Frank Wu, Hastings College of the Law dean
Frank Wu, Hastings College of the Law dean (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SAN FRANCISCO — Frank Wu is ready. He’s got visual aids, the assistance of a research analyst, and a laptop that’s booted and flipped open. His sleeves are rolled up and he’s set to talk rankings.

It’s a presentation the dean of UC-Hastings College of the Law has given before.

Wu is trying to pull Hastings out of a yearslong dive in the rankings. The school was ranked 19th by U.S. News and World Report in 1992, and 42nd when Wu arrived in 2010. This year, after it slipped to 54 from 48, Wu wrote to reassure students and alumni that despite getting clobbered by the bleak hiring climate, UC-Hastings remains among the top law schools in the nation.

He would like to change the subject. He’d probably rather talk about his efforts to retool the 136-year-old institution for the high-tech economy, touting its commitment to practical-skills training and its proximity to the Bay Area’s thrumming startup scene.

But most of the steps the school has taken on his watch—rolling out new clinics, slashing class size, raising and then stabilizing tuition—were at least in part aimed at combating the slide in the rankings. That they haven’t worked better, Wu said, is due to fewer applicants and fewer jobs for law grads in California.

Wu, who was recently reappointed to his position through 2020, says he underestimated the plunge in demand for a law degree. “I predicted the collapse of legal education,” he said, “but I didn’t quite predict how bad it would be.”

To some extent it’s too soon to tell if Wu has made the right moves in the face of a perfect storm of pressure. The administration’s decision to cut class size in 2012 by roughly 20 percent, which made national news and branded Wu a maverick in the staid world of legal education, won’t fully pay off until those graduates hit the job market.

Like most deans, Wu has plenty of gripes about the rankings, but says he can’t afford to ignore them.

“Prospective students care. Our faculty care, staff care, alumni care, I care. Our board cares. If I stood up and said, ‘I don’t care about U.S. News. I’m going to pay no attention to U.S. News,’ if I used obscenity and other inappropriate language, I would be removed of my responsibilities,” he said. “So, U.S. News is a looming presence, and to rail against it is futile.”

Hastings’ clinical training ranked 25th this year, although even that’s down from 20th the year Wu arrived.

But law professor Robin Feldman, head of the school’s Institute for Innovation Law and a prominent voice on patent reform, said Wu understands the importance of science and technology in the modern legal economy.

“It helps to be at the heart of Silicon Valley,” but it’s also important to have an entrepreneurial spirit, which Wu has, Feldman said. “Frank gives new ideas a chance and he supports those that take off.”

MAVERICK DEAN

Early in his academic career, Wu worked as a clinical professor at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University School of Law before becoming dean at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit from 2004-08. Wu also spent a decade as a trustee of Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, where he was inspired by university president I. King Jordan to pursue work in education administration.

“Instead of changing the world in little tiny bits and pieces, [Jordan] was able to change a whole institution,” said Wu, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Hastings professor Carol Izumi, and dog Bebe.

In 2003, Wu, the son of Chinese immigrants, published “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White” examining affirmative action, immigration and other issues through his experience as an Asian-American. More recently, Wu has become an industrious blogger, writing for law school forums, LinkedIn and the Huffington Post on everything from faculty compensation to Sherlock Holmes to his beloved motorcycle, a tricked-out Honda Hawk GT, custom painted British racing green.

Wu has cultivated an image as a savvy thinker on the future of legal education. For two years in a row, he’s been named one of the top five most influential people in the sector by National Jurist magazine.

Wu jokes that he has a speech for every subject. Asked what he wants Hastings to look like in 2020, Wu launches into what turns into an hourlong lecture on the state of the legal market, the state of legal education and Hastings’ responses. Boiled down, he’d like to position Hastings as a skills-oriented, Pacific Rim school.

“We’re here to train people to be problem solvers and leaders using the law,” Wu said. “We are not here to train law professors, we are not here as a theoretical institute.”

Kevin Johnson, dean of UC-Davis School of Law, said Wu has been putting resources into the right programs, “tightening the belt where that was necessary but at the same time making sure skills training that students need and employers demand is being provided and expanded.

“He’s addressed things head-on,” Johnson said.

But the school’s tumble in the rankings has created an opening for critics. Wu’s a talker more than a listener and his in-your-face style is not always welcome.

Hastings professor Rory Little, a big supporter, calls Wu the most energetic leader the school has had in 20 years, but says there has been some discontent.

