A Candid Interview With UPenn Law Dean Michael Fitts

How did lawyers specialize before there were joint programs among different fields of study?
The world was filled with more generalists than. The nature of what it meant to be a professional was just different. You could see that in almost every profession. You see that in medicine with the move from the general surgeon and the internist to the 15 different types of internal medicine and surgeons. There is a much greater degree of specialization. You see that in business schools. In law schools and in the legal profession, lawyers are much more over time going to be embedded in a particular area.
What else has changed is the nature of careers in law. The explosion in general counsel. That was not a very large part of the profession when I graduated from law school. It is now a huge part of the profession. It’s driving a lot of changes because the general counsels are much more sensitive to the interface between the law and the underlying field that is shaping the legal question. They are sensitive to costs and management and strategic decision making so the size of in-house counsel has gone up logarithmically along with the need for specialization.
And at Penn what tends to be the five hottest areas right now drawing the most interest?
Clearly, law and finance. We live in a world where the financial institutions, the banks, the private equity funds, are driving a lot of change in the world. They need sophisticated legal support. They also hire a lot of people with legal backgrounds into those areas. That is a huge area of interest.
Intellectual property. When I went to law school, property was things–the stuff you hit with your hand and the American economy was driven by those types of things. We are an idea economy at this moment and so the way in which you deal with ideas is critical. That has exploded as an area.
Of our faculty, 10% teach in the area of intellectual property. That compares to almost zero 15 years ago. But we also have relationships with other parts of the university that are involved in that field. The engineering school is deeply involved in software issues and technical issues and biotech issues that involve intellectual property.
Law schools have been exploring much more than they have in the past is reaching out to other institutions and partnering with them. Medical schools have hospitals and that is part of what they do. Business schools admit people after they have had six to eight years of experience. Most of our students have had some work experience but not as lawyers. So they are really at the beginning of their legal careers. So the question is how we partner with institutions outside of law school in providing them training, much like a medical school does.
We’ve done that through other parts of the university. We do it through cases with law firms. We have an Appellate Clinic we run with a law firm. We have a Supreme Court clinic that we run with another law firm. We have externships and relationships with various institutions that we partner with to educate our students. And then we have nine clinics that we run internally within the law school, from entrepreneurship to international human rights to child advocacy.
And all this has become much more prevalent than when you got your J.D. from Yale back in 1979?
Clinics were just beginning when I went to law school. There were some but certainly nothing like exists today.
When you became dean in 2000 how many clinics did the school have?
We added the intellectual property clinic, the international human rights clinic, the law and entrepreneurship clinic was restructured. The children’s rights and child advocacy was restructured. We added the Appellate Clinic and Supreme Court Clinic. We have 35 programs with other schools. What has clearly changed is the utilization of those programs. The number of students who will take advantage of the university as part of their legal education has probably gone up three or four times since I have been dean.
Our relationship with business is the most important of all of those for two reasons. One, a lot of students want to understand their clients and what is driving their clients and a lot of clients will be business people. That could be a four-year JD/MBA or a three-year JD/MBA and then we have this certificate which is one course that gives every student in the building an overview of management and finance accounting issues in one class. The purpose of that course and a lot of others is to also focus on the fact that lawyers more than ever before are managers. They are in organizations. And whether you work at the Department of Justice or do human rights in Africa, you are probably going to do it in teams and to think strategically. That is a skill not historically taught in law schools but is important for lawyers not matter what area they are practicing in now.
And you have the advantage of having a world-class business school at Penn.
It actually all goes back to Ben Franklin. He was a Renaissance Man into both theory and practice and very much into crossing intellectual boundaries. More than any other university, Penn engages across schools. It’s part of our history. So we do a lot with Wharton, with the medical school. There is a great department of medical ethics over there, and that is another of the joint programs that have been very popular with our students. It’s an area of both policy interest and career interest.
You obviously think that a legal career will look quite different. How so?
It’s all the things we talked about. It’s clearly much more global and that will continue. The individual careers are much more fluid than when I graduated. When I got out of law school, people thought they were going to join an organization–the Department of Justice, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Cravath, Swaine & Moore–and they would spend their careers there. They were thinking about how to maximize their position within any organization they joined. We live in a very different world now. Organizations are restructuring and reforming and our graduates need to be thinking about how they are going to be part of that world. They may join the Department of Justice or a major law firm but it is just as likely they will move from there to another organization and then be involved in a startup and then do something else. They need to be constantly insuring that they are developing the right skills and approach to opening up their opportunities.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.