What I learned in 11 years

As most of you now know, in August I announced that the current year (2013-14) will be my last year as dean at the Levin College of Law. When I turn in my “dean’s master key” on June 30, 2014, I will have served 11 years as your law school’s dean. In the law dean world, that’s a long time, even if for me these years have passed extraordinarily quickly.

Since my August announcement, I’ve said on numerous occasions that accepting the offer extended to me in 2003 to serve as your college’s dean was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I hope the consensus among alumni, faculty, staff, and students is that all of us working together have taken an excellent college built by our predecessors and made it stronger today than it has ever been. From my vantage point, all credit is due to an outstanding administrative team with which I have been privileged to work, a faculty dedicated to providing a high-quality program for our students, a committed staff, and an alumni base with seemingly unbounded willingness to give both time and financial resources to make our law school better.

Although we have accomplished a great deal, much unfinished business remains. In 2002 as a dean candidate, I said that in a state as dynamic and important as Florida, there is a need for at least one law school to be regarded as one of the five best public law schools in the nation. One reason for that is the need to keep Florida residents in Florida to help build better communities, serve our state, and be leaders in the professions, a goal that is at risk if our Florida higher education institutions, including the law schools, are not regarded as being among the very best. I said that by implementing a differential tuition strategy (which at that time we lacked authority to do), we could reach that goal — because we were already very good, and unlike other public law schools in other states, we had not yet embarked on this funding strategy. Much changed around us as we obtained the authority and went after that goal, and it’s no small matter that a Great Recession intervened. Yet the fact remains that in 2014 we are not yet in that highest tier of public law schools. I believe that goal remains attainable, but the world in which we will continue to pursue it is dramatically different than it was in 2003.

At the top of the list of changes is the fact that the legal profession is in a state of enormous flux and is changing in profound and unprecedented ways. Almost all of us now have an understanding, even if we have not fully internalized the implications, of advancing technology, globalization, disaggregation of the lawyering process via project and workflow management systems, and nonlawyers doing an increasing amount of the work traditionally viewed as the domain of practicing lawyers. Around the corner are limited license legal technicians (the rough equivalent of the nurse practitioner in the medical world), consumers becoming aware of apps (which already exist) that can draft a reasonably serviceable contract or lease on a smartphone, decision-making software replacing calls to counsel for business planning advice, computers and consumer-friendly websites replacing routine lawyer tasks, and artificial intelligence systems replacing some analytical work that lawyers do. Eleven years ago, most of these changes were unimaginable, but this is the new reality.

There is no single blueprint for how legal education should address this changing environment. Rather than force all law schools to be cast in one image, law schools should be empowered to experiment, innovate and reinvent their academic programs. Law schools should strategically calculate how to take advantage of their individual strengths and respond to their individual constraints. UF Law is doing that right now — in a process that is also unfinished business (and, frankly, will never be finished, because we must do this continuously). Among our constraints is the fact that UF Law is not located in a large metropolitan area. This means we need to involve adjunct faculty in our program in innovative ways, facilitate “semester away” opportunities that enable students to extern and network in larger urban areas where they intend to practice, and create more public service fellowship opportunities for students who wish to work in the government offices that are typically located in urban areas, state capitols, and Washington, D.C. Among our strengths is the fact that UF Law is part of a major, comprehensive, AAU-member research university, which gives us important advantages. For example, when we prepare students for specialized practice areas, we can take advantage of the rich offerings of other disciplines represented at UF, and we can design curricular tracks that use these offerings to add value to the skills and knowledge that graduates bring to their first professional position. In an area like e-discovery, where we have established arguably the best set of programs of any law school in the nation, we can tap the expertise in the computer engineering department to take our students and programs to the highest level.

As the dean search process proceeds and we prepare ourselves to welcome a new dean in 2014, it is important, rather than talking retrospectively about the last decade, to focus on the issues, problems, and opportunities currently facing legal education and the legal profession. It has been a distinct honor and privilege for me to serve as your college’s dean these past years, but I look forward to working with all of you — from the new vantage point I will have next year — to improve the educational experience for our students and prepare them to be future leaders in our workplaces, our profession, our communities, and our state and nation.