The nation’s largest gathering of law professors kicks off Jan. 6 in New York with the Association of American Law Schools’ 110th Annual Meeting.
About 3,000 legal educators will convene for a five-day program with more than 200 sessions. The slate of programs includes a talk with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; an address by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and a screening of the controversial campus-rape documentary “The Hunting Ground.” That film examines Harvard Law School’s handling of one student’s rape allegation against a classmate, and has been both praised and criticized by law faculty.
The National Law Journal spoke with incoming AALS President Kellye Testy, dean of the University of Washington School of Law, about the challenges law schools face and her goals for the coming year. Testy, whose research and teaching focuses on business law and equality issues, takes over the AALS helm from outgoing president Blake Morant, the dean at George Washington University Law School. Testy’s responses have been edited for length.
National Law Journal: What is on your list of meeting highlights this year? What should attendees be sure not to miss?
Kellye Testy: There are so many things it’s hard to pick one not to miss. This conference has really taken things up several notches in terms of overall quality and the range of programs. I’m, of course, very much looking forward to Justice Breyer being here.
NLJ: I’m told attendance is up slightly this year. To what do you attribute that?
KT: We at AALS have been working very hard to connect more with our member schools and to be of greater service to them, and to revitalize the organization so that the quality of the programming is exceptional throughout. I believe [the AALS] is now being seen by member schools as being responsive to their needs. I think the overall quality of the program has drawn in more people and people of course like to come to New York. It’s a wonderful city to be in.
NLJ: It seems that the phrase “law school crisis” has died down a bit, yet enrollments and bar passage rates are still declining. Do you think legal education is still in crisis mode?
KT: I don’t see legal education as being in crisis at all. What I do see is that there are a lot of crisis in our world that legal education can help address. That’s part of why I’m trying to help our academy look outward and talk about the great things our schools and our profession do around what I think of as real crisis: things like incredible inequality and poverty, and violence around our world.
I think there is a steadying out now after quite a crash in the number of students our schools are admitting, but I really see a lot of people now with their feet under them and looking outward for the difference we can make in our world.
NLJ: What are your goals as AALS president?
KT: I’m choosing a theme called “Why Law Matters.” What I want to do with that is encourage the academy to focus on a very fundamental question, which is: “Why is it that everything we do matters so much to the world?” Sometimes it’s those really basic questions that help reveal the most. I want to help people understand the various dimensions of law. When people in the general public think about law, they often do so only very narrowly. They think about dispute resolution, rather than as being the very fabric of our society. I call it the ecosystem for human flourishing because when law works well, humans thrive. When it doesn’t work well, they don’t.
We can continue to connect various sectors of the profession together more fully. We can join the academy with the bench and the bar and members of the public more fully. We can focus on—not so much ourselves—but on the difference we make and the reasons we exist.
NLJ: What are your ideas to foster stronger ties between the academy and the bench and bar?
KT: One starts right here with the meeting. We have people from practice here, and we have a coffee where we have people from various sectors of the law interact. We can learn from one another. When I think about why law matters, it is the academy working with the bench and bar that makes a difference every day in the way law functions in our world. I’m going to be looking for opportunities throughout the year to continue to connect with those sectors.
This is something that [AALS executive director Judith Areen] and the rest of the executive committee have been working on for a number of years. We’re joining with a number of major law firms in the country to try and understand more fully why undergraduates have been less interested in law school over a 40-year term, not just a few years, than in other forms of graduate and professional education. We want to make sure that outstanding undergraduates are thinking about law as a career.
NLJ: So you want to work with firms, rather than just prelaw advisers, to boost interest in law school?
KT: That’s right. The law firms have a strong interest in this too because they want talented people to become lawyers, and associates and partners in the firm. It’s the people who are out doing the work in law who can be most inspiring to students. Only a few will become law professors, so we only have so much to say. When you think about people doing the amazing work against the death penalty or really interesting corporate transactions, those are the kinds of models we want to make sure undergraduates are seeing.