The Law Dean Series

Michael Hunter Schwartz

University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law
Michael Hunter Schwartz
University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law

Our law deans interview series takes us east of Oklahoma to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz is dean and law professor at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law, and he was gracious enough to answer our questions about the challenges, and opportunities faced by law students, faculty, and legal professionals.

Dean Schwartz is one of the leading legal educators in the nation, having recently been named as one of the "25 Most Influential People in Legal Education" by National Jurist magazine. Our interview with Dean Schwartz illustrates his dedication to innovative and evolving practices in legal education.

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

It has been a few (30+!) years since I was a new law student so I decided to ask my law school’s own second-year students. The students’ responses fell into three categories. The largest group of answers focused on time and workload management and strongly encouraged students to get ahead in class and stay ahead; here is a typical answer:

I think the biggest challenge I faced was adjusting to a workload significantly larger than any I had before . . . In retrospect, I think the only way to do that is to hit the ground running on the first day of each semester. Law students need to work twice as hard as they did in undergrad to do as well as they expect they will, and maybe three times as hard if they wish to perform well and maintain a balance between work and play (Of course, one must not only work harder, but also smarter.).

Finally, it's important to note that while I worked exponentially harder last year than I did in college, I also enjoyed that year very much. One L year is a true adventure!

A second group of answers focused on developing the skills law students need to develop: careful/ analytical/ critical reading, legal reasoning, and synthesis.

The final group of answers focused on believing in oneself. These students emphasized the importance of believing in oneself so you keep trying even when the work gets hard and the feedback is plentiful.

I could not have said it better myself!

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

On my worst day at the office, I am in a building filled with committed faculty, engaged and gifted students, and a team of administrators and educational staff that puts students first every day. My challenges are small, arguably trivial. One challenge that irks me is that I do not get to teach as much as I would like. Another challenge is trying to know and maintain a connection to 400+ students and 70+ employees. Most of all, I am frustrated by those who assume all law schools are the same. I work at a law school that charges the same tuition for three years that many other law schools charge for one year, a law school whose graduates leave law school with less debt than all but a handful of all law schools’ graduates. I work in a state, Arkansas, that has lawyer shortages in many communities, and, looking at the low bar numbers of the few lawyers in those communities, I worry that, soon, those communities may have no lawyers at all to serve them. My greatest challenge is successfully sharing what I believe is a great opportunity; I hope your readers will not allow themselves to be discouraged from pursuing their professional dreams.

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

It is important to note that according to the US Department of Labor and a recent article in Fortune Magazine, job growth will be coming to our field.

There will always be work for lawyers who practice criminal law, bankruptcy, family law, and real estate law. But I anticipate the greatest growth in the areas of elder law (as my large generation ages into retirement), healthcare and insurance law, intellectual property (particularly the implications of new technologies), labor and employment law, and e-discovery practice.

However, in speaking with our alums, the best area of law for a new graduate is an area to which she or he can bring existing strengths. For example, if a law student comes from a family that works in the construction industry, a construction law practice may be ideal. Likewise, if you are a second-career law student, a legal career that melds your first career with your planned career is likely the ideal because your experience will give you a lot of credibility with clients.

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

The educational method by which I was taught (almost exclusively) was conceived before not only the invention of computers, but also before the invention of cars, airplanes, and air conditioning. I certainly would not want to be treated by a doctor trained according to the state of the art in the late nineteenth century! While the law school Socratic-style model continues to be our dominant methodology, I am pleased that we have expanded our repertoire of teaching methods to include small group work, simulations, service learning, and other modern teaching methods. Likewise, we are steadily moving away from the single, high stakes, sink-or-swim final exam. When I was in law school, my first final exams occurred at the end of my first year of law school. Today, nearly all law schools administer exams every semester, and a significant majority of my colleagues, at least at UALR Bowen, administer a second exam or paper earlier in the semester. In my own teaching, I strive to administer 3-4 graded assessments in addition to my final exams in all my classes.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

Technology has already changed the practice of criminal law. A local prosecutor recently spoke at our law school and told our students that she and her colleagues find confessions and other evidence on Facebook. As we all know from watching the news over the last 12 months, the invention of the cell phone video-recording camera has revolutionized defendants’ ability to prove police abuses. Cyber crime and cyber terrorism are no longer the stuff of science fiction. DNA analysis and other technologies offer opportunities for defendants to be exonerated or readily convicted (depending on the results). Finally, law practice technologies have reduced and will further reduce the manpower necessary to manage a law practice, to draft commonly-drafted legal documents, and to communicate with clients, other attorneys, and the courts. For example, new technologies allow an attorney to program automatic text message reminders, e.g., “Don’t forget to bring your lease to our meeting today.”

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

I am not a Constitutional scholar so please discount my views based on the source. Moreover, given this opportunity, I am inclined to include both challenges I think the Supreme Court actually will face and those I wish it would face. I suspect the court will need to confront claims of conflicts between religious freedom and other Constitutional rights. Both the death penalty and juvenile sentencing also are likely to garner more Supreme Court attention. In particular, as my colleague Professor Adjoa Aiyetoro has documented, we have a troubling problem with racial disparities in sentencing. I would like to see the court (and our legislatures) re-think recent changes to voting rights and our dysfunction campaign financing doctrine.

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

When I was a full-time law professor, I missed interacting with members of the profession; my only contact, in fact, was with practitioners who helped me develop authentic problems for my contracts textbook. As a dean, however, I get to interact with attorneys and judges almost every day, and, in almost all instances, those interactions are positive ones. I do wish I could draft an occasional contract; teaching contract drafting these last few years has reminded me how much I enjoy the attention to detail and careful language choices necessary in daily law practice. (It should not surprise you, therefore, that, on my first date with the woman to whom I have now been married almost 30 years, we extended our date because we decided we should look up a word in the dictionary together.)

If you could invite any 3 legal/governmental identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal who would it be?

I would invite Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Thurgood Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln.

What is your favorite legal movie?

Will you accept a tie? I am a huge fan of Erin Brockovich and A Time to Kill. I also have to include My Cousin Vinny because I remember that movie so vividly, and it has the most satisfying cross-examination scenes imaginable. Real life cross-examinations are never so perfect. And I can’t leave out And Justice for All-- if for nothing else than this speech:

You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order! That man, that sick, crazy, depraved man, raped and beat that woman there, and he'd like to do it again! He *told* me so! It's just a show! It's a show! It's "Let's Make A Deal"! "Let's Make A Deal"! Hey Frank, you wanna "Make A Deal"? I got an insane judge who likes to beat the &%^$*$% out of women! Whaddya wanna gimme Frank, 3 weeks probation?

I thought of that speech as soon as I read your question.