Law Schools Recruit New Deans from Outside

By Amanda Bronstad, July 16, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Several top law schools in Southern California recently named deans who came from outside their own faculty ranks, a strategic departure from those chosen in past years.

Since 2004, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, Pepperdine University School of Law and Southwestern University School of Law have named new deans from outside California. Most recently, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law selected a new dean, Robert Rasmussen, who arrives next month from Vanderbilt University Law School.

The four deans are the first in several decades to come from other schools. Law school leaders attributed the shift to a desire for change and an opportunity to recruit faculty members.

An outside dean “always brings a new perspective and can look at things afresh,” said Rasmussen.

Recruiting skills

Rasmussen said he is the first dean to arrive from outside the law school since 1930. Traditionally, he said, most top law schools have hired deans from within their own faculty. But that practice has changed.

“As we see more movement among all faculty members, it’s natural to assume we’ll see more outside people becoming dean,” he said.

He acknowledged some challenges in having to educate himself, as an outsider, about the culture of the school. In the coming months, Rasmussen plans to meet with faculty members and alumni, he said.

But one of his top priorities is to aggressively hire more faculty members.

An outside dean is particularly effective in recruiting because of the relationships he or she brings to the school, said Michael H. Schill, a former law professor at New York University School of Law who became the first outside dean of UCLA School of Law in 2004.

During his tenure, Schill has helped recruit several new faculty members, such as Jennifer Mnookin, a former professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “That’s a different type of hiring than this school used to do,” he said.

He said UCLA School of Law “was hungry for a major move” and that all the final candidates for the deanship were from outside the school. Faculty members, he said, “wanted to make a leap into the very, very top tier of law schools. Sometimes, that’s easier accomplished with someone who doesn’t have a history at the school.”

Bringing in new faculty is part of improving academic quality at Southwestern School of Law, said Dennis Codon, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, who serves as the school’s chairman of the board of trustees and was chairman of the selection committee that named Bryant Garth the school’s dean and chief executive in 2005.

Garth, a former dean of Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington, was most recently director of the American Bar Foundation.

While open to Southwestern candidates, the committee picked four finalists from other schools, Codon said. “There is a slight advantage to someone on the outside bringing in new thoughts and ideas of doing things we hadn’t explored in the past,” he said.

Garth replaced Leigh H. Taylor, who had been dean since 1978.

Such long tenures appear to be a thing of the past in Los Angeles, said Ronald F. Phillips, dean emeritus and law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

“There was a period of time when Los Angeles had clearly the most stable deanship of any area of the country,” said Phillips, who served for 27 years as the first dean of the law school. Now, a dean’s role has become more akin to an envoy out raising funds, he said.

Dean Kenneth Starr, of counsel to the Los Angeles office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and former independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, joined Pepperdine in 2004. Two Pepperdine professors had served as dean and interim dean during the six years after Phillips stepped down.