John V. White
Dean of UNLV’s Boyd Law School
Fri, Jun 19, 2009 (3 a.m.)
Two years ago John V. White took the helm of Boyd Law School just before the biggest economic meltdown in recent memory. He has thrice seen his institution’s budget slashed as once-generous donors tightened their purse strings. White has led the law school through tough seas, implementing a hiring freeze and shrinking expenses in an attempt to preserve core programs while continuing community service vital to the poor and disenfranchised.
Through it all the school has continued its steady rise. The decade-old law school is ranked among the top 75 in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Its legal writing program is No. 3 in the nation. And with the state’s higher education budget nearly settled, White is preparing to move the school along a new path despite the economy.
IBLV: What’s your role at the law school?
White: You know, the dean has multiple jobs. The main job is as the chief officer of the institution. So eventually I have responsibility for pretty much anything that comes up.
Our main division is between teaching and administration of the school. The faculty has quite a lot of autonomy, so my role with the faculty is as a member on some issues, but more generally I’m trying to put faculty initiatives into operation.
With respect to students, both the faculty and administration work with students to address student concerns. But I think the biggest issue is plotting the direction of the school, ensuring its financial stability and trying to adjust to changes.
How many students do you have for the upcoming year?
We have a total, usually, of about 450 to 460. It sometimes is a little higher because we have evening and other part-time students who take a little longer and, then the next year, it will be a little lower because more of them graduated.
Our goal admission is 150 (a year). It’s usually a little higher than that because we can’t really afford to be lower. And we have a lot of stability. We don’t really want to be bigger because we would have to add faculty, and we’d put pressure on our physical plant. But we don’t really want to be smaller unless we had some sort of mechanism for making up the revenue, which would be difficult.
But our size is typical of Western schools in the broadest sense of things. Obviously in the big cities there are schools that are much bigger. But in the competitive environment that law schools are in where the quality of our student body matters a lot, it’s difficult for us to get bigger without sacrificing entering student quality indicators.
What are benefits of having faculty and student body of this size?
It’s big enough for us to be able to have some economies of scale. But it’s small enough for us to continue to have an intimate relationship with our students.
And one of the challenges for us is — because we operate an evening program — our day is stretched from 8:30 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night. And the challenge of being a smaller school is that there are very few people around and about, particularly in the transition period from 3 to 6, when the number of people taking classes during the day goes down without any evening students.
But it does mean that, by stretching the day out like that, we have a more intimate relationship with students. There’s a tremendous amount of accessibility for the faculty who are in the building at a particular time.
The trade-off is that particular faculty members may be in the building only in the day or only during the night or they may be there for both periods, but only for a couple of days, because they will have a day that runs from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and that’s pretty long.
Do you have a wider role in the community?
I do, but I think our faculty has been very engaged in the community as well. We have a community-service program that puts our students in the community. Almost all second- and third-year students are interested in getting some hands-on experience and so many of them do externships for credit, which we supervise and manage. Or they do paid jobs with attorneys. So I think that our footprint in the community is really pretty substantial.
My job is a little bit different in that it’s focused on reaching out to lawyers in the community to find out what their needs are, but also reaching out to other members of the community to help develop support for the law school, financial and political and otherwise.
Do you still get a chance to do your own research?
Well, that’s very difficult. I was lucky that two casebooks that I’ve been working on came out in print in ’08 and ’09. And as the summer shapes up I’m drawn to a rhythm, this is the time I should be writing stuff. But it’s difficult.
I still have projects that I follow that other people are writing. But the difficult part is sitting down and actually doing the writing yourself. My schedule is a little bit unforgiving in that regard.
Overall, how do you think your first two years have gone?
I love Las Vegas, I love the job. The job is extraordinarily interesting, but it’s really, really busy.
More generally, obviously, this has been a very unusual time for the country and for Nevada and Las Vegas. So naturally, it has been a difficult time for the law school as well.
