As an inaugural member of the Leadership and Character Law Scholars, Cedric James found out how practicing to be an ethical leader can add so much more to the practice of law.
Even as a child, Cedric James knew that he would someday be a lawyer. “I was brainwashed from an early age,” he says with a laugh, recalling the hours he spent watching Matlock and Law & Order on the family television.
Years later, after his recent graduation from the Wake Forest School of Law, he has nearly met his goal. And it’s not for the sake of dramatic hearings or surprise twists that he’s worked to reach this point. Cedric has long understood the value of a lawyer as a community leader and has immersed himself in this role, even as a student.
Cedric has continuously sought out ways to develop his understanding of what it means to be a leader and a professional, and how integrity and character are tied to those identities. By taking courses that are focused on topics such as diversity, gender, and leadership in law, he has expanded his understanding of what responsibilities a lawyer carries. “People might normally miss courses like these because they aren’t black letter law, but there’s value in taking them,” he says, “These issues will be unavoidable in real life, even if you can avoid them in the classroom.”
“These issues will be unavoidable in real life, even if you can avoid them in the classroom.”Cedric James
He was eventually approached by Jane Aiken, Dean of the School of Law, and Kenneth Townsend, Director of the Program for Leadership and Character in the Professional Schools, to discuss the Program’s implementation into the law school’s curriculum. Cedric was selected as an inaugural member of the Leadership and Character Law Scholars cohort based on his proven ability to lead. “Cedric lives and leads with wisdom beyond his years,” says Professor Townsend. “He manages to maintain perspective and a sense of purpose even during challenging times. This allows Cedric to navigate difficulties with unusual grace and resilience. His example has influenced and inspired countless students, including less senior members of the Leadership and Character cohort.”
As a member of the cohort, Cedric has enjoyed the chance to learn, guide, and discuss with his peers many different aspects of leadership and to extend those lessons beyond the walls of Worrell Professional Center into the larger Wake Forest community.
“It was initially a group of selected students, most of them being in leadership positions,” he says about his fellow Scholars, “but first-years were included too, since they can learn from second and third-years who have already found those roles.” Cedric credits his position as president of the Black Law Student Association (BSLA) for granting him intensive leadership experience, enabling him to be a mentor for the first-year cohort members.
The cohort’s regular meetings are aimed at discussing diverse perspectives and styles of leadership, as well as the struggles that come with being a leader. As members prepare to face challenges of ethics and character in their professional lives, they learn from the lived experience of various exemplars, which is not limited to the authors they discuss. Leadership and Character Law Scholars also learn from each other, and, as Cedric notes, the advice isn’t limited to second and third-year members. “It’s a good mix of seeing how other people lead and demonstrating how you yourself lead,” he says. “It’s useful having insight from people who aren’t in leadership positions too, and hearing about what they’ve seen.”
Cedric likens his mentorship of first-year cohort members to his experience training a new executive board for the BSLA. As he has approached graduation, Cedric has offered his peers subtle leadership opportunities that are informed by his own real-world practice. For underclassmen in the BSLA and the L&C Law cohort alike, Cedric has focused on improving their ability as well as their confidence. “The only way you can know what to do is if you actually try it,” he says, “and when they eventually feel unsure or nervous, I refer them back to what they’ve already accomplished.”
“It’s a good mix of seeing how other people lead and demonstrating how you yourself lead. It’s useful having insight from people who aren’t in leadership positions too, and hearing about what they’ve seen.”Cedric James
Cedric and the other Leadership and Character in the Law Scholars have tried to extend these lessons beyond their members and even those in the law school. Cedric recalls student panels and seminars that have given him the opportunity to interact with the larger Wake Forest community. “Being involved with initiatives like these enables us to get out of our bubble and spread the wisdom to other students,” he says, “There are things they deal with that we don’t, but there’s also a lot of commonality.”
Whether it be among his fellow Law Scholars or with the Wake Forest community writ-large, Cedric has found the ability to teach, learn from, and connect with others to be a fulfilling part of his journey through law school. “That’s probably the thing I enjoy most about the cohort—getting the chance to spread knowledge based on what I’ve done well and not so well,” he says.
During his time in law school, Cedric worked for both criminal defense and prosecution, and although his new job will be in a prosecutor’s office in Georgia, he’s interested in possibly becoming a defense attorney in the long term. “His particular professional interests and reflections, I think, are well-aligned with the sort of broad-based, public-minded approach to leadership and character that we aim to provide,” says Townsend. In the meantime, Cedric is looking forward to watching the cohort continue from afar, and he’s excited that a grant from the Kern Family Foundation will provide for a growing network of students who can benefit from the experience as he did. “One of the things I wanted was connection with others in the professional schools,” he says. “There wasn’t really anything to connect us, so this common program will allow us to interact more with each other.”