Three Deans for the Seven Themes: 7 Common Traits of Successful Deans

We have been extremely fortunate to work for and with some amazingly strrategic and succesful deans. This article is on lessons learned from the three we worked the closest with: Kent Syverud (for Mike at both Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis), Martha Minow (Karen at Harvard), and Phil Weiser (Mik at Colorado). But there are other deans who have influenced this list of 7 features of good deans. Chris Guthrie at Vanderbilt and Bob Rasmussen at USC both always make time, not just for us when we reach out to them, but particularly for their students – we hear this time after time from our clients. Justice Elena Kagan impressed just about everyone while she was dean at Harvard, and Karen was able to observe firsthand just how effective she was. For the schools where we have consulted we have worked closely with several deans and could easily include their openness to outside analysis and suggestions on this list. There is no better feature of leadership that the active pursuit of multiple opinions and constructive criticism from others.

This list, though, is made up of what we have learned deep in the trenches.  In large part, it is what made the schools where we worked better, one brick at a time. None of these 7 features are the kind that lead to immediate fixes –we didn’t include charismatic leadership, fundraising ability, or prominent media exposure (i.e., being a media darling) on the list, although a case could be made that having these traits makes moving the needle at any law school an easier task. What we included are the features we saw that mattered the most – the things that made us better employees, the students a more prominent part of the community, and each law school more noticeable to the external world and more valuable to everyone on the inside. We’ve heard it said that:

“Being a Dean is like being the leader of a besieged city. Everyone on the outside wants in, and everyone on the inside wants out.”

We have seen a lot of good people on the inside want to stay on the inside to make the city – the law school – a bit better, and that is what this list is about.

1. They Embrace Change

This is classic management 101, of course, but at no time has it been truer than now. Legal education is changing, and it’s changing quickly. In 2009-2010, LSAT takers and law school applications were at an all-time high. More than 171,500 law school admissions tests were administered that year, and 49,700 1Ls entered law school the following fall. Last cycle, just 105,500 LSATs were administered — a decrease of more than 38 percent since 2010 — and that number is on track to fall yet again in 2015. The entering class of fall 2013 consisted of just 37,940 1Ls, a 24% decrease from 2010. Enrollment standards are falling too. The number of law school matriculants with a 169+ LSAT score has fallen more than 25% since 2010. Matriculants with sub-145 LSATs, on the other hand, have increased 105%. Even as recently as the entering class of fall 2012, 64 law schools had LSAT medians that were 160 or above. For the most recent entering class of fall 2014, just 48 law schools had 160+ medians. Moreover, the class of 2013 saw the sixth straight year of employment rates decreasing, with only 84.5% of graduates reporting any sort of employment.

Yet, while we know managerial change is necessary to meet the stark realities of a new market, it is much more difficult to embrace. In 1992 the ABA, concerned about the widening gap between legal education theory and legal profession practice, issued a call for change – which was met with much applause and little action.  Change often takes expenditure of political capital internally. It takes a well-articulated vision and the patience to sell it externally.  The effort involved in both may often seem unpalatable when the demands of running the daily operations of a law school alone can be overwhelming.  Indeed, American legal education had not changed drastically since the introduction of the case method in the 1800’s, but we are now just beginning to see real transformation with the expansion of experiential learning, public service, streamlined JD degrees, online platforms for learning, and international law programs.

The deans at HLS (Elena Kagan and Martha Minow) saw opportunity in these areas and led innovative new programs within the past decade. In 2006, under the leadership of Dean Kagan, the faculty unanimously voted to adopt the most significant change to the first year curriculum at HLS in over 100 years. The old method of teaching had become less relevant; it did not reflect the needs or reality of a modern lawyer.  The new methods included required courses in legislation and regulation, legal problem solving, and international law to better prepare students for a career in the evolving legal job market. A forward-thinking approach to legal education which was quite a departure from tradition. Dean Kagan deserves much credit for bringing the faculty to a – nearly unheard of – unanimous vote, but a faculty member who spearheaded this three-year discussion and review also deserves mounds of credit: then Professor, now Dean, Martha Minow.