The main difficulty has been uncertainty. And that’s in a way been the most frustrating thing. Because if you have a particular problem you can devote yourself to it, but not knowing what your situation will be has been more difficult because all you can do is work on it and you don’t see any results.
Fortunately, now that the legislative session has come to an end — by the time this story comes out — the main thing we’ll gain is clarity.
I’ve enjoyed doing the job. But I think the job has been unusual as is everything else in the state, city, country and, really, the world. So we’re just doing our best.
Do you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions a bit?
No, because I think the law school continues to enjoy great support. The key thing has been the state’s budget situation is really so bad that even folks who wanted to make things better for us were limited in what they could do. I didn’t encounter anyone who was opposed to or disliked the law school. I’m always open to hearing things we could be doing better.
It’s been the best of a bad circumstance in part because I think we’ve done a very good job of servicing the community, of being responsive to the needs of lawyers, of their clients. And the real goal is that it seems to me that the number of lawyers in Nevada is going to grow, but we want to make sure we can participate in providing really good lawyers and lawyers who are invested in the community in a very thorough way. Most of our students are Nevadans, naturally, in excess of 75 percent. Those are people who are from here, are interested here or who might have moved here and made this their home before they applied to the law school. But also our out-of-state students have tended to stay in Nevada as well. These are folks who we’ve had a hand in making Nevadans. So as they go out and practice, the values that we’ve tried to emphasize — professionalism, commitment to community, high skill levels — those are the things they’ll bring to the community with them.
This past year marked the 10th anniversary of the law school. How significant is that milestone?
Well, when you start a school, you assume it will continue forever. So it’s an important milestone in a lot of ways, not so much because we achieved it, but because of the things that it allows us to look back on and celebrate. We built a really excellent school in a very short period of time — a record period of time. We’ve become a model for other startup law schools to follow. And I think without commemorating what we’ve done, when someone else comes along and duplicates our model, then we will have forgotten what we did. I think that the commemoration of the 10 years is more about making sure that we acknowledge the great work of my predecessor, of the founding faculty, of the people who came after and most important, of the students who invested themselves in this law school from the beginning and gave fulfillment to that vision.
Doing it in the downturn year meant that we were not able, I think, to really commemorate some of the people who were principals in pushing it through. The legislative members were in session, a lot of the other folks are engaged in more difficult jobs. It would have been possible, perhaps, to have a big gala event and have them all come over, but not when they were trying to keep the state together.
The way we structured the commemoration served a number of important roles. We made sure there was an academic component to it. We are a law school after all, and we emphasized that component. We had a series of continuing legal education sessions that were very well attended and, as best I can tell, were very well received.
We also have used it as a kickoff to reach out to our alums, who are now some 1,100 and, as I think a (Las Vegas) Sun story highlighted, are 11 percent of the attorneys in Clark County.
Our alums are the lifeblood of the school. At present and going forward, they’ll have careers that will far outlast that of many faculty of whom they think fondly. And so getting them reinvolved, which is not necessarily something that comes to mind in the fourth year of a law school when you have two classes in practice, is one of the key things that we have to do. The 10-year commemoration was a way to announce that intention.
What do you hope the alumni see when the 20th anniversary is celebrated?
A fantastic law school, very well regarded and constantly moving forward. One of the things that is very apparent from the time we’ve launched the school to the present is the process of continued growth and improvement. And we’re still in the growth phase.
If you look at schools that have been around for a long time, they have institutions in place that we haven’t yet had a chance to build. And so we still have to build those institutions. On the other hand, we have the flexibility to build them in the way that is most efficient, for the present. And so taking advantage of that opportunity should allow us to build a spectacular school. And 20 years out we’ll have quite a lot of alums who I think will be very engaged in the day-to-day choices about how to build the school. And that is part of the goal of the outreach: to build channels for them to be able to communicate with me and through me with the faculty.
