Our most recent law dean interview takes us to Ithaca, New York, and one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation: Cornell Law School. Considered a top-tier law school, Cornell Law is unique in its small size which allows for rigorous legal education in an intimate setting. Each year, more than 4,000 applicants seek admission to Cornell Law School's JD program, but only about 200 enter the program. Once at Cornell, the 600 students enrolled in the JD program participate in a curriculum rich in both theory and practice. The law school boasts numerous centers, clinics, and programs designed to help law students learn to practice law at the highest level.
Since 2014, Eduardo M. Peñalver has served as Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law at Cornell Law. He is a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale Law. He has taught not only at Cornell Law, but also at the University of Chicago Law School and Fordham Law School. He has been a visiting professor at both Harvard Law School and Yale Law School.
We would like to thank Dean Peñalver for taking the time to answer our questions about the challenges and opportunityes faced by current and future law students, and about the changing face of the legal education and the legal profession.
What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?
The biggest challenge facing today’s new law students is making a wise choice about where to attend law school. With the decline in applications to law schools nationwide, new law students have never had more bargaining power than they do today. But figuring out how to wield that power is actually extremely complicated. It involves tradeoffs between several competing (and to a certain extent incommensurable) variables, including cost, geography, job outcomes, prestige, and many others. It’s great to have choices, but it can also be challenging to cut through all the complexity.
What is the single biggest challenge that you face as Dean?
My single greatest challenge is related to the challenge that prospective students face, and that is to cut through the noise to communicate effectively with them about what makes Cornell different from other law schools and why this might be the right place for them. Cornell’s location is a great example of that challenge. Most prospective students perceive our rural location to be a disadvantage, something to endure for three years. But, once they arrive, Cornell students quickly come to view Ithaca as an asset. Ithaca is a physically beautiful, even inspiring place to study. Our gothic building is straight of out Harry Potter. You can’t help but think great thoughts inside Myron Taylor Hall. Because of our rural location, faculty and students tend to come in every day. They get to know one another. Students come to Cornell Law School and make friends for life. And the cost of living in Ithaca is hard to beat. Those of us who are already here know these things, but figuring out how to communicate that effectively to a prospective student weighing lots of different law school options is a significant communication challenge.
Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth over the next few years?
I think legal work that engages technology will experience continued growth in the coming years. The obvious areas are intellectual property and technology-related business transactions. But this also includes less obvious practice areas like privacy and cybersecurity. I also think this includes new ways of doing legal work that employ technology creatively, such as electronic discovery and artificial intelligence. Finally, advances in technology – such as autonomous vehicles – and new business models that push the boundaries of traditional legal categories (think Uber) are going to call for creative regulatory responses. This regulatory ferment will also produce lots of work for smart, creative lawyers.
Is teaching law now different compared to when you were a law student?
Not as much as it should be. There are more laptops in the classroom and better AV technology, but law school teaching methods are remarkably resistant to change. I would like to see law professors make more use of technology in their own teaching, beyond things like PowerPoint. At Cornell, several faculty use classroom polling technology, like the i-Clicker, to engage students even when they are not being cold-called. I’d also like to see more opportunities for experiential learning in doctrinal classes.
What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court?
I think the biggest challenge for the Supreme Court is not so much a legal one, but rather the structural one of how it can maintain its relevance and legitimacy in light of the extreme politicization of the judicial appointments process. The Court’s legitimacy, historically, has been based on persuasion. If the public views Justices as merely a different kind of politician, and if it views the work of the Court as akin to that of a super-legislature, the Court’s stature is going to suffer. Some of this is outside the hands of the Court itself, but the Justices can also choose to resist the polarization that infects our broader political conversation. It will be interesting to see which path they take in the coming years.
Are there any aspects of practicing law you miss due to being in education?
As a faculty member, I really missed the variety of things I had to work on in the course of a day at the law firm. I missed the strategic thinking that was such an important part of litigation practice. And that is really what drove me into administration. As a dean, I get to work on 30 different things each day, and I get to stretch muscles that I had not been able to use in the classroom or in my research. So I feel like I have the best of both worlds.
If you could invite any three legal or governmental identities (living or dead, real or fictitious) to a meal, whom would you invite?
Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, and Michelle Obama
What is your favorite legal movie?
A Man for All Seasons