Musings of a A Non-Traditional Dean
Taylor Reveley, III
Two years are now behind me as dean of a law school. In a prior life, I belonged to a large law firm for almost
three decades. It has been back to
school after 28 years in private practice.
Has this caused culture shock?
threshold, it was culturally shocking
to abandon a partnership in an elegant institution where I had spent a
generation and been enormously involved. When
the letter resigning from the firm hit my desk, it had to cool for several hours
before I could brace myself to take it up and sign.
If not actually shocking, it was jarring upon arrival at school to
discover just how non-traditional a dean I was thought to be. “Non-traditional” seemed to have dual meanings: (1)
“not having evolved naturally out of the academy” and (2) “having spent a
disquieting amount of time among practicing lawyers.”
In related vein, people constantly took my pulse during the early decanal
months to be sure I wasn’t slipping into culture shock (being
alumni especially, there was concern I might simply bolt back to my old haunts.
In reality, there have been few cultural challenges. How could this possibly be, since the gap between practicing
lawyers and academics is supposed to be so yawning? The more I think about it, the less it seems that the gap
between partners and professors, and between large law firms and law schools,
yawns all that fiercely.
It’s also true that, even while a full-fledged big-firm practicing
lawyer, I had deeper ties to the academy than typical of practicing lawyers.
To be precise, six “anti-shock” factors have eased my passage across
the cultural divide.
I have always been around schools. Both
parents and all four grandparents were teachers.
I grew up on college campuses. My
father was president of one of them. Deep
in the mists of time, I actually taught law students for a year and have since been
on the boards of a university, a theological seminary, a preparatory school, and
a foundation that deals heavily with higher education.
In combination, these experiences laid bare most academic mysteries
before I showed up for duty in Williamsburg in August 1998.
Second, I’d once been managing partner of my law
firm. The nuts and bolts of what a
law firm MP does on a daily basis bear real similarity to what a law school dean
does on a daily basis. Further, in
my view, the most basic responsibilities of each are the same.
An MP and a dean must: (1)
Try to understand how the institution is now operating (its people, programs,
finances, facilities, and decision-making processes, as well as the context in
which it does its thing). (2)
However the institution is now operating, help figure out how it can operate
better. (3) Beyond simply improving
existing operations, work to identify the institution’s significant unrealized
potential. (4) Help figure out how
to realize this latent potential and get people moving toward it.
is not to suggest that practicing lawyers – and teacher/scholars – who
suddenly find themselves trying to manage and lead their institutions (with
little or no prior experience managing and leading) don’t sometimes go
catatonic. It can happen. The
same fate, however, should not await a law firm managing partner who becomes a
law school dean. It’s more “been there,
done that.” Indeed, the scholar
turned dean, who suddenly lacks the time “to write as before,” may prove far
more frustrated and anxious than the MP turned dean, who has already experienced
an inability “to practice law as before” and has no illusions about where a
leader’s hours go.
Third, my experience as a trustee and board
president of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was right on point.
The Museum is a “public/private partnership,” utterly dependent for
its success on both taxpayer support and private donations.
It is a state agency, fully subject to the rigors and vagaries of state
regulation, bureaucracy and politics, and fully entitled to taxpayer dollars.
The Museum is simultaneously dependent on a powerful, purely private
foundation, which persuades people, corporations and foundations to give
generously to a state-owned operation. The
resulting public/private partnership is quite strong and extremely complicated.
William & Mary Law School has the same public/private strength and
Fourth, before casting my lot with William & Mary, I had been helping
raise money for many a moon. If a
law school dean finds passing the cup an alien way to spend time, then his or
her decanal life
is going to be brutish and short.
There must be some thrill of the chase in development work for a happy
Fifth, an “anti-shock” reality of fundamental
importance for me has been the nature of the main players in both large law
firms and law schools – partners and tenured professors.
Whether in firms or schools, partners and professors think like lawyers
because, of course, they are
lawyers. They share other crucial
traits as well. On the whole, they are smart, ambitious (both personally and
institutionally), hard working, and sensitive (sometimes amazingly sensitive).
