Unsolicited Advice to Law School Dean Search
R. Lawrence Dessem*
true bounty of opinion, advice, and anecdotes has been offered by many
outstanding deans in these symposia in recent years.
By and large, these deans have focused on the art of deaning, which is
to be expected. But in addition to
their experiences and observations concerning deaning, law school deans are
also uniquely situated to provide insights concerning a related topic:
the dean search process. This
I take as the subject of the current article.
these symposia contemplate, the present article is informal in tone and is
based upon my own experiences both as a law school dean candidate and as a
member of two dean search committees (for both a law school deanship and for
the deanship of a university college of liberal arts).
The article is not intended to be a comprehensive step-by-critique of
every aspect of the dean search process. Instead,
I paint with broad strokes, suggesting some major areas to which dean search
committees might be attentive.1
then, are my suggestions for dean search committees as they consider the task
Selection, selection, selection.
One of the most significant determinates of a successful dean search is
the selection of the members of the dean search committee.2
The members of the committee not only are charged with recommending
outstanding candidates to the president or chancellor, but they also represent
the law school to the dean candidates. Law
schools and universities therefore should see the dean search process as a
wonderful opportunity to impress and inform dean candidates about the law
school. Virtually all finalists
for law school deanships are, or soon will become, leaders within legal
education, and the dean search process can be a wonderful opportunity to
inform, propagandize, and proselytize these individuals about one's law
committee chair will be particularly important in moving the dean search
committee forward in the identification of several final candidates who will
enjoy broad support within the committee and the law school. Many of the most
attractive candidates will be in more than one dean search, so it is crucial
that the committee process moves forward with all deliberate speed. The
committee chair also may be viewed by candidates as the spokesperson for the
law school and university concerning the dean search, and the chair should be
prepared to respond to candidate questions on administrative, procedural, and
substantive matters. If the committee chair is someone outside the university,
it may make sense to establish a secretariat within the law school or
university to deal with the paperwork and other administrative matters that a
dean search entails.
only should the individual members of dean search committees be articulate and
impressive in their own right, but the composition of the committee is quite
suggestive about those things that the university (or at least the university
official who appointed the committee) most values.
Virtually all law schools pride themselves on being student-centered,
but does the dean search committee contain a student member?
Diversity also is celebrated by most law schools and universities, but
is the dean search committee itself diverse in its composition?
The new dean undoubtedly will spend a significant amount of time with
alumni (fund raising and otherwise), but her job will be more difficult if
alumni believe that their voice has not been fully and fairly represented
within the dean search process.
candidates may incorrectly read things into the composition of dean search
committees. Is the absence of a
clinical or skills professor on the committee a reflection of the extent to
which such programs are (or are not) valued within the law school and
university? Are there other
reasons why particular individuals have not been selected for the committee or
have preferred not to serve? If
the latter is the case, the search committee should ensure that there are
opportunities during the on-campus interviews for the candidates to meet with
individuals not chosen for the committee.
president, provost, or other university official selecting the dean search
committee will want to be particularly certain that law school faculty are
appropriately represented on the committee.
At some law schools, the faculty will vote for dean search committee
members, while at other schools the provost or president will herself name the
committee faculty members. In the
latter case, the president or provost can create a wonderful reservoir of good
will by spending time with law school faculty soliciting their suggestions for
committee members. While these
conversations can be extremely time consuming, this time commitment makes the
law school faculty even more appreciative of such efforts.
A dean search is not only a time for the law school to reinvent itself,
but an opportunity to reassess the relationship between the law school and
university. Astute provosts and
presidents understand this, and they will see the time spent in soliciting
faculty sentiment concerning dean search committee members as time well spent.
person appointing the committee also should consider naming an experienced
dean from another school or college within the university to the law school
dean search committee. Deans are uniquely qualified to address the question
that should be on the minds of all candidates: Is this a good university in
which to be a dean? Particularly in the final stages of the dean search, a
dean may be quite persuasive in helping to “sell” the ultimate selectee on
suggests a broadly representative dean search committee.
While larger committees make tasks such as scheduling meetings
difficult, the benefits from giving candidates exposure to a broad cross
section of the law school and its various constituencies outweigh these
Let’s get organized. Once
the committee has been selected, it will need to get organized.
One of the first decisions that the committee, or the university's
president or provost, will make is whether to engage a search consultant to
work with the committee. Such
consultants are being used increasingly within higher education, and some law
schools have employed consultants in recent years.
In determining whether to engage a consultant, the university should
consider thoughtfully just what a consultant could bring to the dean search
that could not be provided by the dean search committee itself.