What type of institutions might those be?
One thing is alumni relations, development. One of (former Dean) Dick (Morgan)’s tremendous skills was his ability to personally run a development operation for the school with great success. But building the institutions allow it to outlast any one skill set. And I’m focused on making sure that when I’m done as dean, those institutions are still in place.
Alumni relations is a key one. It’s one that to a great degree I can do some of now, but having a structure in place is really important. And we have the beginnings of those structures, but we really have to build institutional capacity to be able to outlast individuals who might have done an extraordinary job in addition to doing five or six other jobs.
Within the law school, I think that we’re just starting to build out our various programs, and while they’ve been very successful, they need to gain some structure. I think that given the nature of the gaming industry in town, there are two different channels. One is that gaming itself is an important industry and it’s one that we have supported in the sense that we’ve taught gaming courses from the very beginning, but structuring that in a way that recognizes and ensures that Nevada remains the regulatory center of gaming worldwide. That’s really crucial.
The second thing related to gaming is that it’s an international business of a great degree. And focusing on international components of American law, particularly international business law as it relates to gaming, but also as it relates to business practices more generally can be beneficial to the state. And it’s also something that as an institution we could benefit from quite tremendously.
This is a destination city, so it would also produce the ability for us to bring scholars from around the world who might wish to do their research here for a period of time.
In terms of building the school for 10 years out, trying to build out those kinds of institutions is really crucial. The difficulty is that working through these tough times our existing institutions have to take priority. And so everything will move a little bit more slowly than we would hope. But I think that we’re still undaunted in this goal of building out the school so that 20 years from now the focus will be adjusting what we have to changed conditions rather than trying to put things in place that don’t exist.
Again this year Boyd graduates had a higher than average bar passage rate in Nevada. What does that say about the school?
Well, it’s important. Obviously our graduates can’t practice law until they pass the bar. The Nevada Bar is more difficult than many, and so as the Nevada law school, it’s our obligation to make sure that our students are prepared to take the bar here in the state. Since most of our graduates are going to stay in state, that obligation is doubly important.
Why the bar is as it is is beyond our control and influence. What we don’t want to see in years to come is students of ours leaving to other states because they see the bar as an impediment. So as a consequence, we need to make sure we admit students we think will be able to be successful both in the school and at the bar — that we train them in ways that will make it possible for them to pass the bar, and we emphasize bar passage with them so they take it seriously. Most people who fail the bar, not just in Nevada but bar exams in general, eventually pass. So it’s a tragedy both for them and for their schools to not have them not succeed on the first try. That’s our focus. We’ve devoted a lot of institutional resources to identifying students who, if they gave extra effort, would pass on the first try and making sure that would happen.
I came from a state where bar passage had become a ground of competition among the four schools within the state, and I thought that was really unhealthy. It got the schools focused on the bar as the only thing, and I think really undercut the development of their academic programs, the recruitment of students and so on. And I think that was a failing both of the schools themselves, but really of the members of the bar who delighted in this competition in a very bizarre way.
Without other schools in the state, we really don’t run that risk, but I do think there is a little bit of a risk that the bar becomes the be all and end all. And while the bar is aimed at ensuring a minimal level of competence of attorneys practicing, it’s also not clear how flexible law schools can be if they get too focused on that one requirement, like any one requirement of a school.
There’s no way to dismiss the bar as one of the most important things that we focus on, but I am cautious because of my prior experience that we come to think of it as some magical thing. It’s an exam that is aimed at trying to ensure protection of the public, and our role in that is to make sure we train our students to be able to address it.
How do you balance a curriculum that prepares graduates for a career in law with the need to pass the big test?
That’s our faculty’s job, to design a curriculum that is balanced. Students, naturally, take bar courses at a high level because they want to make sure that when they sit for the bar they know those areas of law and that constrains them in terms of taking other courses that might be useful to them.
