CONFESSIONS OF A LAW DEAN
Roger I. Abrams
Dean and Richardson Professor of Law
Northeastern University School of Law
In the summer of 1999, I began my third law school deanship.
Obviously, as a recidivist dean, I had not learned the lessons so many in the
legal academy think of as the gospel. You are not supposed to enjoy being a
dean. In fact, you deserve pity for the burdens you must bear and the sacrifices
you must make. All you do is raise money. Finally, when your term is over, as a
"fallen dean" you must scurry back to the faculty and attempt to
regain legitimacy and sanity as a scholar and teacher.
Not only am I a recidivist, I am also a heretic. I love the
job, and I am not ashamed to say it. To mix my metaphors, I enjoy both managing
the ball club and leading the parade. I get great pleasure helping to set an
institution’s agenda. I find fundraising enjoyable, especially when you can
see the impact of your efforts. Although the tribulations faced by a dean are
many and complex – my secretary at Nova wanted to post a sign over her desk
that read "It’s always something!" – I think it is fun
coordinating a team of bright, committed colleagues and inventing solutions to
At the same time I have enjoyed the life of a law dean, I
have resisted being consumed by its administrative side. I continue to write,
teach and arbitrate labor disputes. I published my first two books in the last
three years. When I have completed my work as dean, I will embrace rejoining the
faculty. I will not see it as redemption, however, but rather as the next phase
in my academic career.
Traditionally, when law deans gather together, as we do a
number of times each year, there is much gnashing of teeth and sorrowful
wailing. Deans tend to feel unappreciated. It can be a lonesome occupation and,
at some schools, a downright impossible job. The average tenure of deans
(slightly more than three years) is testament to the wear and tear many
experience in the role.
What explains this attrition in the ranks? At times, law
faculties and university presidents pick the wrong people to serve as deans.
Selection processes tend to identify dean candidates with the same credentials,
in particular scholarly accomplishment, academics use to select faculty. I can
report without hesitation that scholarly abilities have little to do with the
administrative jobs of a law school dean. On the other hand, it is critical that
a dean understand the academic environment, including the process of scholarly
research. On occasion, practicing lawyers or judges successfully jump to the
dean’s office, but it is vital, whatever his or her background, that a dean
appreciate both the work functions and mindset of legal academics. (There is a
story I have been told about a judge who interviewed for a deanship who was
aghast to hear that law faculty only taught five or six hours a week. What did
they do with the rest of their time?)
There is one favorable trend to report regarding law school
deans. It is my impression that more of my decanal colleagues are recidivists.
Few will ever approach Tom Read’s DiMaggio-type record of five law
school deanships (Tulsa, Indiana-Indianapolis, Florida, Hastings, and South
Texas), but many will serve a second or third deanship.
It has always been my hope that law deaning would become
recognized as a distinctive part of the profession. In the same way that judges
have different job functions from practitioners, deans have different job
functions from faculty. All deal with the law, but in different capacities and
with a very different skill base.
Legal academics are trained to criticize decisions, not make
them. When you become a dean, you must learn to make decisions. Only a few of
those decisions are momentous. Most involve mundane issues, but ultimately
someone has to decide: Do we buy one of these or one of those? How should we
deal with an employee who cannot seem to make it to work on time? Do we hire a
certain person as an adjunct instructor?
Experience is a valuable instructor. I vividly remember my
first month as dean at Nova Southeastern University in the summer of 1986. I was
greeted by a torrent of minutiae. I quickly learned that I would not be able to
survive and function effectively as dean if I tried to micro-manage the
enterprise. A key decision I made early on was to delegate the discretion to
make decisions to a talented group of administrators. On the most critical
issues, my colleagues learned that I needed to be involved from the beginning
and ultimately to make the decision with their advice. A second group of cases
involved less critical issues in which I needed to be advised after decisions
were made. In this way, I would be prepared if there were later repercussions
from the decision. A third group of issues involved the day-to-day issues that I
did not want to even hear about. When in doubt, I advised my administrative
colleagues to err on the side of checking with me.
In addition to bringing sanity to the job, this systematic
delegation empowered my administrative colleagues. They became invested in the
enterprise. They shared responsibility for the institution. When things went
well – thank goodness, they often did – I made sure my administrators
received the credit. When things didn’t work out – that happened as well –
it was my fault.
Other deans have felt it necessary to be involved in
everything that goes on within a law school. I have been told of deans who
insist on reading every memo or letter before it leaves the institution. No
wonder some deans burn out quickly. Teamwork builds morale; micro-managing
At Rutgers Law School in Newark, I added a new wrinkle to my
administrative strategy. I began to rely on the advice and assistance of a group
of senior law school administrators, my "cabinet." We would meet
periodically to discuss current issues. More importantly, the members of the
cabinet were able to function as a collective force, brainstorming issues and
supporting one another. It was a delightful arrangement with a splendid group of
men and women.
Now at Northeastern, I have entered a totally new
administrative setting. Everything seems to work well within the institution,
although like most law schools we could use more resources to achieve our goals.