Because consultants typically are not engaged for law school dean
searches, few search firms have experience with legal education.
the other hand, consultants may do a good job of systematically building the
candidate pool. The creation of a
significant pool of qualified and interested candidates requires many phone
calls and much hard work. Members
of the dean search committee and of the law school faculty typically have
extensive contacts within legal education.
To the extent that these individuals take the time to contact and
cultivate promising candidates, there should be little need for an external
consultant. However, committees
that do not believe that they have the time, contacts, or skills to optimally
build the candidate pool may wish to consider employing a consultant for at
least some of the tasks associated with a comprehensive dean search.
Just whom are we looking for here?
Whether or not a consultant is employed, the search committee must
determine just what type of dean they are seeking.
In order to make this determination, the committee might profitably
spend some time educating itself about modern legal education and law school
deanships. One of the audiences of
the AALS Law Deanship Manual is law school dean search committees.
The Manual comprehensively considers the nature of the modern
law deanship and the numerous constituencies with whom a law school dean must
deal. While the Manual may
be particularly valuable in educating search committee members who do not have
regular first-hand contact with law school deans (such as alumni and
university administrators), it also may provide insights to committee members
who believe that they are well-versed in the duties and responsibilities of
law school deans.
such general background reading, search committees are better equipped to talk
about just what type of dean they are seeking for the law school.
This is a very good conversation to hold at the onset of any search,
because it is important that committee members have as much of a consensus as
possible concerning "ideal candidates" before the committee
commences its selection duties.
or as a result of such a conversation, the committee typically will discuss
and approve an advertisement announcing the deanship opening.
Such an ad usually describes the position requirements, sets forth the
attributes and experience of the ideal candidate, and describes the law school
and university of which the law school is a part.
In developing such an ad, it may be helpful to review several recent
ads announcing law school deanships at other schools.3
While a great amount of time can be, and frequently is, spent in
negotiating the finer points of these ads, it's often the case that the ad is
never again considered within the law school and university.
Instead, search committee members, university officials, and law school
faculty ultimately may decide that, like Justice Stewart and pornography, they
"know [the dean they want] when [they] see it."4
Whom did you consider? The
search committee should consider not only the ads used by other law schools,
but also the candidate pools they have considered.
Many outstanding candidates are not ultimately selected for a
particular deanship, and these finalists often may be strong candidates at
other law schools. Attractive
candidates also sometimes withdraw from dean searches because of the timing of
the search or questions about the candidate's suitability for a particular
school. The candidate who did not
pursue a deanship because of family reasons (such as, for instance, a child in
her senior year of high school) may be ready to be considered for a deanship a
year or two later. A candidate who
did not feel that she was a good fit for one school may be an ideal candidate
for a school in another part of the country, with a different mission, or with
another set of challenges and opportunities.
outgoing dean can be quite helpful to the dean search committee.
Such deans often will send an email to the law school deans’
listserve or write a letter to other deans informing them of the pending
opening. Many candidates ask the
prior dean about the deanship and the law school, and the outgoing dean
therefore can be very important in helping to “sell” the law school to the
candidates who may succeed her.
law faculty also should be a rich source of potential dean candidates. Through
their own involvement within legal education and with the bench and bar,
faculty members may know or know of many strong candidates. In addition,
faculty at other law schools who are themselves not interested in the deanship
may know of others who may be. The committee’s goal should be to move beyond
the “usual suspects” who will put themselves forward in a dean search and
interest those who otherwise might not have considered the deanship
Can we talk? One
area in which some search committees falter is in communicating with actual
and potential dean candidates. To
build a sizeable pool of serious and attractive dean candidates, the committee
needs to communicate well and often with such candidates.
Many times the most attractive candidates are the most reluctant to
enter a dean search. This may be
particularly true with respect to sitting deans, who may not wish to be seen
as hunting for another deanship. Thus
a series of calls, often by different search committee members or others
associated with the law school, may be necessary to convince a potential
candidate to submit his or her name for committee consideration.
that the committee has successfully convinced a good number of individuals to
submit their names for consideration, it is very important that the candidates
understand the steps in the committee process and the anticipated timing of
those steps. Many search
committees interview 10 or so candidates at an airport hotel or at the annual
meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (where law school faculty
and deans typically congregate). Whatever
the "next step" in the process, it is important that candidates are
kept informed of the committee’s schedule and any changes in that schedule
as the search process goes forward.
the committee has narrowed the pool of candidates to those who will
receive a screening interview, a committee member typically contacts those
individuals to schedule that interview. These
scheduling telephone calls should not be perfunctory, but instead should be
treated as a significant opportunity to communicate with the leading
candidates. At every stage of the
search process, candidates should be asked whether they have any questions or
if there is particular information concerning the law school, university, or
community that they lack. First
impressions can be lasting, and particularly attractive candidates often have
multiple suitor. Thus any way in
which relationships can be built between the candidates and your law school
may pay real dividends in the final stages of the search.
should not be "left hanging" during any stage of the search process,
but should receive regular communications from the committee.