One of the risks is there is a group of courses that take an overview toward the end and those courses tend to be very difficult, and if they’re on the bar, students take them, and if they’re not on the bar, students tend to shy away from them. But we think in those instances they are not as strong a student. The only way you can really do that is through curriculum design and through advising students about what it takes to be a good lawyer in X area. And I think we do that balance very well.
Recently, the faculty have been engaged in a process of trying to revise guidelines for students who might want to be an employment lawyer or might want to be an intellectual-property lawyer or might want to be a securities lawyer. It’s unclear whether the bulk of law graduates would be able to specialize so early in their careers, but if that is where students interests are, you at least want to be able to say, “It’s crucial you take this course that gives you the overview at the end while also taking your bar courses.” It’s a combination of curriculum design and advising.
The Boyd School shot up the national rankings this year. What are your thoughts on that?
Most academics despise those rankings. Do they serve any good purpose?
I think that the thing with these rankings is their power derives from the general lack of applicants having information about how to choose among the schools. So the rankings do serve some purposes in the broadest terms. But very often students and other constituents will look at shifts of two, three, five positions and make quite a lot of it.
The main negative with the rankings — particularly for a school like this in a very small state — is they emphasize entering student quality indicators very high: (grade point average), (Law School Admission Test) and selectivity. Because of that, it puts a lot of pressure on schools to be very, very sensitive to LSAT scores and it constrains them. In a small state, while that means we’ll admit quite a lot of Nevadans early on because they have very good LSAT scores and we have to work really hard to convince them to come to our school, we don’t have the flex to reach deeper into the pool for people who would undoubtedly be very good students and probably very good lawyers. And in many instances that excludes people who are very well connected in the community. But that kind of restraint that the rankings produce is just one example.
Many law schools now spend a tremendous amount of money on promotions and publicity. There are schools that spend in the seven figures on promotions and publicity, and their aim, their goal, is to incrementally increase their regard in the rankings, both with judges and lawyers, but, also most importantly, with peers in the legal academy.
That’s just not a wise allocation of resources. It makes some sense, particularly when you’ve had successes, to share that success with people in the professional community, so some expenditure is certainly warranted, but the levels of expenditure at some schools is really quite disturbing, and it’s created something of a competition.
I think the rankings are also responsible for competition for students and that has created some weird dynamics among law schools. It’s driven tuition cost up while simultaneously driving the necessity within law schools to spend money on scholarships, so there is literally a fight for the best students. It’s one we can lament, but it’s not one we cannot participate in. We really have to be involved in it.
Do you think they might be better served by some other mechanism by which they can evaluate schools?
The (American Bar Association) and the (Law School Admission Council), the entity that produces the LSAT, jointly post detailed information about every single law school that is ABA approved, which is available to students or, if they don’t like going on the Internet — which would be bizarre — they could buy a book that has it all in it and have it all in one spot and carry it all around with them.
The problem is that that information is difficult to make sense of. There may be one thing that a particular applicant knows they want or don’t want in a school and that information might help them in pinning that down.
Instead, what the LSAC-ABA site has mostly been used for is for students to take a guess about where they might get admitted, so they don’t apply to schools where they don’t have a chance or apply to a bunch of schools they’re not interested in where they will get admitted and then have to tell them no.
That is a service, but the difference that rankings provide is that they make a qualitative judgment, albeit a distorted one, that students can really sort of grab onto. We have an affinity for rankings in this county. So even for the student who is savvy enough to know that the difference between one and two is not that great, and the difference between 36 and 40 is not really that significant, they’re able, then, to make judgments about the difference between 14 and 40. And I don’t know that those are significant distinctions, but that’s something that, until someone comes up with a better mechanism, a more accurate system, then I think applicants will continue to focus on those things.
It’s a troublesome development, but until there’s something better, I don’t see how it’s going to be any different.
What about rankings of specific practice areas in law schools, such as gaming law or environmental law?
