Thursday, November 3, 2011

Exclusive Interview with Jim Chen, Dynamic Dean of the University of Louisville School of Law

Jim Chen, the dean of our law school, also happens to be one of Louisville’s most engaging and dynamic figures. A former Fulbright scholar, he speaks multiple languages, is a prodigious blogger, served as a clerk for Clarence Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court, and worked alongside Barack Obama on the Harvard Law Review. He also cuts some pretty smooth moves on a dance floor, is known to frequent some of the city’s hippest consignment stores for his formal attire, and only needs thirty seconds to turn a conversation about law school into a chat about tsunamis in southeast Asia. We recently sat down in his office, on opposite sides of a desk crammed with stacks of paper, coffee mugs, books, a stapler shaped like an alligator, and a sign that says “… And this would be good for students because…?”). Here is a shortened transcript of our conversation. The focus of our talk was law reviews, so the below questions are a little heavy on scholarship. Any typos or non-sequiturs should be attributed solely to me.
Dean Chen

3L at U of L: You wrote recently in the Louisville Bar Briefs publication about the rising cost of legal education. Are too many people going to law school?

Dean Chen: I don’t think too many people are going to law school. I want to make sure that they are going for the right reasons. If you are thinking about making a ton of money, you shouldn’t go to law school. If you have nothing better or more compelling to do you shouldn’t go to law school. You should not undertake law school unless you have a plan to manage your debt.

3L: Why go to U of L?

Chen: We offer very good preparation for the practice of law. We are the dominant creator of professional connections, and the premier door opener in this market and I our broader region. We do this at an extremely cost effective basis.

3L: How important is it for Louisville to remain in the top 100 law schools in US News & World Report?

Chen: You don’t build a school in order to achieve a particular ranking. You build a school in order to achieve a particular mission. If the rankings -- which are imperfect and in some cases downright perverse -- happen to approve by giving you a certain number, that’s well and good. We are aware that people take these things into account. It’s not as if we consciously ignore the rankings. But if you think that giving more opportunities for experience-based learning and specific grounding in skills is good, then you pursue that, whether or not those efforts are reflected in the rankings.

3L: You’re nearing your fifth anniversary as dean. How have you put your stamp on the law school?

Chen: Focusing on the law school’s mission, on the 1,000 days of the student experience, and on the subsequent 2,000 weeks of lifetime work that our typical graduate does beyond law school. We have 1,000 days in which to put our mark on our students, to give them the best instruction, the best experiences that we can provide, and then to engage them over the course of their careers. So, I think of things like the clinic, I think of things like dramatically increasing philanthropy and outside engagement as my accomplishments as dean.

3L: What’s a typical day like for you?

Chen: I don’t think there is such a thing. There are a wide range of different tasks: a lot of decisions involving money, how to spend it, where to get it; a lot of agenda setting and policy making; a lot of correspondence, and a lot of email; I go to a lot of meetings at the university level; I go to a lot of events and represent the law school. I work one-on-one with quite a number of people from faculty to students. It bleeds into evenings and weekends.

3L: What do you remember from your time working for Clarence Thomas?

Chen: He’s been on the bench for 20 years, and I showed up during his second year. It’s pretty intense, working at the Supreme Court. There were certain patterns and rhythms. On a fairly regular basis you had to make sure that petitions for certiorari were reviewed and presented to the justices. There was conferring one on one with the Justice on specific cases that had been argued and assigned to him. I remember he was kind and very generous with his time. There were quite a few things that we did there that proved, by virtue of having the benefit of further thought… that not everything should be done in the heat of the moment. If you can avoid doing things in the heat of the moment, that is perhaps the luxury of an appellate court, and perhaps the luxury of an academic institution, unlike the private practice of law. In an academic setting, like the Supreme Court, the players last a lot longer. It’s a lifelong commitment and engagement, and as a result you have a lot of things that are decided not instantly, but certainly by people who expect to be there a long time. That forces a particular rhythm in life.

3L: Do faculty spend too much time on scholarship as opposed to teaching?

Chen: I don’t think that’s true. Obviously, everyone has a different individual allocation of time. It will vary based on where you are in your career, where you are in the rhythm of the year, whether you are teaching a subject that requires personal preparation on your part because you haven’t taught it before, or a subject you’ve taught for decades at a time. And this is the whole point of giving faculty time to write scholarship as part of your job. There is an expectation that you write and publish scholarship as a condition of getting tenure. I do think it’s entirely appropriate – in fact it’s a professional obligation – to connect your scholarly work with your teaching. The whole point of doing scholarship is making sure that you have something to profess. Isn’t that the root of the word professor? That you aren’t just saying something, you are stating it, you are professing it.

3L: You were on the Harvard Law Review when Barack Obama was its president. What was it like working for Obama?

Chen: (laughs, noting that he may be one of the only people in the legal profession who was worked for both Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama.) Obama was older than us, and he had a lot of social intelligence that the rest of us were still working to develop. Thinking back on my time in law review, law review gave me the opportunity to read very broadly in law, and on the academic side of law. If you are conscientiously reviewing articles for publication and conscientiously editing them at the level of substantive cite checking, technical compliance, etc., you can’t help but encounter a very broad range of serious legal scholarship, and you learn by immersion this strange language that passes for the patois of full-time teachers of law.

3L: How much energy are professors here expected to put into the prestige of the law reviews that they publish in?

Chen: When you speak to a junior faculty member whose professional credentialing is still on the line, their perspective will be different because they still have yet to pass through the tenure portion of their careers. For me, this was fifteen years in the past, so it’s different from my perspective. I am quite aware that those things don’t matter terribly much to someone like me who is not trying to get tenure.  Someone who is looking for tenure, obviously their perspective is different. I think quite often we use the reputed prestige of a law review as a surrogate for what we believe to be editorial quality. Those are generalizations, and I think they are crass. In my own experience, I’ve gotten good editing from every layer without regard to the prestige of the school, and without regard to whether the journal is the flagship or a specialty.

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