They are prone to have views on many subjects that they share freely and
vigorously. Most do not shrink from
complaint. They insist on being
consulted about matters affecting the institution and resist ever simply being
told what to do (“don’t tred on me” being a banner widely flown above both partnerships and
faculties). They are of two minds
about committee work and other forms of institutional citizenship, being very
reluctant to spend the time but equally reluctant not to be among the
decision-makers. These common
characteristics produce many similarities in how partners and tenured professors
certainly shape the strategies and limits for effectively managing and leading
are also similarities between law firms and law schools.
Teaching, research, and writing matter to law firms.
Consulting and other fee-generating endeavors matter to law faculties. A desire to traffic in, and be known for, “cutting edge”
law characterizes firms and schools alike. Most lawyers, whether in firms or
schools, feel the need to spend some of their time and talent in pro
bono activities, broadly defined.
From time to
time, students and alumni act like clients.
This is not surprising. Schools
invite students and alumni into relationships with them, just as firms invite
clients. Indeed, “invite”
states it too chastely. Transcending even the persistence and technique of large
law firms in full client cry, schools court students and alumni, especially
those graced with attractive characteristics.
Like firms with clients, schools charge students money for services
rendered, and they solicit alumni for contributions to fund more and better
things on campus. Like clients,
students and alumni want to get what they pay for, on time and well done.
As with law firms and clients, there are ethical standards governing the
relationships between schools and their students and alumni.
By dint of
common interests, law schools pull in harness with other parts of their
universities. They also compete with them.
Governance within the whole is complicated and subtle, sometimes rooted
in unwritten custom more than formal structure.
Ultimate authority can be distant and preoccupied.
This describes not just play within a university but also relations among
offices, departments and miscellaneous satrapies within large law firms.
firms and schools hurl themselves into recruiting and promotion rites.
These time-consuming, expensive, precedent-driven mating dances,
performed with a weather eye on the competition, become peculiarly elaborate,
demanding and traditional when partnership and tenure are at stake.
passion for “productivity” is not limited to law firms.
There are uncanny parallels between how schools look at scholarship and
firms look at client representations – how large and demanding is the project,
where is it publicly displayed, how nationally or internationally important is
it, how successful is it in attracting desirable attention for those involved
and their institution? Most
scholarship and most client representations, even if key to personal and
institutional reputations in the short term and even if very satisfying pieces
of craftsmanship, lack enduring significance.
professors or partners come to a dean or managing partner asking to teach more
courses or log more billable hours. Quite
to the contrary, they seek approval to do other things with their time, even
while most professors and partners do believe that, whatever else law schools
and law firms do, they should see that their students are well taught and their
clients well served.
began practicing law, if you became a partner, you settled in for life at your
firm. While there were occasional
exceptions – producing so-called “lateral inserts” in the receiving firms
– they were unusual.
Without compelling cause, it was simply not seemly to leave one
partnership for another. Now
partners trade in one firm for another with the same ease that professors have
traditionally moved from school to school, and no one thinks the lesser of them
for it. For both partners and
professors, there is decreasing commitment to particular institutions and
increasing commitment to mobility within the profession nationally, to
maximizing personal opportunity. From
the standpoint of most firms and schools, the costs of this trend outweigh the
It is vibrantly alive in law schools, awarded after a much shorter
gestation period than that through which an associate must pass en route to
partnership in a large law firm. It
used to be that partners, once anointed, enjoyed de
facto tenure. While this is no
longer true, most large firms still deal gracefully and graciously with their
fallen (“unproductive”) brothers and sisters.
They are not treated merely as failed units of production, though neither
are they sheltered by the exquisitely articulated and wondrously lengthy
procedures of the academy’s post-tenure review.
The American Lawyer,
U.S. News & World Report and lesser indices are never far from most
firms’ and schools’ minds. This
is because the rankings, whatever their infirmities, affect institutions’
capacity to get and hold people and resources important to their future.
similarities! There are, of course, differences too. The reinvigorating
“seasons” of the academic year, the periodic remembrance by schools of their
origins and core values, and the symbols used by schools to entertain and unite
the whole (from academic regalia and processions to football games) are not
often found in law firms. By the
same token, these firms’ willingness to contemplate institutional change,
think like entrepreneurs, act quickly when circumstances so dictate, and avoid
unproductive entanglement in “process” are virtues less fully developed in
It is much
easier to get an associate’s spot in a large law firm than a tenure-track job
on a law faculty. There are
precious few new faculty members who would not be snapped up eagerly by large
firms. On the other hand, countless law firm associates, and even
partners, suffer unrequited desire to join law school faculties.