If there will be delays in making committee decisions, scheduling
interviews, or otherwise moving to the next steps in the selection process,
candidates should be informed about the delays and the reason for them.
In the absence of such communication, candidates may believe that the
committee has lost interest or is pursuing another candidate.
Search committees should make every effort to express ongoing interest in all
leading candidates. If the
committee pursues a single candidate or two and neglects others, it may find
itself with no strong candidates at the time of the ultimate dean selection.
Before any candidates have been interviewed, by the committee or by the
law school faculty, it is premature to focus exclusively on one or two
candidates. Other strong
candidates may lose interest because they believe the search committee is not
interested in them. In addition,
the committee’s views concerning the “strongest” candidate may change
after the interview process, or the law faculty may have very different views
about the candidates after they have had a chance to talk to the finalists.
Can you keep a secret?
At least in the early stages of dean searches, candidates typically are
assured that their applications and interest will be kept confidential within
the dean search committee. Whatever
confidentiality rules the committee applies, it is important that the
candidates understand them. Dean
search committees usually assure candidates that they can express an interest
and be considered at least preliminarily by the committee without having their
candidacies revealed outside the committee.
This, in fact, is a standard way in which hesitant candidates are
convinced to allow their names to be considered for a deanship.
Having made such assurances, however, the committee and all its members
must be certain to honor such pledges of confidentiality.
committee generally will check references after an initial screening of all
interested candidates. It is good
practice for the committee to confirm explicitly with the candidate that the
references listed by the candidate will be contacted.
Presumably the candidates have talked with such individuals before
listing them as references, so there should be no difficulty with these
initial reference checks. At some
later point in the process, the committee (and, presumably, the law faculty)
will check references more generally, focusing upon individuals who have not
been listed by the candidates. This
generally is at a stage when candidates are being considered seriously, but it
is crucial that the candidates are told that such reference checks are about
to be made.
The search committee should ensure that
confidentiality rules are followed in all communications with the candidates.
Many candidates will be curious about other leading candidates for the
deanship (particularly internal candidates), but the same confidentiality
rules should be followed in communications with candidates concerning the
candidacies of other individuals. If
nothing else, a candidate will wonder whether her own confidentiality is being
protected if a committee member tells her the names of other leading
is not to say that candidates will not themselves learn about the interest of
others in the deanship. Particularly
with respect to sitting law school deans, candidates often know each other and
learn about candidates from sources other than the dean search committee.
During one dean search interview at an airport hotel, I encountered two
other law school deans who, it readily became apparent, were both there for
the same reason that I was. We
joked and talked about the interviews and law school deaning in the hotel
lobby. Dean search committees
should attempt to minimize the chances that candidates will see each other in
this fashion, but realize that such encounters are almost inevitable.
However, everything that the committee can do to protect the
confidentiality and privacy of all candidates will be much appreciated by them
and lead to a smoother dean search process.
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
After the screening of semifinalists, a group of final candidates are
invited to visit the law school campus. These
two to three day visits are very intense for candidates and search committees
alike. In a two-day visit, the
candidate typically will spend one day at the law school talking in small
groups with faculty, senior administrators, students, and staff and a second
day talking with the provost, senior university officials, and the president
or chancellor. Committees often
also provide the finalists with tours of the university and the community in
which the law school and university are located.
These visits become marathons of sorts for dean candidates, but, then
again, those who cannot survive such a visit are likely to have difficulties
with the day-to-day demands of a modern law school deanship.
A standard feature of such campus visits is a presentation by the candidate
concerning her views on legal education and her vision for the law school.
Law school dean search committees and faculties should realize that it
may be difficult for candidates to develop fully formed visions for a law
school in a single visit. In such
presentations, however, the candidates should display a reasonable familiarity
with the strengths and weaknesses of the law school based upon their
conversations with committee members and others and their study of documents
supplied by the law school. Schools
should not expect detailed analyses of the law school’s situation unless the
candidates have been supplied with the specific documents upon which such
analyses could be based (such as self studies, strategic plans, and
accreditation and AALS membership review documents). Whatever the ground rules
for presentations, all candidates should know them so that they will be on an
equal footing as they plan for their campus visits.
dean search committees and candidates should realize that impressions will be
formed during the campus visit based upon formal and informal campus
interactions. Staff members and
students sometimes will be asked to transport candidates during their campus
visits, and it is important for these people to understand that they, too,
are projecting an image of the law school to the candidates.
