Law school deans seem incredibly powerful. They seem like they have the power to reshape their law schools in their own ways. They seem like they’re in charge.

In reality, law deans spend much more time begging than ordering. They’re asking their university presidents to keep more of the revenue their schools generate. They’re trying to cajole tenured faculty who can’t be fired. They’re sniveling on bended knee to rich and powerful alumni. And if their law school drops in the U.S. News law school rankings, they’re likely to be discarded and replaced by somebody with a “new vision” for the law school.

I’m not crying for law school deans. They make an obscene amount of money, yet they’re not directly accountable to the students who fund their salary.

But they have a tough job. And when they don’t have the support of the faculty, they can wake up to find a big knife sticking in their back — a knife labeled “faculty lounge.”

This one law dean found that out the hard way, though he continues to deny that his law faculty essentially led a successful coup d’état….

Back in November, we reported on Paul Schiff Berman’s decision to step down as dean of George Washington University Law School. At the time, he said that he was not “forced out” from GW via a vote of “no confidence” from the faculty. Instead, he told Above the Law this about his departure:

No, there was no no-confidence vote of the faculty, nor do I believe any no-confidence vote, had it been attempted, would have been successful. I was pushing to innovate and change the law school to respond to the changing realities of the law market, and of course there is always some resistance to any change, but that’s simply part of the job. In the end, the chance to think about the future of education and to do it on a cross-University level was too exciting to pass up.

Well, the GW student newspaper, The Hatchet, succeeded in getting several GW law professors to dish on Berman. While it seems technically true that there was never an official vote of “no confidence,” Berman’s other contentions seem… questionable:

Professors said they could have held the first successful vote of no confidence in GW history. But University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman plucked him out of the No. 20-ranked law school before a formal vote could take place, according to interviews with more than a half dozen professors who spoke on the condition of anonymity…

Professors described a fall semester of private email chains and contentious meetings about Berman’s intense leadership style.

“I kept thinking of that old proverb, ‘If you go after the king, you better make sure you take the king out,’” one full-time law professor said. “We didn’t take the king out, but the king took himself out.”

Actually, that’s not a proverb; it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him.” But I think that, going forward, everybody should just cite Omar Little’s line, “You come at the king, you best not miss,” because that’s what everybody is really trying to get at.

But I digress. The point is that GW law professors are talking about taking out Berman like he was a street boss who needed to get got.

Two professors said that before Berman left, half the full-time faculty signed petitions in sealed, secret envelopes – more than enough to pass the one-third threshold to send a petition to the chair of GW’s Faculty Senate executive committee. A successful petition would have forced a formal vote of no confidence, which to pass, would require half of the faculty to vote affirmatively.

Sounds like a force-out to me. But Berman, who declined to be interviewed by The Hatchet, maintains that he wasn’t pushed out of his job, he just wanted to take a new opportunity immediately.

You should read the full Hatchet article for more dirt on Berman. Professors alleged that he was mean to support staff and would act without faculty support. They also felt like Berman embarrassed the school when he tried to cut funding to a program that paid recent graduates, and then had to reverse himself the next day after we ran a story about it.

To me, this story brings up larger issues about why law schools are so slow to respond to change. Yes, the ABA constrains useful experimentation at the law school level. Yes, many deans are drawing fat paychecks and don’t think there is any problem with the state of legal education.

But even if you had a dean who was willing to make aggressive changes while still staying within the letter of ABA regulations, he or she would still have the daunting task of convincing hundreds of faculty members. It would take one hell of a charismatic leader to convince faculty — many of whom like their jobs, like their paychecks, and honestly believe that teaching Advanced Comparative Constitutional Kabuki has some kind of value to students.

There’s virtually no version of “fixing law schools” that doesn’t involve the faculty giving something up. To keep costs down, they’d have to make less and (gasp) teach more. People who have devoted their lives to legal scholarship wouldn’t be as valued as much as people who have actually practiced law. And professors’ performance would be measured by how well they prepared students to practice law, instead of how many law review articles they wrote. How many law school faculty members do you know who would like to trade their current job for something harder and less lucrative?

Maybe Berman was just a bad dean. As one source insisted to us, “this Paul Berman story is not about [reforming legal education], it’s about people not wanting to work with an a**hole.”

But one of these days, a true reformer is going to get one of these jobs. And I shudder to think what a law school faculty will do to that martyr.

Law faculty plotted to oust dean [GW Hatchet]

Earlier: Change Comes To George Washington University Law School
More About Paul Berman’s Departure From the Deanship at GW Law School
George Washington University Law School Reverses Course, Restores Funding for Unemployed Grads Program


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