I think those are probably less useful to students because very few students have such a clear view of what they want to do when they come in. But I think they’re useful in a different way. To the extent that a school has these programs, it might actually be the best window on the quality of the faculty of the school that’s available. I can say that boldly because we are very well regarded in the three programs that are ranked, and now they have a part-time ranking, which is a little different.
But the key is that with those, what U.S. News is doing is serving people within that area and saying, “List for us the best programs in this area.” So with legal writing, for example, our lawyering process program is the No. 3 program. That, at least, shows that among the legal writing professors across the country, they regard our program, our faculty and how we’re doing legal writing through our lawyering process program as particularly valuable. And they think we have a great faculty and they think we do a good job at it.
Now, with legal writing, that’s helpful because it’s not a practice area, it’s a skills and professional training that we do integrated within our broader curriculum, so if the student wants to ensure they come out with skills and a professional attitude from their law school experience, then that would be pretty telling. But I think more generally the better point to draw is that we rank well with all our specialty programs — lawyer process, Saltman Center and our clinic — and it suggests that we’ve built a very good faculty here. I think that’s more valuable even than a 10- to 15-point comparison among schools.
Now, if you’re a student, what do you say if there’s a school with an environmental program that’s well ranked and you don’t’ want to do environmental law? It certainly means they have good faculty in that area and they probably do some things that you don’t know about that are really good, like administrative law and perhaps even constitutional law. But I think that it’s a way of seeing a peer assessment of the quality of a school’s program.
The recession is hitting the legal community just as it is every other sector of the economy. Has that affected students and graduates?
Well, sure. I think the effects have not been as dramatic as one might guess. And I think that is, in part, because Nevada is a state that has lots of very small law firms that, in many instances, have perfected a business model that is more or less stable. They have less risk and are still able to hire and still need the help and more important, there are more firms than we have graduates in any given year, so the proliferation of these smaller firms gives us a little more stability on the placement side.
I think that the broader concerns are long-term concerns. They have to do with the model that emerged with law firms in the 1980s and which has driven increases in pay for starting attorneys. It’s also driven or supported very large hiring classes in the big cities and that has had a trickle-down effect that at some law schools their graduates go primarily to New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and a couple of other places; and they’re not competing for jobs in Kansas City or Dallas, even.
I don’t know how these things will change in the future, but we’re monitoring them and we’re in contact with the employers here in town and trying to make sure that we’re sensitive to what their needs are and able to serve our students appropriately because those needs change.
Are you seeing any change in the number of applications to the law school?
There was a slight increase this year. Usually when there’s a downturn, there is a pretty stout increase and I think many people in the admissions world were expecting a pretty substantial increase in applications.
It appears the number of applicants to law school in general has gone up a little bit, but those applicants are applying to fewer schools, so that some schools are experiencing increases that are significant, some schools, like ours, are experiencing very slight increases and then there are schools that are seeing drops in the number of applications.
It’s hard to gauge what that is all about. But I think that given the root of the downturn in the housing market, I think that some people are less mobile than they might have been just a few years ago — unable to sell, unwilling to sell or just worried about having to pack up everything and move to another town. But that’s just a guess on my part.
We’ve had, and are happy to have had, a slight increase in applications.
There has been news all over the country this past year about layoffs at law firms. Is now a bad time to go to law school and try to become a lawyer?
I think that if you wanted to go to law school because you thought it was a cool job, that was always a bad reason to go to law school. The practice of law is a profession, and it’s not a job, as such.
I think that what you’re seeing is firms changing their practice model. And that naturally happens with lots of losses.
The practice of law is supportive of the economy in so many ways, or at least connected to it. So while construction was a huge driver in the economy here, it was also very prevalent in the practice of a lot of firms. Those firms are having to retool with changes in the real estate and construction markets. I don’t think, from a long-term perspective, that is a reason to be worried about going to law school.