2. They Put Students First

That doesn’t mean, as one of my former deans was apt to say, they instruct the school to treat the students like they are guests at a 5-star hotel. But what it does mean is that the decisions made at the top are always centered on the well-being and prosperity of the students. Or, as a placard on said dean’s desk read, “and how does this help students?”

An example comes immediately to mind. At Colorado Law School we talked well into the night on multiple occasions about school-funded jobs. Not once did the dean consider them as part of a rankings improvement package; in fact, in all these conversations rankings and employment percentages were never mentioned. Rather the overarching questions being asked were “how will this impact the student?” and “will such a program better enable them to secure long-term employment and help them with their early careers?” When we could find opportunities that held the possibility of assisting students’ job prospects, such possibilities were deeply considered. But if a position did not hold the potential of leading toward long-term opportunity, it was immediately shot down.

Another aspect of putting students first is trusting them to resolve disputes and tackle their own challenges. One of the worst things a dean can do is to over-manage the student body, particularly when students have complaints they bring to the administration. The surest way to elevate a complaint or problem from students is to interject an absolute solution. At Vanderbilt Law School students brought an issue with the law review selection process to the attention of the administration through a demonstration on Admitted Students Day. Rather than proscribing a solution, the administration asked the students to come up with possible selection process alternatives. One of these student engineered solutions was ultimately adopted by the faculty.  Good deans provide options and resources, but see the opportunity for the students to learn something from the experience. This doesn’t mean that the students always get their way, but it does mean that they are a part of the process.

3. They Know How to Make Others Feel Important

This aphorism we recently heard sums it up: "When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important."

Most deans come from the academic ranks where they may not have had large numbers of subordinates reporting to them. Additionally, most were tenured professors and have not had a traditional “boss” for years. This means it would be possible for a new dean to be blissfully unaware of how important recognition is in the work world, particularly recognition from the top. Not so with good deans. Simply taking the time to know the entire faculty, including adjunct, and the staff by name and greeting everyone as such in the hallway can be tremendously uplifting. Every employee has bad days, including the dean, but the good ones realize that their attitude has the greatest effect on the school. The best are able to project optimism and a genuine care for those around them, and realize just a little bit of attention can go a very long way.

4. They Ruthlessly Seek Data for Decision Making

Data-driven decisions reign supreme at the top. Indeed, the deans we know seem to quote Moneyball more than baseball GMs. And they are always asking for more data.

We have noticed an interesting trend in this area. Admissions dean hires in the past were often made in a beauty pageant manner. Who had the most charisma? Who came across the best in the interview process? These were factors that heavily influenced the overall selection. Of late, however, when law schools approach us to help them with their admissions dean search, the question most often asked of us “who are the data driven candidates?” In this hyper competitive admissions scene (see #1) and scholarship arms-race, they want to know who can show them algorithms that predict how much money was offered candidates based on their LSAT/GPA, geographic proximity to the law school, etc. The more rapidly the market changes, the more data can predict future change. Law schools are historically very poor at holding onto historic data and/or using it to predict future trends. Good deans see the value in predicting change before the competition and trust data more than instinct to do so.

5. They Actually Innovate – Not Just Talk About It

It doesn’t take long in admissions, perhaps just attending an LSAC Forum or two, to hear a common message from schools. “We have an open door policy at our school!” you will hear admissions officer after admissions officer exclaim as if they are the only ones, “our faculty is highly accessible!”

At the dean level there is a similar frequently pitched refrain. “We are innovators” is hammered away on websites, at just about every conference you attend in law school administration, and in the ever-present literature coming from law schools. Yet, when you compare closely, the majority of these innovative programs sound just like the next. They aren’t “innovation,” but rather “new to the school.”

