The Law Dean Series

Darby Dickerson

Texas Tech University
Darby Dickerson
Texas Tech University

In our continuing conversations with the deans of law schools around the region, I reached out to Dean Darby Dickerson of the Texas Tech University School of Law. Dean Dickerson has been the Dean of the TTU school of law since July 2011. Prior to leading the law school at Texas Tech, she was the Interim Dean and Dean of the Stetson University College of Law in Florida, where she served from 2003 until coming to TTU in 2011.

Dean Dickerson has had a distinguished career and has received recognition for her work as a lawyer and an educator. She holds the W. Frank Newton Endowed Professorship at TTU, and she serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of American Law Schools, where she has chaired several sections, including the Deans Section and the Section on Institutional Advancement. She is also President of Scribes—The American Society of Legal Writers, an elected member of the American Law Institute, a Sustaining Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation, and an inaugural member of the Texas Tech University School of Law American Inn of Court.

In fact, Dean Dickerson is so well-recognized for her contributions to the legal profession that an award has been named in her honor. In 2013, the Association of Legal Writing Directors named her the inaugural recipient of the Darby Dickerson Award for Revolutionary Change in Legal Writing, in recognition of her contributions to legal writing.

Thank you, Dean Dickerson, for taking the time to talk to us about the challenges of law students, what it means to be the dean of a law school, and the future of the legal profession.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

The biggest challenge may be learning how to thrive in a world that is constantly changing; to meet this challenge requires that a new lawyer become a passionate life-long learner. So many tasks that lawyers performed routinely in the past can now be accomplished by software, non-lawyers, lawyers not based in the United States, or pro-se forms. New lawyers need to have a solid grounding in legal theory and a wide range of legal skills – such as strong written and oral communication skills – but they also need a wide array of other skills, which I will characterize as leadership or “soft” skills. They need to be proficient at using technology, at working with a wide range of co-workers and clients, at solving complex problems that draw from law and other disciplines. They also have to learn how to customize services to client needs, and to peek around the corner to see emerging areas that could complement their practice.

One thing I’ve learned is that the only constant is change. If you’re adaptable and creative, you can not only survive, but thrive.

Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth?

We’re always likely to have employer-employee relationships, exchanges of and disputes about money and property (both real property and intangible property), and taxes. So practices that touch those areas will continue to have demand, although the specifics may vary: transactions may be down and bankruptcies up some times, and the reverse others.

Law related to technology, to scarce natural resources (such as water), and to an aging population will also grow.

I see more newer attorneys going in-house more quickly. I sense that corporate legal departments now see the value of hiring more junior attorneys and training them in specific areas and in the business of the corporation.

Creative forms of dispute resolution will be in demand because litigation, for most, is prohibitively expensive.

And I wish we could figure out a way to provide legal services for those who need them most: returning veterans, the homeless, children without families, the unemployed, and the list goes on. Most individuals cannot afford a lawyer. We have attorneys who are not employed, but also have hundreds of thousands of individuals with unmet legal needs. The legal profession and law schools should continue to think creatively about how to solve this dilemma in a way that doesn’t put all the burden on new attorneys.

What is the biggest challenge you face as Dean?

An ever-present challenge is how to stay focused on strategic priorities. If you want to accomplish things, you must be focused. But with so much going on day-to-day, and so many opportunities that we could pursue, staying focused requires both discipline and making difficult choices.

Another ongoing challenge is ensuring that the school has sufficient resources, of all types, to provide the best educational environment possible. The downturn in admissions nationally means that there are certain budget pressures that didn’t exist five or six years ago. My favorite saying is that every challenge presents an opportunity. I guess that’s one reason I love being a law dean!

How is teaching law now different to when you were a law student?

When I was in law school (I graduated from Vanderbilt in 1988), most professors used the Socratic method, or a close variation. Usually only a few students actively participated in each class. Today there are more diverse teaching methods, many of which increase and improve engagement. I think professors feel free to be more creative and to try new approaches. There are also many more opportunities for learning outside the traditional classroom, such as clinics and externships. Of course, technology has also changed the classroom dramatically, both from the professor and student perspective.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

I’ve never practiced criminal law, but Texas Tech does work closely with the Innocence Project of Texas. One way I hope technology will impact criminal defense is to provide means to better, more reliable methods of identification.

What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court, if any?

The tension about what issues the Court should decide versus what issues are better left for Congress or the people by vote to decide can be difficult. I imagine that issues related to medical and recreational marijuana could soon present this type of debate. The constitutionality of the death penalty and the appropriate role of affirmative action appear to be issues the Court will face again in the near future. Questions about criminal-justice reform, especially when issues of mental illness, youth, disparate impact, and claims of actual innocence are involved, almost always implicate important policy issues with vigorous debate on both sides.

Are there any aspects of practicing law you miss due to being in education?

I thoroughly enjoyed practicing law. I was a litigation associate at the Dallas firm now known as Locke Lord. The people there were fantastic, and I learned a lot. But I knew after my first year in law school that I wanted to teach law school, so practicing long term was never the plan. Many of the things I enjoyed in law practice I’ve also found in legal education: Working with smart and interesting people for a common goal, training new lawyers, being involved with the bar on projects to serve the profession and public, a fast pace, and solving problems creatively.

If you could invite any 3 legal/government identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal who would it be?

Tough choice! I’d start with Thomas Jefferson, Robert Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall. If I had six guests, I would add Christopher Columbus Langdell, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Clinton – who’d keep it lively!

What is your favorite legal movie?

I have a few, and they are quite different. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic. I recently saw it on the large screen, and was mesmerized. “Paper Chase,” both the movie and television series, had an impact on what I thought law school would be like. My students are surprised that I can quote large portions of both “Legally Blonde” movies. As you might imagine, I have a soft spot for Darby Shaw in “The Pelican Brief.” Finally, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. Albus Dumbledore served as Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, so if you allow me that, the Harry Potter movies definitely make the list!