Search for SMU law dean will shape school’s future
By NATALIE POSGATE
The quest for a new dean at the SMU Dedman School of Law has just begun, but the search committee faces a much bigger task than making a hire. It will be charting the law school’s long-term future.
SMU is already under intense pressure from some alumni and financial donors who are angry about the sudden and unexplained ouster of John Attanasio.
And even the alumni, faculty, donors and SMU administrators who support new leadership for the law school have differing, even conflicting, visions for the Dedman Law School’s mission and curriculum.
Some believe the law school should focus on capital fundraising and improve its standing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which would help graduates get jobs at firms outside Texas.
Others contend the law school needs to concentrate on the thriving Texas legal and business communities and develop more joint efforts with the SMU Cox School of Business.
There’s even a dispute over curriculum and about giving law students a technical, hands-on education needed to get jobs in the real world.
All of this comes as enrollment in law schools nationally is falling.
According to an early review by the American Bar Association, enrollment for first-year law students in fall 2012 was down by about 9 percent from the year earlier. Also, the number of LSATs administered in October 2012 — the most popular month to take the test — was down 16 percent.
“I think the jury is out on how this experiment turns out, and we may not really know that result for several years,” said Dedman alum Mike Lynn, a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox of Dallas. “Alumni are hopeful for the future but concerned.”
Focus of law school
SMU provost Paul Ludden told Attanasio in December that his contract to lead Dedman would not be renewed when it expires in May. The university named SMU Cox dean Albert Niemi to lead the search for a replacement.
Ludden, Attanasio, Niemi and SMU President Gerald Turner declined repeated interview requests.
Alumni say they’ve heard various reasons for Attanasio’s ouster, including declining U.S. News rankings; disagreements over fundraising and autonomy from the university; and a need for new, more strategic leadership.
Some alumni say the search committee, which is still being formed, needs to use this opportunity to redirect the focus of the law school.
“The next law dean needs to be business-centric and do a better job of connecting the law school to the Texas business community,” said Chris Willis, a Dedman alum and general counsel of Dallas-based Interstate Battery System of America. “The law school dean needs to do more joint efforts with the SMU business school, and having the dean of the business school leading the search could help make that happen.”
While Willis thinks the search committee should hire a law dean who focuses on expanding SMU’s local and regional presence in the business world, other alumni said the next dean needs to raise the school’s national profile.
“If you want to start climbing in the rankings, you have to be less of a regional school and more of a national school,” said Scott Kimpel, a 1998 SMU Dedman graduate who is a securities and mergers and acquisitions partner at Hunton & Williams in Washington, D.C. “The only way to do that is to send your graduates outside of the markets of Dallas and Houston.”
Massachusetts-based academic headhunter Lucy A. Leske of Witt/Kieffer said there is a growing trend to increase collaboration between law schools and the universities they are tied to.
“I think that law schools were able to enjoy a very independent, almost unscrutinized existence for many years,” said Leske, who is helping the University of Connecticut School of Law search for a new dean. “We have a number of universities needing to be capitalized in the wealth of their alumni … whether they’re law graduates, medical graduates or science graduates. Presidents and provosts say they want access to the donor bases.”
Schools also face increased pressure from university presidents to raise their national rankings. SMU Dedman has witnessed a rankings decline in recent years as U.S. News made part-time and night law school students — who often have lower grade-point averages and lower LSAT scores — a bigger part of its scoring evaluation. Dedman was in a five-way tie for 51st place in the 2012 rankings.
In 2006, University of Houston Law Center Dean Nancy Rapoport resigned amid criticism after her law school plummeted in the U.S. News rankings.
But other, more academic-oriented alumni consider the rankings a complete farce. They say the dismissal of Attanasio and the future of the next law dean is about one thing: money.
“Fundraising tensions, from what I have been told, have been a big part of what the problem is,” said high-profile Dallas divorce lawyer Brian Webb, also an adjunct professor at Dedman.
“The university had some jealousy about the fundraising abilities John and the law school had that was not being shared,” Webb said. “It’s because of too much success by the law school, not too little.”
Other alumni are less guarded in their criticism.
Darrell Jordan, a past president of the State Bar of Texas, said it’s a “sign of incompetence” to choose somebody outside the legal community to lead the search committee.
“The way in which the provost handled this pretty well assures that no one of any stature will want the job,” Jordan said. “I am surprised the president hasn’t terminated the provost over his ineptness.”
According to SMU spokeswoman Patti LaSalle, it’s an SMU custom for a senior dean like Niemi to chair the search for another dean.
The committee will include law school faculty, law students, board members, law school board members, alumni and leaders from the local legal community, according to SMU officials. No official start date for the search has been determined, but the committee will hire an outside search firm.
Gene Roberts, who served as a student representative for the committee that hired Attanasio in 1998, said a history professor named Hal Williams headed that search. Roberts said bringing in a leader outside the legal community could bring a fresh perspective.
“He was a great chair of the search committee,” said Roberts, who owns a litigation and dispute resolution firm in Dallas. “I think it’s a good idea as long as there are representatives of the community from various law school constituencies.”
Roberts said he respects what Attanasio has done for the law school but doesn’t see the harm in bringing in fresh blood.
“He’s been there now for 15 years, which is a long time to be a leader,” he said.