“Some faculty wish Frank would spend more time making academic connections with the faculty, sit in their office and say ‘So tell me about your work,’” he said. “He doesn’t have time to do that. His job is to raise money and to keep us moving forward.”

Wu’s focus on practical skills over pure legal theory also has some detractors. “He can be threatening to the sort of academic who wants to stay in their office and publish an article every year or two,” Little said.

The dean is also taking heat from graduates unhappy with the school’s downward trajectory in the U.S. News rankings. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t go out and have some alum berate me,” Wu said.

It’s a point that fires up Los Angeles-based Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton partner Moe Keshavarzi, a Hastings alum who serves on the firm’s recruiting committee.

“Alums have a right to be concerned, but they have power in this process,” he said. In addition to “taking the checkbook out,” alums need to play a role in employment.

“Dean Wu cannot increase the hiring of Hastings graduates without the help of Hastings alums,” he said.

OUTRUNNING THE RANKINGS

Wu likes to say there are three big problems in legal education: too many graduates flooding the job market, law school’s high cost and its tendency to produce graduates without the right job skills.

It creates something of a game of whack-a-mole for any dean. Cut class size or invest in curriculum and simple economics creates pressure to raise tuition in order to pay for it.

As a stand-alone law school, UC-Hastings can’t turn to a central campus for help through financial rough spots. Hastings is affiliated with the University of California system, but not governed by the Board of Regents, which means it gets state funding directly from the Legislature. Its annual allocation over the past decade has averaged $8.9 million, a 30 percent drop from the prior decade.

But Hastings’ structure also means a slimmer bureaucracy and “the ability to move quickly and decisively,” something other law school deans envy, said UC-Davis’ Johnson.

In 2012, UC-Hastings reduced its incoming class by nearly 100 students. To cover the loss of tuition revenue, Wu cut the equivalent of 23 full-time staff positions. The school also raised in-state tuition nearly 30 percent between 2010 and 2012. Since then, it has remained roughly unchanged at approximately $48,000, and Wu is pushing hard to raise revenue through fundraising, bringing in about $6 million in the 2012 fiscal year.

“Some credit is due for keeping tuition flat,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit Law School Transparency. However, McEntee notes that holding “really high” tuition stable isn’t exactly a win for students. California law schools such as UC-Irvine, Pepperdine University, Santa Clara University and the University of San Diego have done a better job of controlling tuition, he said.

Wu is addressing the cost of legal education in other ways. This year the school announced a program to allow UC-Santa Cruz seniors to enroll as first-year law students, shaving a year off of their combined bachelor’s and graduate education. To turn out graduates with more practical skills, there’s a new research consortium with UCSF School of Medicine and a nonprofit called Lawyers for America, which partners with governments and nonprofits to give law students two years of classroom education and two years of fellowship experience.

Hastings has also increased online education and added several new clinics. Last year, it introduced a one-year master’s program for business and technology professionals.

About two years ago, Hastings rolled out the Startup Legal Garage, run by Feldman, which pairs students with early stage tech and biotech companies overseen pro bono by outside lawyers.

But the biggest drag on Hastings’ rank is student employment rates. U.S. News weighs the percent of grads employed in full-time, permanent jobs for which a law degree is a requirement or an advantage. Only 47 percent of last year’s Hastings grads could claim that distinction.

Wu has joined with other California law school deans in demanding U.S. News change its methodology, which they say penalizes schools in states with high overall unemployment.

The rankings criteria also favor students going into Big Law jobs, Wu said in an open letter published on the school’s website earlier this year. The “full-time, permanent” formula disadvantages a school such as Hastings, whose graduates are more likely to pursue public-sector and public-interest employment, he argues.

“The ‘new normal’ for hiring into these jobs is no longer immediate, full-time, permanent employment. It includes hiring later, part time, or on a temporary basis as the pipeline into full-time, permanent roles,” he said.

Wu’s efforts to move up the rankings have been hurt by a roughly 40 percent plunge in law school applicants since 2010. Slashing the number of admittees should have allowed Hastings to be choosier, but in choosing from that much smaller applicant pool, the average grade point average of its incoming students instead dropped to its lowest point in a decade.

Raising average admittee GPA was a key goal of a task force Wu launched in 2010 to look at ways to boost the school’s U.S. News standing. This year, he established another rankings task force.

“No. 1, we want to be as aggressive as we possibly can be,” he said. “But No. 2, we won’t cheat. And I won’t do anything that’s educationally unsound.”

Contact the reporter at mzilberman@alm.com.