Since 2013, Robert W. Adler has served as the dean of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, first as interim dean and now as the
Jefferson B. and Rita E. Fordham Presidential Dean. During his oversight of the University of Utah law school, Dean Adler has witnessed the construction of a new law center and been an advocate for curricular reform that focuses on real-world learning opportunities.
As law school deans have noted throughout this series of interviews, a shift from Socratic, lecture-based legal education to practical, hands-on, real-world learning and opportunities has revolutionized legal education to prepare law students to be effective lawyers upon graduation.
The S.J. Quinney College of Law boast a low student-to-faculty ratio that allows students to receive personal attention in meeting their needs as law students and future professional lawyers. University of Utah law also features three educational centers:
- The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment
- The Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences
- The Center for Innovation in Legal Education
Dean Adler was gracious enough to take time to answer our questions about the nature of legal education and how it equips law students to become effective professionals in a continually evolving field.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing new law students?
Particularly for students who go directly to law school from college, depending on their undergraduate experience, the transition from knowledge-based to analytical instruction can be difficult. Although all good educators train their students to think independently, to question, and to challenge common wisdom, in law school we teach a process in which there is not necessarily a “right” answer rather than logical but creative analysis and problem solving, in which all possible outcomes are explored rigorously.
The second key challenge new law students face is stress and a heavy workload. During Intro Week, I give our incoming students three seemingly counterintuitive “permissions”. The first is permission to sleep through law school – just not during class! If students always burn the midnight oil, they burn out. Like running a marathon, students need to pace themselves so they don't run out of steam (or get sick) in the middle of their first semester, or fall so behind that they have to sprint to the finish. The second is permission to forget about grades. Although this may seem odd to ambitious students in a tough job market, the students who do best focus on learning rather than grades per se. The third permission is not to obsess about the job market, but rather to spend their next three years meeting people in the profession; immersing themselves in clinical, pro bono and other practice opportunities; and otherwise making the contacts that will support their professional development. That is the surest path to a rewarding career.
Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth?
International trade and intellectual property are huge growth areas in an increasingly global economy (one reason we recently added certificate programs in those two areas of law, in addition to business law, litigation and dispute resolution, and public interest law). The Affordable Care Act and other changes in the U.S. health care system also suggest tremendous regulatory challenges that will require lawyers to navigate. Finally, the legal “industry” is finally beginning to recognize and serve the legal needs of middle income Americans—the so-called modest means market—and the most entrepreneurial young lawyers are exploring ways to serve those markets.
What are the biggest challenges you face as Dean?
The biggest challenge is to resist the temptation to follow the crowd in response to short-term trends and ideas, which are rampant in legal education now in response to sometimes inaccurate or exaggerated news stories about law schools, but rather to lead your institution based on its unique student body and place in legal education. I spend a lot of time listening to students, talking to our Associate Dean of Admissions about the aspirations he hears from applicants, and consulting with faculty and our alumni and other practitioners about the changes in curriculum and other programs that will best support the long-term goals of our students. Ultimately, student success remains our number one priority, which is why we are focusing so heavily on our 100/100-initiative, a firm goal to attain 100% bar passage and 100% professional employment for our students, goals that are admittedly quite ambitious but designed to prompt us to do our very best on behalf of our students.
How is teaching law now different compared to when you were a law student?
Law professors generally are now more respectful of students and their needs. They also focus more heavily on the balance between theory, doctrine, and practice than on strict Socratic dialogue (and I try to blend all of those aspects of the legal profession, along with the ethical dimensions of practicing law, into every course I teach). The current challenge is to meet increasing demands that law students be “practice ready” on graduation with our traditional focus, which is just as or even more important as ever, on helping students develop keen analytical skills and broader perspectives on the law that will help them to meet the legal challenges of the future.
How is the law school different from other schools at a college?
Most law schools associated with larger colleges or universities are considered professional schools because we only offer advanced degrees, and we only teach undergraduate students when we partner with other departments and colleges on campus. That means that our students are, on average, older and more mature, and more focused on their future. As a result, our curriculum is much more tightly focused on the professional needs of our students, and a large part of our mission is to teach and cultivate professionalism in addition to knowledge and skills.
How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?
Technology is affecting all areas of legal practice dramatically, from e-filing and e-discovery to issues of information privacy to massive changes in the kinds of scientific evidence that lawyers use and encounter in and out of court. In the area of criminal defense, methods of proof that have traditionally been used to show guilt (such as handwriting analysis, tooth mark analysis, and even fingerprints) are increasingly under scrutiny for accuracy and legitimacy. At the same time, DNA evidence and other methods are now available to question indictments and past convictions that were based on more subjective forms of evidence (such as eye witness identification). Good lawyers do not have to be scientists or technology experts, but increasingly they need to understand science and technology, how it is used, its limits as well as its capabilities, and how to work with experts and to ask the right questions about all of those issues.
What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court?
Most of the cases presented to the Supreme Court are discretionary, that is, the Court first decides which of the thousands of cases presented to them each year they will actually hear; and they have been accepting a smaller and smaller percentage of those cases over time. So the Court’s first challenge is to choose those cases that are most important in guiding the lower courts and in resolving differences between lower court opinions. The second key challenge, which has changed only in nature and degree throughout the Court’s history, is to determine how longstanding legal doctrines should apply to an unpredictable array of new and different circumstances, many of which could not even have been imagined when we as a nation adopted the Constitution, when Congress enacted various statutes, and when earlier courts established existing legal precedents.
Are there any aspects of practicing law you miss due to being in education?
At times during my career as a practicing lawyer, I established intense and very meaningful relationships with clients I served. Perhaps the most notable were individuals who lived miles from the nearest road or commercial establishment in a remote rural settlement in Alaska, and whose land allotment was being threatened by an illegal state land disposal. After I won their case before the Alaska Supreme Court, those clients took my wife and me on a rafting trip down the Susitna River. As educators, we can duplicate some of those relationships by making sure we treat our students as individuals and trying to meet their needs in the same way lawyers do for their clients.
If you could invite any three legal identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal who would they be?
James Madison, whose opinion I would ask about whether the authors of the Constitution intended that document to be interpreted according to a fixed understanding of its intent when written, or to be subject to flexible interpretation by the Supreme Court and lower courts as the nation and circumstances change over time.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose perspective I would seek on the amount of patience and determination it takes to use the legal system to address longstanding societal problems (such as systemic racism).
Jackie Chiles, whose opinion I would ask about the relevance of law as depicted in popular culture to the real practice of law, and how it shapes public perceptions of the law and of lawyers.
What is your favorite legal movie?
Although there is a rich history of wonderful legal movies historically (such as To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men), a more current favorite is Bridge of Spies. It depicts a lawyer in a complex and completely unfamiliar situation, who serves his “client” (the United States and arguably the world) and solves the problem, with persistence and dedication, by thinking outside the box.