The Law Dean Series

Erin O'Hara O'Connor

Florida State University College of Law
Erin O'Hara O'Connor
Florida State University College of Law

The Florida State University College of Law is a nationally recognized law school, consistently ranked number one in the state and in the top 50 in the nation by entities including U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, and Brian Leiter's Law School Reports. The FSU College of Law boasts ranking among the top law schools in the United States in terms of job placement. One reason for success in this area is the school's emphasis on a broad range of classroom and clinical experiences, including clinical externship programs and three "live-client" clinics.

At the helm of the FSU College of Law is Dean Erin O'Hara O'Connor, a renowned legal scholar whose emphasis includes conflict of laws, arbitration and the law market. Prior to joining FSU College of Law, Dean O'Hara O'Connor taught at Vanderbilt Law School, where she held positions including associate dean of academic affairs, director of the Law and Human Behavior program, and director of graduate studies for the Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics. She has also taught at notable universities including Clemson University, George Mason University, Georgetown University and Northwestern University.

Dean O'Hara O'Connor is a career legal educator, and has a unique perspective on our questions about legal education and the challenges and opportunities facing law students and prospective lawyers.

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

If by “new” you mean our incoming law students, their biggest challenge is figuring out how to make sense of the law, both its structure and the highly jargon-laden language of our profession. Navigating both can seem overwhelming. To help mitigate those challenges, and to provide a sense of confidence for our incoming students, Florida State offers a one-week program with guidance and practice needed to enable students to more effectively navigate their first-semester classes. Enrollment in the program is entirely voluntary, but students who participate find the course invaluable.

If by “new” you mean today’s law students, their biggest challenge is trying to get the best quality education they can at lowest possible cost, all with the knowledge that landing their first rewarding job may take longer than it has in the past. The back-end challenges force students to attend to networking and other career strategies from the very beginning of law school. At the same time, Florida State, like many law schools, has significantly increased our investment in career services for our students. The assistance and guidance that our students receive today is extensive, and we try to provide that assistance in both fun and constructive environments.

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

My single biggest challenge is remaining available and accessible to all of the law school’s constituencies while managing the revenue-diversification challenges that all law schools face. Ideally a dean is a colleague, teacher, mentor, fundraiser, manager, steward, ambassador, cheerleader, and creative visionary. I love every piece of the job, but there are not enough hours in the week to fully serve all of these roles as well as I would like.

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

In recent years public policy and academic debates seem to reflect a growing sense of unease with the idea of allowing matters to be resolved in the marketplace and through mechanisms that facilitate unfettered private choices. That unease has led to increased and increasingly complex regulatory regimes, in the financial, healthcare, HR, and other areas. These and other areas of regulation are beginning to see explosive growth, which is likely to continue.

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

Law professors and law schools have always been diverse in their pedagogical approaches and emphases. That said, I sense a greater emphasis throughout the curriculum on tying classroom and textbook concepts to real world problems and practical insights. Moreover, law schools are finally implementing formative assessment tools designed to provide earlier and valuable feedback to both students and faculty. In my experience, these assessment tools make for stronger students and teachers, which enhances the quality of students’ education experience.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

Criminal defense is not my field, but that said, advances in brain sciences and research technologies are beginning to have significant impact in the courtroom, and defense lawyers are using them to challenge the appropriateness of imposing criminal liability in the cases of young offenders as well as those who suffer from brain injuries or mental illness or impairments. In addition, advances in surveillance, diagnostic, identification, and digital technologies are forcing society to rethink our concepts of privacy.

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

With the easy movement of people and assets, State and federal governments increasingly reach beyond their borders to enforce laws. Trying to determine the appropriate scope of regulation of our governments and the appropriate scope of the constitutional protections that limit how governments enforce those laws is an ever-growing problem, and, increasingly, the Court has been forced to step in to provide guidance, through both statutory and constitutional interpretation.

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

I’ve been in education virtually my entire career, and, by most definitions, I never practiced law. Hence, I have nothing to miss.

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

If all three were attending the same meal, then I would include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Felix Frankfurter, and Benjamin Cardozo. All three of these brilliant men were influential scholars as well as US Supreme Court Justices. It would be fascinating to engage the three in a discussion of whether there are tensions between the theoretic coherence scholars seek and the pragmatic results that judges must consider. If there are tensions, which goal trumps? Or is the presence of tension a signal that the theory underlying the coherent approach somehow inapt? These questions are fundamentally important to and enduring in law and legal education.

What is your favorite legal movie?

I try hard to avoid legal novels and movies in my free time. I love the law, but I find myself so wrapped around my career that it is important to spend time with family and friends in ways that are wholly unrelated to what I do for a living.