But the go-go period of the dot-com boom followed by the housing market boom have created impressions among applicants to law school that this is sort of a cool job, you just kind of get through law school and go get one of them and they don’t require a lot of you. And everything about that is wrong.
This is not a job, it’s a profession. It’s about building your own career and it’s difficult. That’s always been the case and probably always will be the case. Lawyers carry people’s fortunes and futures in their hands, so it shouldn’t be easy and shouldn’t be something people take very lightly.
The economy might shake some people out of going to law school who maybe shouldn’t have thought about going to law school in the first place. But for the people who think that this is a career they’ll be happy in, I think this is probably still a career they will be happy in.
What do you look for in an applicant?
Well, we look for a lot of things ... We’re trying to judge three different things. We want to know that people will be successful in law school, on the bar (exam) and in practice. And that’s a difficult thing to gauge.
LSAT and GPA are good indicators of success in the first year of law school, but it’s not a good indicator of anything after that. So we’re trying to look for some of the things that we think correlate with success in practice: Commitment to the community, commitment to service, those are crucial things because our profession is one that is closely tied to the fortunes of the community, and it’s all about service.
Lawyers read and write for a living, it’s what we do. And so academic ability, specifically with respect to reading and writing, is really, really crucial. And yet it’s very difficult to gauge on an application that people have had time to work on and, hopefully, it should be pristine and perfect.
So a lot of it has to do with the letters of recommendation that folks get. Those letters should really focus on that person’s abilities: Their reading, their writing ability, their analytic ability, their ability to reason from a difficult proposition. And oftentimes, that is not present in an application because people think instead that something else is important.
The personal statements I think are often focused too heavily on experiences the person may have had and don’t convey how that experience might have really influenced their service and community commitment, how it might have encouraged them to be more diligent in their work ethic and how it might have helped them to be a better student, a better reader and writer. And then sometimes it doesn’t convey that they can write, which is also a problem.
So the first thing we’re looking for is success.
The second thing I think we’re looking for is will they be a community asset as a lawyer. That’s really difficult to convey on an application, but occasionally it’s what people are able to do.
One of the distortions in the application process is that at some very, very selective schools — Yale, Stanford, those types of places — they’re capable of having classes of extraordinarily talented academic achievers, so they focus quite heavily on things you might have done in life: the service you did when you flew to a war-torn region to help feed the starving or something. And that I think has percolated around application circles so that individuals are very interested in conveying something they did that was very impressive. And if they haven’t done something like that — how many 22-year-olds who have been working hard to get through college can say they went off on some expedition? — I think they then get insecure about their application.
So while that is something that matters because it’s a signal to commitment to community and service, if it’s not there, you shouldn’t make it up. And moreover, at most schools, like at our school, commitment to community and service doesn’t have to be something so extraordinary. It can be something as simple as working in your local community or something you did when you were in school.
The real key is not just to have done it, but also to convey how that has influenced you and how it has made you someone who will be an asset to the community and someone who will serve.
And then the third thing we look for throughout the application is that this person will be a contributor to an interesting and self-reinforcing community within the law school. It’s there that various notions of diversity come in, it’s there that life experiences come in.
For us, we’re very interested in folks who have experience. We’ve long had a number of older students in our class because we think they add to the class quite a lot. But conveying that is also very difficult in an application, and it probably is not something you can do directly. Rather, it’s probably the consequence of these other things: The experiences you’ve had, the service that you’ve provided, the success you’ve had in school and your commitment to hard work. All of those are important things that I think every admissions committee at every school focuses on quite heavily. We’re not really different in that regard.
We’re making a hard choice between quite a lot of applicants, and it’s probably the case that many of the people who we don’t admit will turn out to be really good lawyers. But that’s the situation with every law school and the key for every student is to find the law school that is both a good fit for them and that they’ll feel comfortable at, but that will also admit them.
To the extent they’ve identified a place they really want, I think their application has to be true to them and it has to convey who they are more than anything else.