Once you have cut your way onto a faculty, however, your progress toward
full professorship and tenure at most law schools is a piece of cake compared to
an associate’s pilgrimage toward partnership in a big firm.
The likelihood of surviving the pilgrimage is not great, and the way is
not easy, nor the burdens light along the way.
partners earn more, sometimes stunningly more, than law professors, but the
latter are freer to chart the flow of their own careers and schedules, sometimes
astonishingly more so.
some law firms offer sabbaticals, they provide nothing remotely comparable to
the steady flow of study leaves and visits to other schools with which law
faculties water and renew themselves. After
two years on the job, I am no longer nonplussed to see valuable members of the
faculty moving over the horizon to take a leave or pay a visit (when there is so
much the dean would like to get done back at the ranch!). The benefits of leaves and visits are clear, but their
profusion in the law school world is striking by any other standards that
come to mind, including the habits of arts and sciences faculties, to say
nothing of law partnerships.
schools, more than law firms, are still able these days to retain their sense of
community. Huge law firms spread
around the world cannot know themselves as they did when most of their people
were in one office and sufficiently few in number actually to call one another
by name. Law faculties can still
truly know one another. This is
their great good fortune.
Let me end with
a sixth, and final, “anti-shock” factor that has eased my passage into the
academy. My last year in law
school, the constitutional war powers of the President and Congress wrapped me
in their mysteries. I was fascinated and, over the next 15 years, spent a lot of
time (including 13 months away from my law firm) researching these elusive
powers and writing about them. I
experienced the delights and demands of serious scholarship. Time to write about the war powers during most of these years
had to be fit in the occasional interstices of a hectic practice.
Nothing except an irresistible drive to write and publish could explain
this use of those interstices. I do
understand why the desire to pursue intellectual interests – and write about
them – lures people into the academy. A
subset of lawyers wants insistently to do it and can’t make sufficient time
while practicing law.
Practicing law, of course, can also push you to the
limits intellectually, entail extensive writing subject to intense peer review
and public scrutiny, and squarely affect issues important to society.
Practicing law for me was neither boring nor socially insignificant.
Helping other people’s companies pursue their opportunities and deal
with their difficulties, however, did begin to pale in comparison with the
prospect of “being the client myself,” with the chance to focus on my own
If not culturally shocking to move
from 28 years in practice to William & Mary’s ancient academic village, it
has been meaningful. It’s also
been fun, most days. The challenge
is bracing. The competition among
law schools for faculty, students and glory, the tensions among teaching,
scholarship and service, the quest for excellence in each, the frayed ties
between schools on the one hand and the bar and bench on the other, the
need to find ways to help lawyers (especially young ones) keep contributing to
society just as lawyers traditionally have contributed to society, the search
for ways to remain relevant to alumni, and the drive for financial strength
rooted in a powerful public/private partnership – all this and more keep life
lively for a non-traditional dean.
My sense is that the gap is larger between law schools and the law
departments of corporations and agencies.
The gap also seems larger between schools and sole practitioners or
small private firms. I offer
these conclusions (and many more on pages to come) with the robust abandon
of a commentator asked for his opinions and freed of any obligation for
As “lateral insert” suggests, both law firms and law schools have their
jargons. To mention a
few, for law firms: billable time, functional equivalent of billable time,
non-billable time, hard non-billable time, billing lawyer, time accounting,
time tickets, associate, counsel, partner, equity partner, salaried or
limited partner, profits per partner, leverage, draw; for law schools: meat
market, research agenda, course package, job talk, podium visit, look-see
visit, tenure-track, non tenure-track, post-tenure review, adjunct, top
twenty journal (or school or whatever else needs identification at the top
of the food chain), scholar (a term used generously among those who write; cf.
“artist” among those who entertain). Jargon says a lot about
what’s most on our minds.