The Law Dean Series

David A. Brennen

University of Kentucky College of Law
David A. Brennen
University of Kentucky College of Law

The University of Kentucky College of Law, founded in 1908 from a program initiated more than 100 years prior at Transylvania University, is one of the oldest law schools in the nation. It is home to the Kentucky Law Journal, the nation's 10th oldest student-led law review, and it was ranked fourth among National Jurist's list of the Top 20 Best Value Law Schools 2015.

Since 2009, Dean David A. Brennen has served as dean of the UK College of Law. Prior to his appointment as dean of the University of Kentucky law school, he was a longtime legal educator at several distinguished law schools. Beginning his career in legal education as an adjunct professor at Florida A&M University in 1994, he has since held positions at Syracuse University College of Law, the University of Richmond School of Law, Mercer University School of Law, and the University of Georgia School of Law.

With expertise in nonprofit tax law, Dean Brennen is co-founder and co-editor of Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, founding editor of Nonprofit and Philanthropy Law Abstracts, and co-founder of the AALS Section on Nonprofit and Philanthropy Law. He is co-author and editor of several books related to tax law, particularly in relation to charities and nonprofit organizations, and he has authored and published numerous scholarly articles.

Like other law school deans who have taken the time to share their thoughts about law school, legal education, and the legal profession, Dean Brennen notes the challenges law school students face in adjusting to the demands of law school. However, he also offers some useful suggestions on how to adapt to the rigors of a legal education. Read more about what Dean Brennen has to say about law school and challenges and opportunities in the legal field.

1. What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

In my view, the biggest challenge facing law students is making the adjustment to a stressful environment that has significant upside potential. I often advise new law students to take seriously the admonition to thoughtfully prepare your mind and body for law school. Get into an exercise regime that keeps your body in good physical condition and that you can maintain throughout all three years of law school. Communicate with your loved ones that during the three years of law school, you may be less available than before, but that they should not read much into your lack of availability. Try to maintain a regular social life outside of law school that gets you away from law study on occasion (but not too much) so that you can maintain some semblance of normalcy. Overall, it is important that law students enter their legal studies with their eyes wide open – not only to the stresses inside the classroom, but also to those that can come from outside the classroom.

2. What is the single biggest challenge that you face as Dean?

Time management. There is never enough time in the day to do all of things that must be done as Dean. Thus, it is important to prioritize and surround yourself with the very best staff and faculty. I am lucky to have a wonderful team around me that is more than capable of making sure the law school excels. This includes a staff of seasoned professionals who handle many key aspects of law school operations, including budgeting, general administration, admissions, career development, library and communications. In addition, because the faculty has a governance role at the law school, many individual faculty members chair and serve on various faculty committees. It is also important to focus on fundraising and maintain close relationships with alumni, which could not be done effectively without a top notch alumni affairs and development staff. Finally, because our law school operates a vibrant continuing legal education program, it is important to have the very best staff in that area. Having a strong law school team of professionals who are all working to make the law school the best it can be means that my inability to do all that I would like to in a given time period is hardly noticeable.

3. Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth over the next few years?

If I had to guess, I would say that healthcare law and compliance is likely to grow in importance over the next few years. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act and the many possible continuing challenges, healthcare delivery (including actual medical delivery as well as associated functions such as health insurance and pharmaceuticals) is becoming much more complicated today than it was only a few years ago.

4. Is teaching law now different compared to when you were a law student?

The major difference in teaching law now than when I was a student is the emphasis on assessment and learning outcomes. When I was a law student, the predominant model of law teaching was that presented in the Paper Chase – a model that focused more on process than it did on practicality. However, with increased scrutiny on clearly discernable outputs by law schools, not only by the ABA and state bar regulators, but also by employers and the press, skills training and ongoing assessment of student learning have become more important today than they were twenty-five years ago when I was a law student.

5. How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

Emerging technology could impact criminal defense in a number of ways, mostly in terms of defining the bounds of reasonable expectations of privacy for defendants. For example, does the ability to restrict access to a smartphone by a fingerprint create a legitimate expectation of privacy so as to prevent law enforcement access without a warrant? More generally, what is the scope of privacy with respect to a smart phone if, for instance, it is password protected? What is the impact of technology that permits smartphone owners to wipe their phone clean remotely if they fall into the hands of others, like law enforcement? Privacy is immensely important in the criminal law field, and technology surrounding smart phones in particular is bound to raise new and different privacy concerns for criminal defendants.

6. What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court?

In talking with our Constitutional Law professors, one significant concern facing the Court is finding a way not to seem "political" when deciding highly contentious cases by a 5-4 vote that splits along ideological lines. For the first time in a century, the Court has five Justices who were appointed by Republican Presidents and four Justices who were appointed by Democratic Presidents. And the Court is hearing many polarizing cases such as those related to the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, voting rights, the death penalty, abortion, and affirmative action, among others. The Justices are certainly trying to decide these cases in accordance with precedent and principled reasoning, but any time this Court issues a 5-4 decision on ideological lines, the perception will be that political judgments drove the decision. I think Chief Justice Roberts, in particular, would like to avoid the perception of this being a "political" Court, and that, in turn, requires justifying the opinions even more through legal reasoning and analysis.

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

Not really. I love legal education. I always wanted to enter this field since I was in law school. Practicing law is great, but nothing compares to the joy I receive from the process of discovery (both in the classroom and in my research) or creating opportunity for others to obtain a legal education.

8. If you could invite any three legal or governmental identities--living, dead, real, or fictitious--to a meal whom would you invite?

I have four: Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama

9. What is your favorite legal movie?

The Firm (The main character is a tax lawyer, my area of study.)