We were fortunate enough to attend a conference sponsored by Colorado Law School last year on “The Future of Law School Innovation” (to see the topics covered, go here: The lead presenter, George Kembel from The Stanford Design School, gave a thought provoking presentation on how to redesign an incubator that could be used on a wide scale for impoverished nations. The outside-the-box innovation was that they didn’t redesign the incubator at all; instead they made a sleeping bag like apparatus that could transport newborns to hospitals with nearly the same efficacy as preexisting incubators, but for a fraction of the cost and build time. Law schools are great at tweaking programs and then coloring them as innovative. Unfortunately the schools next door are often doing the same thing. To be a first mover requires something entirely different, and just as in the example of embracing change, it requires the expenditure of political capital and the ability to rally people around the innovation. But doing so matters deeply today. To paraphrase the comments of venture capitalist Jason Mendelson at the same conference on innovation, “the value of new lawyers is going down, and venture capitalists for the first time would rather invest in other venues for dispensing legal advice than firms.” Law schools need to realize that this threat is real and find truly innovative ways to increase the value of their students, rather than just paying tribute to innovation. There are many different ways to “incubate” a law school versus the traditional one, particularly as the traditional model has become economically stressed. Good deans are looking at real innovation and not worried about simply keeping up with the other schools.

6. They Empower, Trust, and Share Knowledge with Others

As a department head at Washington University in St. Louis, I was given a budget with substantial resources and a clear mandate, then empowered and entrusted to translate the former into the latter.  During my second week I had lunch with the dean who told me not to worry about antagonistic alums, faculty, or anyone who would resist the bevy of new programs and outreach we were about to unleash. “If anyone messes with you, just let me know, and I can take care of it for you” was the gist of his message. With my hire came a covenant of trust: I would be given the mandate and resources and would be left alone to get the job done. With this message I was given a great deal of confidence that I could indeed get the job done – in this case the job was getting more of our students hired than ever before despite the greatest downturn in employment in the history of legal education.  Could I have come close to doing this if I did not feel trust from the top? I don’t think I would have lasted more than a year. The lack of micromanagement freed up considerable time and gave me a near constant spring in my step; that time and spring gave me the ability and enthusiasm to travel across the nation doing outreach to firms, change every piece of marketing literature as well as our web presence, and meet with every single student on an individual basis.

Another examples comes from the “flat” organizational feel of Colorado Law School. I would conjecture that the majority of employees there, both faculty and staff, are on at least 1 committee. When I was there, I was on 6. The sharing of information from the top to all members of the law school was an amazing thing to watch. We felt empowered by the knowledge and, again, more dedicated because of it. Similarly, at law schools where deans have consistent Town Hall meetings, you often see a more vibrant and participative student body. The key here (having conducted numerous such meetings) is to never oversell or pitch what the law school is doing – but rather to simply share the strategies that brought you in front of the crowd. Students (and prospective students) are wonderful at discerning when they are being leveled with and when they are being sold.

7. They Make Time

In 2011 while Assistant Dean for Career Services, Strategy and Marketing for WUSTL, I visited a mid-sized firm in Birmingham, Alabama as part of an employer recruitment swing. There was nothing particularly splashy about the trip or the firm. It was a solid place to work in a smallish city, and we had a few students that would have jumped at the chance. As I had done on hundreds of other occasions, I sat down for a 20-30 minute meeting with the Hiring Partner. What I didn’t know is that, years before, when he was being honored for service at his firm, my dean had driven down (and back late at night) to present the award to the partner. The sale of my students to this firm was particularly easy because it had already been made. Nor was this the first time that such a serendipitous connection had already occurred.

For every dean mentioned in this article and many others we have had the good fortune to work with or get to know, the most common theme we can think of is that they seem to have more time in the day than most. They have more time because they make time for their school – even for seemingly small gestures (Phil Weiser called me at home one night to explain why he was putting our new communications director in charge of a committee I headed – a decision that made complete sense for a variety of reasons and certainly one he did not have to explain – but by doing so he made me feel even more appreciated and respected) – to publicly visible and time consuming appointments to external organizations.

Stewarding a law school is no easy task; we have seen this at every school where we have worked. There are pressures and politics on deans that most organizational leaders do not have to face. I would argue that it is almost impossible to know all of these decanal pressures unless one has actually led a law school. We haven’t, but we have observed carefully and had the simple good fortune of working for the right people at the right times. These deans embraced real change and cared deeply about their schools – and these starting points are what made their challenging mandate a bit easier on all of us.