Have you ever noticed how law school deans are all kind of all the same guy? They’re mostly white, mostly male, mostly smart, mostly charismatic, and mostly good at getting you to part with your money.
Law school deans are usually successful academics and respected faculty members. And when they’re not, we make fun of them. The virtue of having a dean who looks and thinks like everybody else is that you don’t risk getting a weirdo who will screw up your capital campaigns. There’s a reason why guys are generally happy when they show up to a party and they’re dressed like pretty much everybody else; it means that nobody screwed up.
Of course, the downside of picking 200 people with similar backgrounds is that it’s hard to get radical change in the way law schools are run. Instead of every law school being a “laboratory” of ideas, you get every law school just trying to follow the leader — and that leader is, of course, the hated U.S. News law school rankings.
A tipster who went to a school that is looking for a new dean asked Above the Law to suggest some “outside the box” candidates. We know that the school won’t seriously consider any of our suggestions, but it’s still a fun thought experiment. Who should be dean of your law school? We’ve got some thoughts…
Earlier this year, we reported that Richard Revesz is stepping down as dean of NYU Law School at the end of the academic year (just when I finally memorized how to spell his name). NYU Law recently sent around a letter to their alumni, updating the community on the new dean search. It’s pretty boring (we’ve pasted it on the next page). You know the deal: search committee, faculty and trustee input, but we also want to hear from you, dear alums.
I don’t know whom NYU is going to hire, but it’s going to be somebody predictable. Somebody whose turn it is. Somebody who’s going to raise money and not rock the boat and all that. (That’s what we saw recently with the University of Michigan law school dean search.)
But if we go to fantasy land, what kind of interesting choices could NYU make? What kinds of voices or perspectives would really lead the law school in a new direction? If wishes were horses, what would your horse look like?
I’ve got three thoughts. I’m thinking of categories of people, but I’ll use a specific example for each.
The problem isn’t that “law school is too much like a business.” The problem is that law school is a poorly run business. And that is not a problem that is fixed by hiring some lawyer with “actual practical experience” because most lawyers are terrible businessmen in their own right.
Cuban, a billionaire, knows how to run a business, and more importantly, he knows how to invest in things that will make the business grow. If you look at the Mavericks, everybody notes how he made Dallas a “destination” spot for NBA free agents (such that other owners had to start copying the player amenities Cuban offered). Can you imagine that for law school? Instead of trying to convince students to come to school with dubious employment numbers and pie-in-the-sky predictions about the legal market, Cuban would entice students the old-fashioned way: cushy dorms, beautiful libraries, all the amenities a student could want.
And about those employment statistics, I don’t think Cuban would lie about them because, in most fields, it’s simply bad business to lie about what your product can do. Instead, Cuban would focus on his other great skill and great passion: teaching people how to be entrepreneurs. And that too is exactly what law students need. They need to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers, because the safe and easy path to Biglaw and $160K has been clogged up.
The Mark Cuban School of Law would still be expensive, but it would be putting the money into students, and focused on the skills young businesspeople need to have in addition to their J.D. degrees.
I’m really not a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. He’s more pseudo than intellectual. A guy like Richard Dawkins eats Gladwell’s intellectual lunch, and people like Bill Bryson are much more fun to read.
But Gladwell’s skill is that he’s able to take research done by others, process the information, and then re-explain it in ways dumb people can understand. What gets lost in translation is important, but the crowd-pleasing bits remain.
That’s a very useful skill for a law school dean. Gladwell is the type of guy who could sit in a room full of Biglaw partners telling him what they “want” out of a new graduate, and actually make sense of it all. The partners will mention characteristics that often contradict each other, e.g., “I want a self-starter who is great at doing what he’s told.” He’ll listen to judges, listen to clients, synthesize all of that knowledge, and come up with a platitude that neatly sums it all up.
This platitude will make the basis for a pedagogy that will sound impressive to students, parents, and employers. And his students will get jobs as the legal market reaches the tipping point.
I’m being a bit cynical, but an important part of a marketable education program is explaining to employers what skills you have and why they should pay you for them. Law schools right now are GOD AWFUL at explaining to employers what, if anything, their students know or can do. “They can pass the bar!” Great, how does that make me money? “They’re skilled oralists and have contributed to law reviews!” I should pay them for fact checking? “They can be trained by any firm!” I thought YOU guys were doing the training?
Law school deans need to be able to convince employers that they’ve done something intellectually and economically worthwhile. And Malcolm Gladwell is a great explainer.
Near impossible task? Toiling in obscurity? More concerned about results than pedigree? Sounds like a job for Patty Murray.
If you don’t know her, Patty Murray is the senior U.S. Senator from Washington State who had the unenviable task of running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2012 election cycle. Taking over right after the Tea Party wave of 2010, and with many Democrats in vulnerable positions, it looked like a sure thing that Republicans would take back the upper chamber in 2012.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Part of that is because of GOP weakness at the top of the ticket, part of that is because of the crazy people Republicans nominated to run for Senate, and a big part of that is Patty Murray.
Murray was a preschool teacher with a degree in Physical Education from Washington State University before her political career took off. Yeah, her degree is in Phys freaking Ed.
In a law school world that bends backwards over itself trying to fight for the most “prestigious” ranking, it would be great to have one law school dean who just doesn’t care. And I don’t mean “not care” in a Cooley way that tries to blur the difference between “prestige” and “quality” by arguing that objective measures of either are pointless. What I’m talking about is somebody who wants to make the best-quality law school around, but who doesn’t give a damn what U.S. News thinks of it.
I’m looking for somebody who will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if it is unpopular (Murray opposed the war in Iraq back in 2002, back before it was “cool” to be against the war). I’m looking for somebody who has really struggled in life (Murray’s family was on welfare when she was a kid). I’m looking for somebody who is where she is based on her skill and talent, not because some big-time institution or network gave her the imprimatur of competence.
When you find some person like that, imagine giving her the keys to an institution like NYU Law. Imagine when someone who has had to work for everything she has is suddenly given something with a built-in infrastructure, funding, and credibility. Watch out; that’s when great things happen.
If someone can work their way up from gym teacher to U.S. Senator, they can certainly take a law school from a “three year boondoggle” to “something worth investing in.”
Of course, the problem with my three candidates is that none of them would take the job if offered (see also Hillary Clinton, who passed on running for mayor of New York). Law school dean is a big step down, for all of them. But man, it would be nice if a law school hired one of these types of people who were still on the way up. We might not know their names already, but their personal stories could be really interesting.
Instead, NYU will probably hire a law dean who graduated from a prestigious law school, clerked for a prestigious judge, and has made a name for himself or herself in legal academia.
And nothing will change.
(The memo to NYU Law alumni about the dean search appears on the next page if you care to read it.)