Our law deans series of interviews began locally, spread throughout the region, and has now reached various law schools across the nation. Although today's interview takes us nearly 1,100 miles away from Oklahoma City to Charlotte, North Carolina, it certainly feels something like a reunion. Jay Conison, dean and law professor at Charlotte School of Law started his legal education career at Oklahoma City University School of Law, where he served as Associate Dean from 1994-1997 and as Interim Dean from 1997-1998.
Between leaving OCU Law in 1998 and joining Charlotte Law in 2013, he served as Dean of Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana.
Since becoming a legal educator, Dean Conison's scholarly focus has been issues related to law schools and the business of legal education. Related professional roles include having served as Reporter for the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and Chair of the Accreditation Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
In addition to working as Dean and law professor at Charlotte Law, Dean Conison is Vice President of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Because of his personal and professional interest in law schools and legal education, Dean Conison is able to give us some good insight into the issues affecting law schools, law students, and the legal profession.
What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?
Uncertainty. Law school is a new and very demanding experience for most law students, and it is made more challenging by increasing uncertainty about the path forward for students and graduates. One of the greatest uncertainties is that the nature of legal services and the character of markets for legal service are undergoing rapid and not entirely predictable change. It is very difficult for new law students see what the professional world of their future will be like.
What is the single biggest challenge that you face as Dean?
Keeping people in the school focused on the road ahead, rather than on the view behind or distractions at the side. Law schools today are beset by many challenges and perils. It is easy for faculty and staff to dwell on what went wrong yesterday or what is going wrong someplace else. A central responsibility for a Dean, and one of the hardest parts of the job, is being clear and honest about where the school is going, and keeping people focused on working together to get there.
Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth over the next few years?
I suggest we broaden this question to include both law and law-related fields. The reason is that there are increasing numbers of jobs, professions, and careers that, while related to law, do not necessarily require a person to have a J.D. A good example is compliance. Compliance fields are growing rapidly and provide excellent job and career opportunities. Having a J.D. can be helpful, but it is not always necessary to obtain a position and succeed. There are growing numbers of fields just like that.
Is teaching law now different compared to when you were a law student?
I can’t speak for all schools but at the Charlotte School of Law, teaching is very different from when I was in school many years ago. When I was in law school, there was very little instruction in practical skills or writing, and classes largely involved so-called Socratic questioning about cases. At Charlotte, there is a good deal of curricular focus on, and extensive opportunities for learning in, writing and practice skills. Moreover, in doctrinal classes, we incorporate into the classroom methods shown by educational research and psychology to be highly effective in developing long-term understanding. For example, most professors use quizzes and problems, not just to assign grades, and not just to evaluate what students know, but as tools to help students recall and thereby reinforce what they have learned.
How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?
I am not terribly familiar with the methods of modern criminal defense. But it is clear that technology is a powerful driver of change throughout law and law-related fields. This is not surprising. Wherever one finds a business or profession built on individualized service, the opportunities for improved service and lower cost will come from effective use of modern technology.
What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court?
The biggest challenge facing the United States Supreme Court is not a legal issue; it is regaining public confidence. The Supreme Court needs to give people confidence that it is not just one more forum for political conflict—that it is something distinctively different and with a different role. The most publicized cases in the Court today involve issues that are also the subject of intense political disagreement and, in many instances, that are also being worked out through legislative processes. Too often these cases are decided by the Court on close votes and on the basis of reasoning that opponents find questionable, rather than through broad and persuasive agreement.
Are there any aspects of practicing law you miss due to being in education?
When I was in practice I was a business litigator, and it was often exciting to be in a position to influence, through a decision in a case, the course of development in an area of law. But I find that I have comparable opportunity to influence the course of development of law schools and legal education.
If you could invite any three legal or governmental identities (living or dead, real or fictitious) to a meal whom would you invite?
For me, the question is: what three persons deeply involved in law or government would I want to bring together for an excellent dinner party. So many choices! I would want three thoughtful and accomplished individuals who looked at the same questions from very different viewpoints, and who could also talk about a host of other interesting things as well. And so I would enjoy a good dinner with Mahatma Gandhi, Hillel the Elder, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. All three were profoundly interested in, and had a great and enduring impact on, law as a fundamental form of social order, yet from three very different perspectives and systems. All three, moreover, led interesting lives and were knowledgeable about much more than just law. Of course, finding food all would enjoy could be a problem.
What is your favorite legal movie?
My favorite movie about justice and the processes of law is Twelve Angry Men. My favorite movie about contract negotiation and business law is A Night at the Opera.
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