Our law deans series was launched in hopes that prospective law students would get a better understanding of the challenges, expectations, and rewards of a legal education, and that they would get to know the the law school deans on a more personal level. This is our ninth interview in the series, and throughout, we have been able to see the similarities and differences between the various deans and the law schools they represent.
For this interview, we stepped outside of Oklahoma and reached out to Dean Philip J. Weiser, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School. Weiser is not only the dean of Colorado Law, but he is also the Thomson Professor of Law, and Executive Director and Founder of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado.
Dean Weiser has been a member of the Colorado Law faculty since 1999, and he is renowned for his work in the field of telecommunications and technology law. He has written several book and had numerous articles published in the popular press, including the ABA Journal, New Atlantis, and The Washington Post. In addition to his writings on telecommunications and technology law, he has published articles about legal professionalism, legal education, and innovative hiring practices of law firms in a changing legal field--articles which may be of particular interest to prospective law students.
We would like to thank Phil Weiser for taking the time to answer our questions about legal education and the legal profession.
What is the biggest challenge facing new law students?
When talking to our 1Ls, I focus on two very different challenges. First, law students have a steep learning curve, particularly in their first year, when they need to learn how to work hard and efficiently to read a lot of information, assimilate it into an analytical framework, and learn how to apply such frameworks (say, whether there is a contract created by a series of interactions). This foundation of "thinking like a lawyer" takes practice and, once developed, pays significant dividends.
Second, law students need to embrace an identity as "an entrepreneur" in themselves, whether or not they are looking for a position in a law firm, a company, a governmental agency, a non-profit, or another path. There are, in short, no predefined paths that make sense for everyone, and each law student needs to invest the time and energy to build meaningful relationships and explore what path makes sense for them. I talk a bit about this latter point in this article.
What is the single biggest challenge that you face as Dean?
For me, the biggest challenge is really one of time management. As a Dean, you work with a range of different communities—students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, and central administration. In most cases, each group does not necessarily know or think about the demands of the other, meaning that you must focus effectively on each group, ensure that you are anticipating what they need, and respond effectively when asked for something. To do so, it is critical to develop a set of overarching priorities and communicate them to each group clearly and consistently, as we have done with our Colorado Law Action Plan.
Which areas of the law do you think will experience the biggest growth over the next few years?
The big forces that drive demand for lawyers are changes in the marketplace, technology, and legislation/regulation. As a result, two areas that are particularly ripe for lawyers to contribute are health care law and policy and information privacy and security. To be effective in either context, it is important to understand not only the relevant legal regimes, but also the underlying business issues and technological changes.
Is teaching law now different from when you were a law student?
In some ways, the basic first year curriculum is very similar, with the notable exception that an increasing number of law schools, including Colorado, have recognized the importance of legislation and regulation and have added a first year course with that focus. But in many other ways, the world has changed dramatically. The old world I grew up in still had the background expectation that law firms would do the principal hiring and training of lawyers. Today, law students need to understand that law firms are no longer in that position and it is on today's law students to develop a portfolio that demonstrates not only that they have developed the necessary analytical skills and can write effectively, but also that they also have developed relevant domain knowledge (whether in health care, technology, business, and so forth) and the professional skills necessary to succeed, including listening skills, empathy, and teamwork.
How do you think technology will impact criminal defense?
It's an easy bet that technology will transform most areas of the law, as it does so for our economy and society more broadly. How exactly that will happen is never easy to tell. I can offer one prediction, which is that the increased proliferation of sensor technology, collection of data of all kinds, and use of analytics will enable both prosecutors and defense counsel to take new approaches to proving their theories of the case.
What do you think are the biggest legal challenges facing the Supreme Court?
Sticking with the law and technology theme, one important challenge—which is more institutional than legal—is how the Supreme Court can ensure that its judgments are grounded in the relevant factual context. When relying on amicus briefs, or the Internet, the Court does not have the benefit of decisions grounded in a contested and tried factual record. But in many areas of the law, the increased pace of technological change means that a factual decision from several years ago may no longer be accurate. In my area of the law, telecommunications law, this problem confronted the Court when it considered First Amendment challenges to the Communications Decency Act and its successor statutes in light of underlying technological changes to how the Internet operates.
Are there any aspects of practicing law you miss due to being in education?
In my case, I have sought to avoid making this trade-off completely by staying engaged in our legal and governmental system. Over the course of my career, I have argued appellate cases to the Tenth Circuit on a pro bono basis, served as a special master, testified before Congress and regulatory bodies, and taken a two-year leave of absence to work in the Justice Department and the White House. This opportunity, all while maintaining my position as a law professor, is part of what attracted me to law teaching in the first place.
If you could invite any 3 legal/governmental identities (living, dead, real, fictitious) to a meal who would it be?
Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and John Marshall.
What is your favorite legal movie?
My Cousin Vinny.