The Law Dean Series

Deborah H. Bell

University of Mississippi School of Law
Deborah H. Bell
University of Mississippi School of Law

We are grateful to the law deans around the nation who have taken the time to speak with us and answer questions about the changing face of legal education and the legal profession as a whole. It is our hope that this series of interviews with the deans of law schools around the region and the United States will help prepare prospective law students for their future educational and professional opportunities, and might help inform their decision-making in finding a law school that meets their needs.

Our series takes us to the campus of Ole Miss to speak with Dean Deborah H. Bell of the University of Mississippi School of Law.  The University of Mississippi School of Law is one of the country's oldest law schools--only the fourth law school in the nation when it opened its doors in 1854.

Dean Bell received her own J.D. from the University of Mississippi, and her legal career includes clerkship for Judge Elbert P. Tuttle of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and service as staff attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

Having been a law student and alumnus, she returned to the UM School of Law as a professor of law in 1981. She founded the Civil Legal Clinic, serving as its Director until 2009. She has been named interim law dean and also remains a professor of law.

Her expertise in family law is widely recognized, and she has received numerous awards and recognition for her work in law and legal education.

In her message to prospective students, Bell speaks of how a changing and evolving legal market has prompted the UM School of Law to adapt its offerings to meet the needs of law students and the legal profession. However, she emphasizes that a tradition of providing "outstanding classroom teaching and substantive law training" has not changed--a concept she reiterates in her interview.  

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

The changing job market. Students need to begin thinking and preparing for the job market earlier in their law school career than they did ten years ago. They should begin to network early, taking opportunities to meet attorneys in the geographic area and practice area of their interest.

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

The legal community--and legal education as a result--is in a time of transition. This is true of every state and every law school in the country--it is not unique to the UM Law School. All law schools should be engaging in self-examination. We should be asking how we can adapt to produce lawyers who are well-prepared to enter today's practice world, including how to address the extensive unmet need for legal services. Our law school has begun a strategic planning process that will continue for most of the academic year.

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

Health care and Elder Law are two that come to mind immediately. I also see an increasing need for family law attorneys. With the changes in family composition (fewer married couples, more children born outside of marriage), the fairly steady divorce rate, the Supreme Court's recent decision recognizing marriage equality, and the complexity of assisted reproduction issues, courts are increasingly involved in private family matters.

Is teaching law now different from when you were a law student?

Yes. When I was in law school, most of the classes were doctrinal lecture classes. Very few classes were offered that focused on skills other than legal reasoning and analysis. Today, law schools offer a wide range of skills classes, including trial, negotiation, dispute resolution, as well as multiple clinical offerings. Our school now offers eight in-house clinics, two practicums, and an externship program. All students can participate in a clinic as well as an externship. I wish these opportunities had been available when I was in school.

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

Actually, I have had the best of both worlds. Half of my teaching load has been clinical classes. I have taught doctrinal classes (property, family law, commercial law) as well as practicing law alongside my students in a variety of clinical settings. I particularly enjoy teaching as a clinical professor, where students are learning substantive law as well as skills in a real-life setting that is messy, demanding, and exciting.

If you could invite any three legal/governmental identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal whom would you invite?

Three women who were leaders in my home state, Mississippi, at different times: the first woman to be admitted to the Mississippi Bar 100 years ago in 1915; former Justice Lenore Prather, the first woman on the Mississippi Supreme Court, who became the Chief Justice in 1993; And Minnie Cox, who in 1891 was named as postmistress in my hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, becoming the first female African-American postmistress in the United States.

What is your favorite legal movie?

I would like to name a movie with grand themes of justice and heroism, but the truth is--My Cousin Vinny. I show my classes clips from the movie to illustrate points on professionalism, evidence, and procedure. It never fails to get a laugh.