A Candid Interview With UPenn Law Dean Michael Fitts

Michael Fitts, dean of UPenn's Law School

Michael Fitts, dean of UPenn’s Law School

When Michael Fitts was initially tapped to be dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, it was said that his arm had to be twisted out of its socket to convince him to take the job. That was 13 years ago in 2000. Now in his third term as dean, the affable Fitts is the longest-serving dean of the law school elites.
In a wide-ranging interview with TippingTheScales, Fitts defends legal education as ideal training to make a difference in the world, why the profession still has vast opportunities for graduates, why he would prefer to see more rankings of law schools, and why Penn Law School’s Class of 1983 accomplished extraordinary success.
During his 13 years as dean, Fitts has increased the school’s endowment by more than 250%, recruited more than 20 faculty members, created partnerships with a half dozen institutions abroad from Beijing to Tokyo, and graduated some 3,500 lawyers.
Fitts grew up in West Philadelphia, with strong ties to Penn. His father headed up the surgery department at Penn’s Medical School, while his maternal grandfather had been dean of the Wharton School. When it came time to go to college, however, Fitts ventured a little north to Harvard College, graduating in 1975. And when it came to choosing a career, Fitts had no inclination to go into either medicine or business.
Instead, he found himself inspired by Gregory Peck who played attorney Atticus Finch in the filmTo Kill a Mockingbird.  So four years after graduating from Harvard, he earned his J.D. degree from Yale University Law School where he was an editor of the Yale Law Journal. Fitts began teaching law at Penn in 1985. His third term ends June 30, 2015.
Neither of his two daughters seem likely to follow his footsteps in law. One is studying journalism at Columbia University, while other is expected to pursue a career in medicine. Of his journalist daughter, he jokes that she was a classical flutist. So having her go into journalism “is like going into investment banking” as far as he is concerned.
To a great extent, Penn Law School has been above the fray. The demand for a Penn degree remains high. The school is among the most selective in the world. And few Penn law school grads seem to have any trouble landing jobs. But what’s your take on the law school bubble?  
Let me break it down. For students coming to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I don’t think there has been a more exciting moment to go to law school. What we teach here is as important as it has ever been and the opportunities it will offer our students is really exceptional. That’s because a legal education today broadly conceived is first-rate preparation for leadership decision-making in this economic environment.
Let me explain. Historically, law schools taught people how to think. That an incredible skill, to take a problem, break it apart, work through the issues and make a decision. In a world that is getting more complex and more integrated that skill is even more important today than it was ten or 20 years ago. In a way, the traditional first year of law school hasn’t changed that much in teaching those skills. We also live in a far more regulated world and lawyers are adept at working through regulatory frameworks. There are areas in which lawyers have not been historically educated in and we are moving now to prepare them even better.
One is the ability to manage and think strategically. Lawyers have tended to think of themselves as lone rangers, people who think and work alone. Today lawyers work in huge teams and in organizations and they have to understand how to direct people and work in large organizations. The combination of law and management is extraordinary. And as lawyers have become much more specialized, that part is critical.
I’ll give you an example. We have taught negotiation between the law school and Wharton for a number of years. At the end of the class, we have the business students and the law students negotiate with one another. The law students never go bankrupt but they never win the brass ring. The business school students will go bankrupt but they will more often get the brass ring. The purpose of this class is to teach each side a little bit of the value added of the other. Lawyers tend to think through problems more compulsively. Management students lean toward risk taking. The idea is to create a professional who is thinking through a problem from all perspectives. That is why I think a law degree today is absolutely perfect for this environment. And our graduates are more in demand than when I graduated from law school.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.