The Law Dean Series

Douglas Sylvester

Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law
Douglas Sylvester
Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Arizona State University's law school is the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, an institution that prides itself on giving law students the comprehensive legal education they need to secure employment in the legal profession. It boasts a higher than average rate of graduates finding full-time employment in the legal field, with 87 percent finding jobs full-time jobs requiring bar passage or a JD degree within 10 months of graduation. Nationally, the employment average for all ABA-accredited schools is 71 percent.

Since March 2012, Douglas Sylvester has served as Dean of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Prior to becoming dean, he served as Interim Dean for 10 months and as Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development.

His areas of specialty include intellectual property law and commercialization, international law, emerging technologies and privacy. When he taught Nanotechnology and the Law in 2006, it was the first time such a course had been offered by full-time law faculty. He sees emerging trends in the legal field and works to prepare students for careers as lawyers in a continually changing field.

We reached out to Dean Sylvester to discuss his view of legal education and the challenges law students face both in law school and as graduates working as lawyers in an evolving legal profession.

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

There's a concern that law students have lost faith in the institutions of law, both law schools and the legal profession. I think part of the challenge that we face as educators every single day is making sure that we restore that trust and that we show them that the faith they have put in us is correct and worthy of their efforts and they are joining a profession that is worthy of their efforts and endeavors. They are part of something bigger than themselves.

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

One of the biggest challenges I have as dean is keeping the confidence of our communities and our alumni have placed on us. We constantly have to be thinking about how to make the law school a place that makes its communities better, however you define that. It encompasses everything we do from how we engage our community, how we recruit students, how we try to keep law affordable, and how we provide the opportunities that help people change their lives for the better.

It’s been tough being a dean over the last five years. We’ve seen schools really hurting for students and that puts pressure on us. We’ve seen universities cut budgets and we have not been immune from the financial pressures. But it’s not only about making budget cuts. More importantly it is getting the right people so we are always moving in the right direction.

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

Unquestionably, health law. It’s going to be a huge area. People don't know that we spend $3 on sports and entertainment for every dollar we spend on education and health. Sports is a major growth area and that’s one of the reasons we are there with our Sports Law and Business Program. There is cross-border licensing—attorneys who have licensure in multiple jurisdictions in multiple countries, serving clients as they do cross-border trading. We have a new Rule of Law program that will create a generations of lawyers who will be able to assist post-conflict nations. Indian Law is also very important. We have far-and-away the largest and best Indian Legal Program in the country and it works with tribes on vital economic development issues. This is another way for us to instill trust in the community.

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

I don't think so. I’m someone who has a tremendous belief in legal education. As someone who taught in business schools for 20 years, the skills we impart in the law are truly special, particularly the ability to see problems from every angle. Legal education must never lose sight of the critical-thinking skills that law imparts. Practical skills training is a big growth area in law schools and that's a good thing. But I actually don't think that's the core of legal education. I for one want to make sure that legal education never loses sight of its critical-thinking skills.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

With all manner of surveillance data and data geo-location, it's just going to make it much more difficult on one side and easy on the other. One of our phenomenal professors, Erik Luna, has just written a great article on this, Digital Innocence. He writes specifically about the criminal defense side. There’s just no end to information the prosecution could get. So the prosecution is carrying this burden of having to find every possible piece of exculpatory data and then surrendering it to a defendant. It’s impossible.

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

If we’re going to talk about institutional challenges, the question is how to navigate the increasing partisanship of our politics and maintain a level of objectivity and legal principle so the court does not appear as if it is a partisan, political institution. In terms of specific legal questions that they are going to be facing, obviously, on that same point, every single year they're deciding questions about redistricting and voting. There is also the increasing globalization of U.S. law and how we are going to look at foreign jurisdictions and the role in which foreign law is going to play in the U.S.

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

I had a rather unique practice area in that I worked almost exclusively with small start-up businesses and companies and large institutional clients that we're looking to move to the online environment of e-commerce, data, and privacy. That was really cutting-edge at the time. I really enjoyed being part of that. As a teacher I was able to keep up with the field, as a dean I am not. I really miss knowing about the latest cutting-edge technologies and their applications.

If you could invite any three legal or governmental identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal who would they be?

Emmerich de Vattel – I wrote about him years ago and have always found him a truly fascinating figure in the evolution of international law. He was an 18th century Swiss philosopher, diplomat, and legal expert. His theories are the foundation of modern international law.

Joseph Story—Again, this is someone I spent a lot of time researching and reading. He was a U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1811 to 1845. Today, he’s best remembered for his opinion on the Amistad case. He was truly an amazing historical figure.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—Not many people can say they have broken bread with a living legend, but I have been fortunate enough to have already had a few meals with the justice. She’s so interesting and really tells it like it is. Anytime she wants to have another meal with me, I’m ready!

What is your favorite legal movie?

“Witness for the Prosecution” -- Anything with Charles Laughton is great.