That is my job, as I will explain below. This law school is so different from
any other where I have taught or deaned that it has taken some time to absorb
the culture. Could you imagine a law school without numeric grades or ranking,
but with narrative evaluations of students’ performances? There is a genuine
non-competitive environment. For example, the moot court teams are selected by
lot from those students who successfully complete a required course in appellate
advocacy and brief writing. We have a mandatory internship program. During the
second and third years of law school, students spend one-half of their eight
quarters working in law firms, corporations, judges’ chambers or public
interest settings in cities across the country and, in some cases, around the
world. My decanal instincts were developed in typically competitive law schools
settings, and I have had to recalibrate them to the Northeastern way of doing
Even with these differences in the terrain at Northeastern,
the challenges of the deanship remain much the same. There are always budget and
personnel questions to address, evaluations and projects to complete, and
faculty to hire and promote. Student concerns require attention. Old ways of
doing things need to be reviewed, and there is a large organization to motivate.
Northeastern University is a century-old urban institution of
more than 20,000 students, located in Boston between Symphony Hall and the
Museum of Fine Arts. The University administration - President Richard Freeland
and Provost David Hall (David was my predecessor as law school dean) - genuinely
values the involvement of the deans of the seven colleges in matters of
university policy. We spend hours in meetings each month discussing matters
that, for the most part, do not directly involve the law school. The dean of the
law school, however, is an officer of the university. As such, I owe a
responsibility to assist in anyway I can.
A law school dean serves two "masters" – the
university administration and the law school faculty – and there are
foreseeable conflicts in sitting in between. If you lose the confidence of
either, of course, your work life will be miserable. (And your home life, as
well, as my wife of more than thirty years reminds me.) Lose the support of your
faculty, and you might as well pack it in. Worse yet, you serve at the pleasure
of the president, who might not always appreciate why the law school is
different. If and when the chemistry turns bad, there will be an explosion.
How then do you accomplish this high-wire balancing act and
enjoy it at the same time? It requires dexterity. Even an experienced acrobat
falls on occasion, so never venture forth without a net. I recommend the
*Cultivate the friendship of your faculty. This is imperative
when you come in from the outside as dean. You need folks you can talk to and
trust. Your faculty must trust you, and they can only do that if they know you
as a person and not just as a dean.
*Be visible. I like to roam the hallways, visiting faculty,
chatting with students. There is plenty of work to keep you busy, but your
decanal role requires communal involvement.
*Be politic. I recall a faculty member who demanded a $40,000
raise because he thought he was a great scholar and then told me I couldn’t
possibly appreciate that fact because I couldn’t understand his important
work. I offered to let the faculty as a whole decide whether he should receive
the raise. He declined, and I denied his request.
*Be honest. Most faculty will accept your faults as long as
you are open and honest with them. If you are not, they won’t believe anything
you say, nor should they.
*Be enthusiastic. As dean, you assume the role of cheerleader
for the institution. For better or worse, most people will learn about the
institution through you. Alumni will be reassured by the confidence you
demonstrate. Be realistic, but upbeat.
*Admit your mistakes. There are times when a dean really
messes up. Acknowledge when you err. It may startle your faculty at first, but
it will enhance your legitimacy for the times you will need it.
*Build a honeymoon. Many people talk about the honeymoon a
new dean enjoys. I have always thought that a honeymoon was something you earned
by building the confidence of your faculty in your leadership. The honeymoon
need not end.
For many people, the hardest part of the dean’s job is
development. There are graduates and "friends of the institution" to
meet and cultivate as potential supporters of the law school. This is hard work.
It involves long hours, too many lunches and dinners (skip desserts, or you
better buy a new wardrobe annually), and travel. Some development prospects are
difficult people. Others are absolutely delightful. Since there is never enough
time to see everyone, I try to spend my time with prospects I like.
When the time comes to do a solicitation, as Nike says:
"Just do it." You are not asking for money for yourself, but for your
institution. You are not asking for charity, but for an "investment."
The potential donor has good reason to want to participate. Otherwise, you
wouldn’t be wasting his or her time or yours.
Over the past fourteen years, I have raised more than $55
million dollars, not much compared to my decanal colleagues at those twenty-five
schools that consider themselves in the top ten, but still a nice chunk of
change. I have built two new law school buildings – one at Nova, a second at
Rutgers-Newark – and hope to build a third at Northeastern. The fundraising
has provided additional resources for student scholarships, faculty development,
and the library.
One critical part of a dean’s job is knowing when to leave.
Everyone runs out of ideas after some period of time. Every institution needs
new leadership periodically. You are not the law school, only its dean. Whether
five, seven, or ten years is the right term is not as important as knowing that,
as dean, you have a job to accomplish, some goals to achieve, and then you move
For those who chose to become law school deans, the position
can bring great satisfaction. Motivating faculty, staff, and administrators,
administering a large organization, representing the law school to a variety of
external constituencies, presiding at faculty meetings, orientation, and
graduation – the academic year is filled with opportunities for a dean to make
a difference. I confess that I enjoy being a dean.