You just held commencement a few weeks ago — what is the biggest challenge your 2009 graduates are facing?
Well, right now it’s passing the bar. After that?
It’s always passing the bar first. Building a career in a difficult economic environment is always challenging, but what’s been helpful about the legal profession is people always have problems, the issue is finding ways to address those problems and serve those folks when you can also build your career and support your family and so on.
I think it’s simply that things are in flux right now, and graduates will have to work really hard to build their careers. There won’t be a lot of supereasy routes — but that’s never been the case for law. To the extent that easy paths have emerged, they are unusual and rare and they usually have to do with a person finding a perfect match for their temperament and their skills with a firm that needs those skills.
That never really changes, and I think for the 2009 graduates the challenge will be that things will be slightly more difficult. They’ll do what they’ve always had to do, which is finding the right place for them in their careers, but it will be a little bit trickier.
Tuition is expected to rise. Could that affect admissions, retention of students and how are you dealing with that?
We’ve noticed applicants for the past two years (during) the (tuition) increase, and we’ve not seen a substantial change. I’m sure there are marginal effects — an individual who says, “Oh, I was going to go here because tuition was really low, but I’m going to go somewhere else because they offered me a scholarship.”
Although the tuition increase was very substantial, it doesn’t take us completely out of the mix. We aimed at putting ourselves in the middle of a set of schools the regents chose as our peers, and those schools are all schools within the region.
So I think we’re still quite competitive, and we set these numbers two years ago, and we still don’t know what our peers are charging. We could find it out, but all indications are that given the economic woes in neighboring states as well, that their tuition will go up and those that have been higher than ours will remain so and those we might be leapfrogging will leapfrog us back.
In any event, we think we’ll be in the middle of the pack in tuition in the region and that the comparison between in-state and out-of-state tuition is always a different calculus. But we haven’t seen any effects that are global or substantial.
The higher education budget is expected to be cut across the board following the latest legislative session. How are you preparing for potential cuts?
We’ve taken cuts in the last year and a half, and so we’ve had to respond to those because it’s limited the money we’ve had to pay the bills.
I think that the key is that as the Legislature draws to an end we’ll have a degree of certainty about the situation we’ll face for the biennium. The economy is still not superhealthy, and so there is always the prospect that the deal they’ve hammered out with so much effort won’t be able to be sustained through the whole of the biennium. But at minimum we have a sense of what we were going to be able to do.
I think that over the last year and a half we’ve been in a holding pattern, trying to make sure that we wouldn’t be exposed to cuts that we couldn’t take. Now we’re actually in the opposite position — to be able to fill openings that have emerged over the last year and a half that we made no effort to fill because we wanted the flexibility.
Like all higher education, we’re primarily a salary-based expenditure institution, and the only way to really get savings is in positions. So we’re down like the rest of UNLV in the number of faculty positions from ’07 when I started. We think we’ll be able to fill many of them with the current budget projections and that will allow us to get back to doing the work that we do.
I think the real key is that this downturn was so sharp and so long that it exposed the inability of our Legislature to be able to react very quickly because of the biennium system. So it put all of our institutions in something of a holding pattern for a long period of time. And now that time is more or less over and we can make some choices and move forward, which is what we’re trying to do.
Is it difficult to recruit top faculty to the law school because of the stereotypes of Las Vegas?
Las Vegas is an issue for some people. I think it’s not so much the stereotypes of Las Vegas, but it’s that people don’t really know Las Vegas. The Strip creates a sort of blinding effect. The example I use is that if you see a nighttime aerial shot of Las Vegas, you focus on the Strip and you don’t see this massive area of surrounding lights. There’s a tremendous city here with lots to commend it and also, like any big city, with problems.
For law professors, both the commendable parts of the city and the problems are attractive things. We focus on policy as well as on training skills and professionalism. And so the city is a very interesting space to engage and think about your academic world.
