The 25 Most Influential People in Legal Education

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Let’s start with an admission: This ranking is not a popularity contest.

You won’t always agree with what these leaders say. Their positions may strike a nerve. And they don’t always play nice. In fact, you might consider some nominees to be arrogant or acerbic. Maybe that’s why they’re more “influential” than “popular.”

In The National Jurist’s “2014 Most Influential People in Legal Education,” you won’t find any administrators or faculty from Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. In fact, most come from programs like Pepperdine, California-Irvine, Southwestern Law, and William Mitchell. For the most part, they are innovators who challenge the establishment they represent. But they’re not biting the hand that feeds them. Instead, they’re just speaking out about hard truths – and their implications.

By now, you’re familiar with the critiques of law school. ‘It’s too expensive.’ ‘It doesn’t prepare students for practice.’ ‘The third year is a waste.’ And don’t even start about stagnating enrollments and hiring. But it isn’t these issues that generate disputes. It’s the solutions. Some tout an experiential-based curriculum, an option anathema to staunch traditionalists who believe students should master an increasingly complex and voluminous law code. Others prefer a cross-curricular approach so students can master the intricacies of finance and social science for clients. And let’s not forget how technology is re-shaping how evidence is being presented in court.

WHAT MAKES AN INFLUENCER?

These days, the expectations are only growing for law grads.  Often, these influential legal educators are emblematic of painful tradeoffs. And their prescriptions require legal institutions to shake off their tried-and-true formulas to imagine, evaluate, and experiment. Whenever you challenge others to pick up their pace and raise their game, you’re bound to get push back. It’s self-preservation. Change is painful. And the possibility of losing something – anything – is terrifying (especially to academics).

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So which legal minds are more significant or divisive than others? Each year, The National Jurist measures just that. Here’s how: The National Jurist requests nominations from every law school before whittling the list down to 50 candidates. From there, The National Jurist holds a vote that includes law deans and the magazine’s editorial staff.

These influencers are transforming legal education by various means. Some are bloggers, who use their stage as a megaphone beyond stodgy academic journals and peer conferences. Others are deans who are revamping their curriculum with new programs and activities. And you’ll find some spearheading task forces, inching the ball forward from the inside. All of them are either “innovators” or “intellectuals” (to borrow The National Jurist’s categories). And some are controversial – and even loathed – for their contrarian stands.

INDIANA PROFESSOR TOPS THE LIST

When it comes to influence, you’ll find the top vote-getter in Indianapolis, Indiana (of all places). Here, William Henderson, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law holds sway.

What sets Henderson apart? According to The National Jurist, Henderson has been the law school version of Cassandra, the voice in the wilderness calling for reform. In a recent Whiteboard column, he conveyed his overall philosophy. “When I write about changes occurring in the legal marketplace, I worry whether the substance and methodology of U.S. legal education provides an excellent education for a legal world that is gradually fading away, and very little preparation for the highly interdisciplinary legal world that is coming into being.”

Maurer dean Austen L. Parrish describes Henderson as “one of, if not, the most influential voices in the country when it comes to explaining and understanding changes occurring in large law firms and the legal profession.” When you hear critiques of law schools being bloated and out of touch, you’re probably hearing echoes of Henderson’s work.