Candidates may lose interest in the law school due to a staff member or
student comments about the city in which the law school is located, the local
weather, or other matters not directly pertaining to the law school.
While the dean search committee and those whom the candidates will meet
during their visits should be honest in responding to all candidate questions,
it’s also important that a positive image be portrayed by everyone during
the agenda for campus visits usually are quite full, dean search committees
should be certain to allow a little “down time” for all campus visitors.
Having a room where candidates can relax on occasion and scheduling
short breaks for candidates to collect their thoughts or take a walk will
be much appreciated by the candidates. I
was once asked during an end-of-visit presentation to the law school whether
there was any question that I had not been asked during my visit that I had
hoped I would be asked. My
response: “Would you like a break?”
Let’s dig a little deeper. Either
before or after the campus visits, the dean search committee, and, perhaps,
the law school faculty will check additional references and attempt to learn
more about the final candidates. When
making these calls, references not only should be asked their own opinions
concerning the candidate in question, but also about the names of others who
have worked with or otherwise know the candidate and can therefore offer
helpful insights. It is important
that those doing the reference checking not permit their own feelings
concerning the candidates to enter into the assessment of particular
candidates. It also makes sense to
speak with approximately the same number of references for each of the
finalists, rather than proceeding intensively with respect to some candidates
and in a perfunctory manner with others.
some point the law school faculty generally is invited to speak with friends
and acquaintances at other schools who may have helpful information about the
final candidates. These contacts
can be extremely helpful, although law schools should avoid a situation in
which the committee and/or law school faculty are swayed significantly by a
single reference. Like all of us,
dean candidates will have strong supporters and detractors, and the role of
the dean search committee should be to present a balanced picture of each
the campus visits, the dean search committee also will need to obtain the
sentiment of the faculty and other constituencies concerning each finalist.
This may involve, for instance, an actual faculty vote on the
acceptability of each candidate. Whether
or not a secret ballot vote is conducted, it is crucial that the faculty
sentiments either are directly presented to the provost or president or, as is
more commonly the case, the sentiments are presented to the dean search
committee for it to ultimately relay to the provost or president.5
Spouses are people too.
In their focus on the ideal dean, search committees often neglect a
group that can be quite important in the candidate’s decision to actually
accept an offer of the deanship: the
dean’s family. Spouses and
partners can be extremely influential concerning the acceptance of any
appointment offer, and dean search committees need to keep this in mind as
they schedule campus visits and provide information to their most attractive
search committees typically have a packet of information that they send to all
candidates, and these packets should include information concerning the
community outside the law school.6
If a candidate’s spouse or
partner has specific employment or other interests and needs, it is helpful to
learn this as soon as possible so that these individuals can be put in touch
with potential employers and others within the community who can help them.
Some law schools do not invite a spouse to campus until after the actual offer
has been made, but that may not be the best strategy.
Since the committee should be selling the law school not only to the
candidate but also to her spouse or partner, it generally makes sense to
include these individuals in final interview visits so that they, too, can get
a sense of the law school, the university, and the community in which the law
school is located.
Presuming that family members are invited to campus, the dean search committee
should be sure to develop schedules responsive to those individuals’
specific interests. The committee
should see these visits as a way to inform family members about the law
school, university, and community and to respond to specific interests and
concerns that the dean candidate and her family may have.
The candidate’s interest in the law school may mean little if she and
her family have serious reservations about the community, its schools, or job
prospects for all family members.
is an area in which the committee should be quite proactive.
Having been offered the deanship at a particular university, my wife
and I were invited to return to campus for conversations with law school and
university officials. Unfortunately,
my wife was not included in a dinner that had been scheduled with the
university president and other university officials.
A committee member, realizing this oversight, called my wife and put
together a dinner for her with law school faculty members and spouses, which
very nicely turned a potential negative into a very positive statement about
the law school’s interest in our entire family.
another law school, a faculty member on the search committee called my wife to
ask about her interests during an upcoming campus visit.
As a result, her trip itinerary included not only conversations with
many law school and university faculty and administrators, but also community
visits responsive to my wife’s personal and professional interests.
