would make new lawyers feel as if they have to wait their turn.

Zulkifl “Z” Zargar headshot
Zulkifl “Z” Zargar ’21 was one of the students in the Leadership for Lawyers course, as well as a research assistant on Radvany’s scholarship about teaching leadership styles. He briefly worked at a law firm before beginning a clerkship with Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. One of the things he learned through the course and research was the vocabulary around leadership. Now, he said, he is able to identify and collaborate with a range of leadership styles in the workplace.

“There are a lot of lawyer leaders in many spheres of the world,” said Zargar. “This is something that I think law students would really benefit from engaging with and learning about—and then, of course, implementing.”

Dean notes that the leadership training promoted through the REAL Scholars Program not only provides opportunities for students, but also gives them an important perspective that will help them be successful in an evolving profession. “We are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of leadership development because you cannot be a global leader if you do not have the skill set to work in a diverse environment and work with a diverse client base,” she said. “We are preparing historically underrepresented students in the law to use their diverse experiences to make a difference in the world, whether that be through public interest work or corporate law practice.”

With all the opportunities to study and practice leadership in law school, Fordham’s future lawyers will be well equipped to thoughtfully navigate leadership positions in a demanding profession. Even when that navigation leads through rush hour traffic, metaphorical or otherwise.