Leadership in law schools.

AuthorChemerinsky, Erwin
Position2017 Stanford Law Review Symposium; Raising the Bar: Lawyers and Leadership

Leadership in law schools fundamentally requires the same as leadership skills in any organization. I had the tremendous benefit of being in a number of leadership positions before becoming the dean of a law school. For example, I served as the director of a program for high school students at Northwestern University, spent a year as President of the campus-wide Academic Senate at the University of Southern California, and chaired government commissions. Most importantly, I was elected by Los Angeles voters in 1997 to a commission to rewrite the Los Angeles City Charter and then chosen by my fellow commissioners to chair the Elected Los Angeles City Charter Reform Commission. These experiences guided me when I assumed the position as the first Dean for the University of California, Irvine School of Law (UCI).

Yet there also are important ways in which being a law school dean is different from other leadership positions. Unlike in other organizations, much of the governance of a law school is done by the faculty; the dean's is only one vote among many. For example, decisions about faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure; curriculum; and academic policy are for the faculty as a whole to make. (1) In addition, in my role as Dean, I am a part of a larger campus which is itself part of a much larger university (the University of California system). Accordingly, unlike in my previous positions, many of my decisions as Dean are constrained by campus and university rules, and a significant amount of my time is spent resolving disputes with campus bureaucrats.

I was honored to be asked to speak about leadership in law schools at the Stanford Law Review's "Lawyers as Leaders" Symposium, though I feel presumptuous doing so. I do not claim to have any special expertise, and my comments are entirely a reflection of my own experience: thirty-seven years as a law professor, nine of them spent as a dean. Admittedly, my experience as Dean has been unique because, unlike my contemporaries, I am the founding Dean of UCI. I was hired in September 2007 and formally began on July 1,2008, the first year UCI opened to law students.

From my experiences in leadership positions, both as a dean and in other capacities, I would identify five crucial characteristics of effective leadership. This list, of course, is not exhaustive but reflects five aspects of leadership I have observed in others and realized when I have been in a leadership position.

First, it is essential to have a vision, to articulate it, and to look for ways to advance it. An organization can only achieve its goals if its goals are articulated. That is the leader's responsibility. Articulating a clear vision has benefits both internally within the organization and for external audiences. For example, when I served as Chair of the Elected Los Angeles City Charter Reform Commission, it was imperative at the outset to define our vision, because we were starting from scratch to write a new charter for the City to replace one that had been drafted in 1925. My vision was that we were engaged in reimagining city governance, with the goal of creating a new structure that would maximize efficiency and accountability. This effort was particularly important because there was another charter reform commission that had been appointed by the Los Angeles City Council working simultaneously. This commission defined its role much more modestly as revising the existing Charter. Articulating the vision was crucial for how my Commission saw its tasks and for how it would be perceived by elected officials, constituent groups, and the media. (2) Ultimately, we successfully convinced the voters to approve the new Charter in June 1999, in large part based on the vision we set out from the beginning: the Charter would create a more efficient and accountable city government. Los Angeles continues to be governed by this Charter.

As Dean of a new law school, I knew from the outset that I needed to articulate the vision of what we sought to be as an institution. I repeatedly said that we wanted to be a "top-twenty law school by every measure." My intention was to send a message to prospective faculty, students, and employers--and even to others within my university. New law schools traditionally begin near the bottom of the...

To continue reading

Request your trial