Are law school deans just more attractive than the rest of us? Probably not. But they sure seem to be hot candidates for university president.

On Aug. 26 David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, was named the next president of The New School in New York, where he’ll take over in January.

But he’s only the latest in this summer of love. At least five deans were either named to the post or assumed it this summer. Rodney Smolla moved from his job as dean of Washington and Lee University School of Law to president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Kenneth Starr (yes, that Kenneth Starr) moved from the deanship at Pepperdine to president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Also this summer, John Garvey, the dean of Boston College Law School, was named president of Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.; and Frederick Lawrence, dean of George Washington University Law School, was tapped to become president of Brandeis University, outside of Boston.

Statistics are hard to find, but eight of the 63 universities that are members of the Association of American Universities (13 percent) currently have presidents who were once law school deans. (See the list below.) Two others were once associate deans of law schools.

And it’s clear that it’s not just the J.D. that’s the selling point. According to data from the American Council on Education, the vast majority of college presidents (87 percent as of 2006) were recruited directly from a job in higher education.

What makes law school deans so attractive to presidential search committees?

It starts with their skills. Most law school deans “tend to be very articulate, tend to write well, speak well, are able to engage other people in a give and take,” said Jennifer Bol, a consultant at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, where she heads the global education, nonprofit, and government practice.

And law schools straddle the conceptual and practical divide, Bol said. Other professional programs like med school or business school are sometimes perceived as too clinical or professionally oriented, she noted. But law school deans “are seen as people who understand the research mission of universities and the training of people to be productively employed.”

The dean’s job is analogous to that of the president. “Being a dean,” Bol observed, “is very much like being a president.” Both involve running an institution, raising money, dealing with facilities, motivating faculties, and building both education programs and brands.

Though Bol worked on the New School search, and her subordinates handled the Catholic University recruitment, she emphasized that her remarks were general observations about the market rather than comments on specific placements.

Van Zandt, who remains Northwestern’s dean until he takes over at The New School in January, agreed that the communication skills coupled with the analytical ability required in his current job are viewed as a good match by search committees. There’s also a sense that if you can make it there — keeping a lid on the opinionated and rhetorically gifted law school faculty — you can make it anywhere, said Van Zandt, who said he’s looking forward to returning to New York, where he was once an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Rodney Smolla chimed in from his new throne at Furman. But true to his profession, he began with a caveat: “I absolutely believe that effective university presidents can come from any discipline.” He added: “But I do think that lawyers and people who have been law school deans have skill sets that are appealing” to universities looking for new leaders.

Lawyers are “trained to see things from many different perspectives,” he said. And communication skills are the sine qua non of the job. “So much of being a university president involves communication and public speaking, and making the case for the things you believe in,” he noted. “Lawyers tend to be good at those.”

In many ways, Smolla continued, running a law school is like running a small university. With a few notable exceptions.

“What you don’t have at a law school,” he quipped, “is a football team.”

The Association of American Universities’ Big Eight:

  • Lee Bollinger (president of Columbia University; was dean at University of Michigan Law School)
  • E. Gordon Gee (president of Ohio State University; was dean at West Virginia University Law School)
  • David Leebron (president of Rice University; was dean at Columbia Law School)
  • Mark Nordenberg (chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh; was dean there)
  • Harvey Perlman (chancellor of the University of Nebraska; was dean there)
  • William Powers (president of the University of Texas; was dean there)
  • Joel Seligman (president of the University of Rochester; was dean at Washington University School of Law)
  • John Sexton (president of New York University; was dean there)

David Hechler can be contacted at dhechler@alm.com.

Also See: Northwestern’s Van Zandt to Lead The New School in New York (from NLJ)

Also See: Kenneth Starr Named President of Baylor University (from TAL)