The Law Dean Series

Nell Jessup Newton

Notre Dame Law School
Nell Jessup Newton
Notre Dame Law School

The University of Notre Dame Law School is ranked among the top 25 law schools in the nation by U.S. News for its commitment to the shaping law students to be effective and successful lawyers. Notre Dame Law prides itself on providing students with a legal education that not only gives them the knowledge of law and practical skills, but also developing professional skills including leadership, practice management, and information technology skills necessary in the evolving field of law.

Since 2009, Nell Jessup Newton has served as dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School. Dean Newton is a national and international leader in legal education, serving as chair of the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and working with student exchange programs for law schools in England, Ireland, Italy, China, and Switzerland.

Under Dean Newton's direction, Notre Dame Law has doubled the externship opportunities available to law students, developed four new interdisciplinary programs, and launched the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Clinic.

The Law Offices of Adam R Banner would like to thank Dean Newton for taking the time to answer our questions about the challenges and opportunities facing law students, and to give her insight to issues facing the legal profession.

What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?

Our new students arrive at Notre Dame after having graduated at the top of their high school and undergraduate classes, and for some, academic excellence has always come easy. Yet in law school they quickly find that they will be seriously challenged by their studies and that all of their fellow students are just as bright and hard working as they are. The process of adjusting to the rigors of law school is a difficult one and it takes some time before each student can understand where he or she fits. Students with outstanding law school grades need to learn to be humble because setbacks will occur later in law school, or in life. Students who are not in the top of the class need to develop confidence and a portfolio that will help them find a satisfying career in the law. The process can be painful, but our 2L and 3L students are invaluable role models for our new students and it is incredibly satisfying to watch them develop during their three years in law school.

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

Without a doubt, it is to design and implement a strategy for ensuring NDLS is well positioned to thrive in the new legal economy for years to come. We need to have the right resources and expertise in place to prepare our students for a world in which law is both more specialized and more interdisciplinary than ever before, the traditional big-firm business model is under pressure, and law-related technology is transforming client expectations and the way lawyers do business.

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

Judging by the reports of our alumni and the employers who hire our students, I think growth can be expected in the areas of technology (including intellectual property) law and global law, as well as in any area that benefits from the impact of technology on law practice.

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

Yes and no. No, because when well-deployed by a talented teacher the traditional Socratic method remains an amazing learning experience. Yes, because new experiential programs and technology are enhancing the learning experience.

How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?

Advancements in DNA testing will continue to have a dramatic impact on the criminal justice system by exonerating persons who have been charged or convicted of crimes they did not commit.

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

I have not taught constitutional law for some time, so cannot speak to particular cases, but I think the biggest challenge for the Court will be retaining the trust of the people in an age when politics has become so polarized. If people believe the Court is just an arm of one of the political parties they will lose confidence in the institution, and that worries me.

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

I miss serving as an associate justice of the Yurok Supreme Court and being able to render decisions that had an immediate impact in helping strengthen the tribe’s government processes. I also miss being involved in testifying on Indian law questions in Congress.

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

Justice Robert Jackson, Justice Antonin Scalia (who was a fan of Jackson), and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That would be an interesting discussion. I would love to hear them debate the limits of presidential power that were implicated in the Court-packing plan and the Steel Seizure case, for example.

What is your favorite legal movie?

As a law professor I have to say My Cousin Vinny. I have used clips from the movie in class, especially of the moment when Vinny shows up in court in a burgundy velvet tuxedo because the judge had ordered him to wear a suit and it was the only suit he could find. When the judge goes nuts at his appearance, Vinny says: “I wore this ridiculous thing for you, Judge.” I use this clip to engage students in a discussion of “stepping into role” as an attorney. Vinny had to go through a number of missteps before he learned to be a professional.