The Law Dean Series

Martin Katz

University of Denver - Sturm College of Law
Martin Katz
University of Denver - Sturm College of Law

As we have interviewed the deans of law schools around the nation, we continually hear that one of the biggest changes in legal education over the last several decades is that law school is becoming much more hands-on and experiential than in the past, when a Socratic method of lecture was the norm. Dean Martin Katz of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law is a leader and innovator in experiential legal education.

As a result of his leadership, Denver Law has implemented the Experiential Advantage CurriculumTM,which allows law students to spend an entire year in apprenticeships and experiential learning working in simulations and with real clients.

He is a founding board member of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers and a current board member of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

Dean Katz is a recognized leader in legal education, having been named as one of National Jurist's “Most Influential People in Legal Education”(2013, 2014). He serves on the AALS Curriculum Committee and is co-Chair of the AALS Section for the Law School Dean.

We spoke with Dean Katz about the challenges faced by law students and legal educators as well as the changing face of the legal profession. Here is what he has to say:

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

I would say that there are two. First, students are increasingly tasked with getting "on the job" training while they are in law school. This is because employers – and their clients – are increasingly (and understandably) hesitant to foot the bill for actual on the job training. This means that students may be faced with a Catch 22: Employers are looking for experienced lawyers, while recently graduated lawyers have trouble getting experience. The solution is very much in the selection of law schools and law school courses. Many of the better law schools are now providing excellent experiential learning opportunities. By taking advantage of such opportunities, such as clinics and externships, students can graduate law school with valuable experience in working with real lawyers and real clients on real legal matters. This prepares those students to provide value to their employers from Day 1. The second challenge facing law students is navigating careers in the new legal economy. When most current lawyers started practice, careers tended to be fairly stable, particularly in the big law arena but also in other sectors. Now, the average law graduate can expect to have an average of 6 jobs over the course of their careers. This means that they need to plan their careers, not just their first job. We are working on a new Career Development Initiative at Denver Law, which we hope will be a model for schools to help prepare their graduates to be intentional in their career planning and growth – during law school, in getting their first job, and over the course of their careers. If students do this well, they will be much more likely to have meaningful and fulfilling careers.

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

Creating and demonstrating the value proposition of legal education. The current crisis in legal education is largely the result of people (rightly) questioning the value of legal education. This has provided both a challenge and an opportunity for law schools to think about the value we provide to our students; how we provide that value, and how we can provide better value. For Denver Law, this has been about preparing practice-ready and client-ready lawyers through first-rate experiential education, and about helping our graduates build bridges into the legal community, particularly the Denver legal community. Because law schools went a long time without focusing on the value they provide, and shot themselves in the feet in several ways (including failing to prepare their graduates for practice and questionable job reporting), there are a lot of staunch critics of law schools now. This has made it more difficult to argue for the value proposition of law school, as the critics tend to see only the negative. But this, too, provides us with an opportunity to engage in dialogue about our mission and our value.

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

It is hard to know what will be the next big thing in law. Many growth patterns will be regional; for example, water law in the western United States. Areas in which we will likely see employment growth for lawyers in the Rocky Mountain region include healthcare law, intellectual property law, and natural resources law (including water and oil and gas). And at least here in Colorado, marijuana law. Seriously. There are lots of jokes about this being a growth industry, but it is hard to imagine a more complex yet underdeveloped regulatory environment than exists in this area. Lawyers with knowledge in this field are already in great demand, and that demand will likely continue to grow.

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

Teaching is much more hands-on now than it was when I was a student. I graduated in the early 1990's, and was lucky enough to go to a great school with wonderful professors, low student-faculty ratios, and a strong teaching ethic (Yale). So I benefited from a lot of highly-engaged and participatory discussions in class, and a lot of personal and small-group attention from faculty. But it was all very much about doctrine and theory. There was very little in that education on how to use that doctrine and theory in the service of solving problems for clients. That has changed at many schools now. We still have great discussions (and occasional Socratic grilling – I mean, dialogue) about doctrine and theory. But it no longer stops there. We also have a lot of offerings that let students apply that knowledge to the work of real or simulated clients. And the lines between traditional doctrine and skills classes are breaking down in wonderful ways. It used to be that, if you wanted skills training, you took trial advocacy classes or did a clinic or externship. While those offerings are still available, there are also more hybrid and flexible approaches. For example, you now see "skills labs" in more traditional doctrinal classes, and projects where doctrinal professors supervise students on pro bono matters. It is a very exciting time for this type of hands-on education.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

I am probably not that qualified to opine on the practice of criminal law, as my only experience with criminal law is my (mercifully few) experiences on the wrong side of traffic court. That being said, it is clear that technology is changing the practice law in many fields. From e-discovery to high-tech trial presentations, as well as in technological innovations that assist in the basics of networking, business development, and law practice management, it is imperative that we prepare our students to be comfortable technology. And it cannot just be teaching them how to use today's technology; rather, it is about helping them think about technology as it changes. We find that this is done best by teaching about technology in the context of assisting students with the core parts of lawyering. Technology will certainly change, but conceptualizing it as a tool (not a substitute) to help us do our jobs will not likely change.

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

I would say that the biggest challenge facing the Supreme Court is actually not a legal issue, but a perceptual issue. The law pervades and orders our society, so it is normal that the Court will get drawn into the big social and political issues of our time. But in doing so, there is a danger that the Court will come to be seen as just another actor on the partisan political stage. And with reduced emphasis on civics and government in K-12 education, this danger is heightened. So the challenge for the Court is how to project an image of a different kind of entity from the other branches of government. A body that is focused on law, not policy. A body that, even in areas where big policy issues are at stake, uses legal tools – not political tools – to address those issues. That is a big challenge.

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

In practice, I loved the fact that I could make a difference for a client in a short time frame. Sometimes litigation could drag on. But in most cases, I could resolve clients' issues in a relatively short time frame, and come home at the end of the day knowing I had made someone's life better in some way. In teaching, the time frame is much longer. Yes, there is immediate satisfaction when a student masters a concept; when "the light goes on." But real impact takes years to see. The big reward is when you see a former student progress through a meaningful and successful career. That is priceless, but it operates on a much longer timeframe, which is very different from practice. But both are wonderful jobs. Interestingly, as Dean, I get some of the best of both worlds. There are problems that can be solved and lives that can be improved quickly. And I also get to meet with hundreds of alumni and see how law school helped them in their careers.

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

I am a constitutional law junkie. So I would have to say that I would love to meet with some of the Framers. If I had to choose three (not an easy task), they would probably be Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. What a fun dinner that would be.

What is your favorite legal movie?

To Kill a Mockingbird (even after Go Set a Watchman was released). But I also love much more low-brow legal movies, ranging from A Few Good Men to My Cousin Vinny, as well as legal TV shows, such as The Good Wife and Suits. The realism is not that important to me. A lot of the fun is in seeing – and discussing – the roles that the public sees lawyers playing.