An Interview With Northwestern's Forward-Thinking Dean

northwestern lawWhat specialized areas of the law have Northwestern students been most interested in?
We’re seeing a very strong interest in experiential learning. That includes clinical legal education, simulation courses, courses where there’s a great amount of teamwork, and interdisciplinary work at the intersection of law and business. Students are demanding courses, seminars, externships and other curriculum that will give them substantial, practical legal skills, and the ability to demonstrate and deploy those skills while they’re still here in law school. I expect that trend will continue. I don’t think it’s unique to Northwestern, but we have one of the largest clinical programs in the country. So, we might be in a better position to accommodate that demand than some other places.
A second area that students are really pushing us to develop specialties in is what I call work at the intersection of law, business, and technology. We’re developing a number of initiatives, specialties, and curricular programs that really respond to what I believe is the changing dynamic of the legal profession, the modern phenomenon of legal issues involving more than just legal skills, that involve very sophisticated approaches to technology. We’re starting a brand-new program in the fall, and it’s called the Master of Science in Law program. The goal is not to train lawyers. It’s to teach STEM-trained individuals legal skills.
What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?
The biggest challenge is maintaining and improving our academic programs and professional programs while keeping costs in check. If I had a blank check, the kinds of programs I would build would truly boggle the mind, because there’s just so much we could do to improve legal education. But almost without exception, those programs are enormously resource-intensive, and I cannot justify simply increasing tuition year after year and adding to student debt. On the flip side, if I engage in radical surgery and do what you read about in the blogs—“Why don’t law schools cut tuition in half? Why don’t they do all these things?”—that would cut our ability to engage in things like clinical education, financial aid—all these resource-intensive endeavors. So the single biggest challenge that I face as dean is to continue accelerating our momentum by improving our academic programs and being innovative without having students bear the brunt of those changes.
That is why deans spend so much time raising money and diversifying our revenue picture. It’s not because, you know, we have endless time and energy to go out and raise money. It’s only if we can succeed in building up our financial resources that we can make improvements without saddling our students with increased amounts of student debt, which is simply not sustainable in the long run.
What opportunities are you especially excited about?
There’s a famous phrase that’s often associated with either President Obama or Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I really feel that that’s a bellwether for what law schools are trying to do. We’re clearly in a crisis, but let’s take this very challenging time and use it to make some real change. Then, we’ll see this period of time positively: We’ll see it as a time in which we were willing to experiment and innovate in extremely interesting ways.
If you could just pick one, what’s the biggest thing you’d like to accomplish as dean?
The best I could hope for is enhancing the professional opportunities for our students and young alumni. Every dean should see that as a very high priority, if not the highest priority. Some of that is measurable, like our employment rate. Some of it’s a little harder to measure, like when we advance and promote the employment opportunities and professional opportunities of students who’ve graduated several years ago. But that’s still meaningful. Just because students have graduated, it doesn’t mean we’ve ended our relationship with them. I like to meet with alumni who’ve graduated from Northwestern three years ago or ten years ago, and to be able to learn that their careers have really taken off, and that they have found professional and personal fulfillment in the choices they’ve made. I love the connection that I have not only with our current law students but also with our young alumni. It’s one of the great treasures of this job.
DON’T MISS: A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH UPENN LAW DEAN MICHAEL FITTS or WHAT ALL LAW SCHOOLS LOOK FOR

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