After noticing the cyclical start of announcements of deans stepping down and new search committees being formed, short-term memories of what actually got me to answer the question of “Why be a law dean now?” started coming back. I have been asked by friends and former colleagues whether I regret having abandoned a relatively safe and secure faculty job with administrative responsibilities in a community filled with the comfort of friends and contacts for a deanship “at this time.” My answer is that this is the best time to be a law school dean and I would encourage all creative and hard-working faculty and practitioners to consider taking part in this journey.
My own motivation for deciding to go to law school was steeped in law and public policy. I figured if I had to live by the laws, which sometimes work well and sometimes result in injustices and unintended consequences, then I wanted to be a part of making those laws better. That left the choice of running for public office or serving in a creative advisory and advocacy role to lawmakers and policymakers.
After short contemplation given the public perception of and jokes about lawyers and politicians, I decided the more meaningful avenue of helping to promote meaningful reform was by advising those in positions to actually make the decision. After law school, having secured what I thought was my dream job in government, I quickly realized the importance of not just being a government lawyer, but being a government lawyer in a position with an avenue to actually accomplish something meaningful to correct an injustice, to protect the environment and to simply leave the community better off than it was before I got here. The best career decision I made was to move from the public sector into academia.
The bulk of my academic career has been spent researching, discussing, debating and advocating ideas for all kinds of legislative and regulatory change in dozens of areas of law. I often wonder why some find engaging in scholarship to be a particular challenge – for me it represents a constant vehicle for communicating ideas and preserving these ideas and justifications in support thereof for present and future generations of change agents. There is an indescribable rush of adrenaline when a government or a court embraces the reform concept that you know germinated in your work. The adrenaline feeds the passion to take on the next issue with equal intensity. Not all ideas can be addressed at once and not every government chooses to experiment with the same option for reform. Before assuming the deanship at Touro Law Center I started to move some of my scholarly interests to law teaching, discussing innovative strategies to incorporate Carnegie’s best practices approach in doctrinal classes and sharing observations gleaned from moving one of my courses to an all on-line format.
I often explain that being a law dean, especially now, is little different from the skill-set honed over two decades running a research center focused on legal aspects of public policy reform. Over the last several years the economic issues and challenges posed to law practice in all sectors, the shifting demands for legal services, the impact of technology, changing demographics and other factors have forced the business models behind the practice to undergo continuing change. The pressures facing the profession have joined what had been a quieter discussion ruminating for a long time about legal education reform. Now that discussion is a front-and-center debate within the academy, the profession, the media and most recently with President Obama offering an opinion, perhaps the government.
This is the best time to be a law dean. There will always be pressures and demands from multiple constituencies and while the economic challenges may be greater than in the past, the chance to thoughtfully work together with smart and creative groups of professionals to develop innovative initiatives that will lay a foundation today for lawyering in the future is too great an opportunity to pass up. The legal education experience we provide today is the investment for the future of our profession
- a profession that protects rule of law, ensures that all people have access to civil and criminal legal services, and ensures a sustainable tomorrow across the globe. Similar to legal aspects of public policy reform, there is not one “right way” to accomplish meaningful reform. Dozens of different approaches have already been adopted and are being implemented in law schools across the country and more will be introduced. This is the time for law schools to be laboratories of innovation and reform, to learn from each other and to continue to develop and refine new approaches to foundational doctrinal and skills education needed to produce the lawyers of tomorrow. The tag line used often by those in government “There is no higher calling,” seems to be equally applicable now to law school deans who have access to a special platform to foster sustainability.