The main difficulty, I think, has less to do with Las Vegas itself and more to do with the fact that we exist in this city in the middle of the desert — an island in a way — and we therefore share some of the difficulties that the law school in Hawaii shares. For faculty to be able to be engaged with their peers and intellectual colleagues you have to travel. There are no other law schools around.
And that contrasts unfavorably with a handful of cities that have six, seven, 10 law schools. And where people are able to have a community on a very narrow subject area because there are four or five people in the city (researching it) or they’re a train ride away.
If you’re thinking about New York, not only do you have quite a lot of law schools, you’re a short train ride away from Philadelphia, from D.C. or from Boston.
So that isolation is a challenge for us and it means we have to be very aggressive as a school about getting our faculty out into the world and getting faculty from other schools here into Las Vegas. And that’s something that has been very difficult to do given budget uncertainties. But it’s a certain thing we have to do if we’re going to be successful as a law school. We have to bring intellectual talent in and recruit people on this notion that they’re going to still be able to be connected to the communities they’re in.
That’s a bigger issue than Las Vegas itself, although Las Vegas is still an issue. It’s not for everybody, right? So you have to be careful about who you recruit and make sure Las Vegas is the town for them. But you also have to educate them about what Las Vegas has to offer.
There are, shockingly, still people who think folks in Las Vegas primarily live on the Strip, which is bizarre. I don’t know if law professors think that, but I think they’re uncertain about what Las Vegas is and you have to fill the gap.
What’s the biggest selling point for the school when you’re recruiting faculty?
It’s our faculty. We’ve built a remarkable faculty here, and we want remarkable people to come and join us and be a part of it.
Our faculty is very supportive of one another and they’re also extraordinarily productive as a faculty. Everyone is writing, everyone is engaged and there’s so much going on. We have so many things that individual faculty are doing, it’s difficult to kind of keep it all together and have a sense of oneness in that project.
But the faculty is a definite selling point. They want to be a part of a productive community that values their hard work. And I think we do that here.
You spoke briefly about the legal clinics. What do you see as the law school’s role in the community and has that changed in the last year?
I don’t think it’s changed, but like everything in the community, demands on community service and social services are greater and the resources are less, which is a challenge for the city. Our role as a law school is always primarily to train students and to produce scholarship that improves the law of the community and of the nation and the world, really. But one of the things that is crucial in our training of students is a commitment to community and I think that’s something we have to do by example, as well.
The law school is a tremendous resource for the city. We’re limited in what we can do, but the things we can do are of great value to the city, and we think that’s an important part of our role, both directly but also as an example to our students.
These things are difficult to pull off, but it’s also difficult when you’re trying to make a living for your family to take on pro bono cases. And since we emphasize that to our students, our faculty embraces it and, institutionally, we do the best we can to be an asset to the community. In a large part, that’s what universities are all about and that’s what a law school is about.
Your graduates do a great deal of the pro bono work in the Las Vegas Valley. Do you think it’s easier for them to take on pro bono because they’ve made a commitment to it and budgeted it into their personal income model from the beginning, while they were in school, as opposed to lawyers who try to fit it in for the first time after years of practice?
Yes. If you say you’re going to put it off until you make X amount of money, then when you make X, you’re going to move that up to X prime and so forth. It has to be a commitment, it has to be something you care about and something you start and continue throughout your career.
What are your short and long term goals for the school?
In the short term, we have to fill the gaps that have emerged over the last year and a half. If you’re treading water, it’s a draining process and you have to make up for that.
Long term, our goals are not really different from where they were in ’07. We have a lot of building to do and that building is going to be more difficult to pull off given the limited resources we face. But we have to do it in order to continue to build our faculty, to serve our students and serve the community.
I think, by way of summation, we want to be an asset, we think of ourselves as a significant asset to the community, and that means we have to adjust to these challenging times, and to do that we need input from folks and I’m always available.