This particular campus visit also included a lunch with the wives of
some deans at other university schools and colleges, which was very much
appreciated and gave my wife a sense of the expectations for both deans and
their families within the university.
Providing the families of dean finalists with community information also can be
extremely helpful in easing the transition of the dean and her family to a new
locale. Because of employment,
school, and other reasons, some deans have assumed deanships before their family
members can relocate. To the extent
that the law school or university can help facilitate the transition of the
entire family to your community, the stresses upon your new dean will be greatly
Sealing the deal.
Typically the dean search committee will relay to the provost, president,
or chancellor several names for appointment as dean.
The appointing official usually will have interviewed the finalists
during their visits to campus, but sometimes will want to talk again with the
leading two or three candidates. This
is a time when, once again, communication is paramount.
Not only should the appointing official work extremely diligently to stay
in contact with the final candidates, but the dean search committee and law
school faculty should be reasonably informed as to the status of final
interviews and/or negotiations with the leading candidate(s).
provosts, presidents, and chancellors are very busy people, as are most dean
candidates, and it therefore may be difficult to proceed as expeditiously
through the final series of interviews, visits, and negotiations as everyone
would like. A provost may be in the
process of appointing several deans throughout the university, as well as
dealing with many other matters. If
at all possible, the provost or other appointing official and the dean selectee
should talk in person about the terms of the university’s offer (both for
the dean herself and for the law school). In
reality, however, it may be necessary to communicate by telephone because of the
busy schedules of both the dean selectee and the appointing official.
If they can be arranged, unhurried conversations
can help not only in the final negotiations, but they can begin to establish a
good working relationship between the selectee and the provost or other
appointing official. The time spent
in these conversations can build bonds that will prove extremely useful in the
years to come for both the provost and the new dean.
Face-to-face meetings also may help to convince the dean-selectee that
this is an offer that she should accept. Some
of the better dean candidates will be pursued by several law schools, and
university officials should not overlook any opportunity to recruit the most
outstanding candidate to the university.
the final analysis, there is no one “best” dean for all law schools.
Instead, the most successful deans are individuals who are a good
“fit” with the culture and mission of a particular law school and
university. One of the important
ways in which dean candidates will ascertain the culture and mission of a law
school and university is through the dean search process.
To the extent that the committee can remember and act upon this fact, the
success of the search will be ensured.
detailed description of one (successful) dean search is set forth in Herbert
L. Lazerow & John M. Winters, "In Quest of a Dean" 26 J.L.E.
search committees also should consult the AALS Law Deanship Manual
(1993), which is a comprehensive treatment of the modern law school
deanship. The last chapter of
this manual focuses upon the dean search process.
See also Theodore J. Marchese, The Search Committee
Handbook: A Guide to Recruiting Administrators (1987).
school dean candidates themselves will find the advice and information
contained in the AALS Law Deanship Manual quite helpful and also
should consult Professor Robert Jerry's excellent and comprehensive article,
"A Primer for the First-Time Law Dean Candidate," 49 J.L.E.
"successful" I mean not just a search that culminates in the
selection and appointment of a dean. Instead,
truly successful dean searches bring together law school constituencies
(including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends and supporters of
the law school in the bench and bar and beyond).
All too often, the selection process creates bad feelings, and
the appointment of a new dean becomes a point of contention within the law
school rather than a matter of pride and celebration.
Dean search committees therefore need to focus not only on who is
selected as the law school's next dean, but on how that process operates and
is perceived to operate.
“[t]he temptation to hastily copy some other school’s job description
with an eye toward developing a real agenda as the process continues should
be avoided.” AALS Law Deanship Manual 78 (1993). As noted in the AALS
Deanship Manual, “In some instances, the composition of the position
description can provide a statement of mission or vision, but drafting of
this statement usually involves only members of the search committee and not
the wider constituencies that ought to be represented.”
v. Ohio, 378
184, 197 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring).
205(d) of the American Bar Association's Standards for Approval of Law
Schools provides: "The
faculty or a representative body of it shall advise, consult, and make
recommendations to the appointing authority in the selection of a
dean." Interpretation 205-1
of this standard is more specific on this point:
"The faculty or a representative body of it should have
substantial involvement in the selection of a dean.
Except in circumstances demonstrating good cause, a dean should not
be appointed or reappointed to a new term over the stated objection of a
substantial majority of the faculty."
addition to assembling a packet of materials to be sent to candidates, law
schools should examine their websites before launching a dean search.
Websites often are a candidate’s first contact with a law school, and the
impressions created by a website can be both lasting and quite significant.