In considering who would make the best dean for the University of Connecticut School of Law, search committee members looked for someone who could bridge the gap between the study and practice of law.
They believe they found that person in Tim Fisher, a partner in the Hartford office of McCarter & English. The choice is somewhat unconventional. After all, few experienced, private sector lawyers have gone directly from high-rise office buildings to such a lofty perch in legal academia.
Fisher said he was drawn to the position out of a desire to serve his home state. In an interview last week, he outlined four primary goals. "The first is to preserve and build upon the superb record of scholarship of what is a nationally- and internationally-respected faculty," he said. "Second is to engage the law school with all of its communities within the profession."
The third, he said, is "to assure that we are graduating complete professionals who are job-ready for today’s legal market. And fourth, to attend to the life of the school so that it is enjoyed by all as an exciting, intellectual environment for high level exchange of ideas."
Recent years have been difficult for all law schools, as enrollments have hit record lows and job prospects for graduates have dimmed. There has been ongoing debate over how schools can balance traditional academics with the practical experience graduates need to succeed. The result has been an emphasis on providing "real world" legal experience through clinics and externships.
Fisher, who has worked extensively in areas of construction and commercial law and is a former managing partner of McCarter’s Hartford office, was seen by many on the faculty as an excellent choice because he knows what law firms want from law school graduates.
But veteran professors said the selection was also based on Fisher’s long-standing commitment to public service, his relationship with state bar leaders and fund-raising and management abilities. Fisher is currently chair of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which raises money for legal aid agencies.
"The faculty was not necessarily looking for someone who came from a law practice," said Leslie Levin, a law professor and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. "[Fisher] was somebody who just impressed us all. He is someone who understands what is going on in the current legal market. He is also very concerned about access to justice; he has a long commitment to that."
Richard Kay, another professor, recalled Fisher presenting a lecture on check fraud years ago during a course Kay was teaching. Like others, Kay was impressed with Fisher’s intelligence and ability to effectively communicate ideas.
"This is a change for us, in that we’ve gone for someone who is a practitioner and who does not have an extensive academic background," Kay said. "I think the idea is he’s going to be able to bring some fresh thinking to the institution, especially with regard to the law school’s relationship with the bar and community. In addition to the fact that he’s a first-rate lawyer."
A native of New Haven, Fisher received his B.A. in economics from Yale University in 1975 and his J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1978. He lives in West Hartford with his wife, Dina S. Fisher, a graduate of UConn law school. Fisher will start his job as dean, which pays $275,000 a year, on July 1.
Fisher is a past treasurer of the Connecticut Bar Association. He has also led, or co-chaired, a number of CBA task forces, including those on the Future of the Legal Profession, Confidentiality and the Courts, and the Future of Connecticut’s Probate Court System.
Fisher was a long-time board member at Greater Hartford Legal Aid and has also been active in providing pro bono service in areas of marriage equality, prison conditions and volunteer criminal defense. He has led McCarter & English’s sponsorship of the Connecticut Innocence Project, which helps provide legal services for wrongly convicted individuals.
As a private practice lawyer, one of Fisher’s most notable recent cases involved the UConn law school. He has represented the state in a lawsuit against contractors who built the law library, which had exhibited water intrusion damages from when it was built in the mid-1990s until its repair in 2007-2009.
Fisher’s predecessor is Jeremy Paul, who announced his resignation last March just after U.S. News and World Report rankings revealed that UConn law school had again dropped in the national rankings, to No. 62. This year’s rankings, released last week, show UConn at No. 58. Yale is the top-ranked law school in the country and Quinnipiac University School of Law is 134th.
A national search to find a replacement was launched last summer. In addition to Fisher, finalists included James Hackney, a law professor and former associate dean at Northeastern University; Joseph MacDougald, a professor in residence at UConn law school; and Edward Stein, vice dean at Cardozo School of Law in New York.
Willajean McLean, a law professor and former associate dean, has been serving as interim dean.
Paul, now dean at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, said he "has the highest regard for Tim Fisher. I watched him closely during his leadership at the Connecticut Bar Foundation and was impressed both with his strong organizational skills and his passion for delivering legal services to those struggling to afford them. He is a man of unquestionable integrity."
Paul said that deans who come from outside of an academic background face special challenges. "They must master academic culture and pass judgment on those who have devoted lifetimes to teaching and scholarship," he said.
During the application process, Fisher made presentations to faculty members outlining his ideas to better position the law school in the future. One of those ideas was to enhance a multi-disciplinary approach to legal study. "So our graduates might be public policy experts or have an economics expertise, or a scientific specialty," Kay said. "He wants to create opportunities for our students to have something that makes them stand out."
One of Fisher’s ideas that Levin found especially interesting was the creation of an incubator program. The school would create "a law firm-type setting" to provide a means for recent graduates to launch public service-oriented practices.
Last year, the UConn faculty voted to require every graduating student to complete at least one course that offers real-world experience, such as an internship or a school legal clinic.
"I heartily endorse that change," Fisher said. He added: "I want to make sure that our internships and externships in particular are carried out to the same level of intellectual rigor as our doctrinal courses.
"And that we use those vehicles not just to train law students in the practice skills they’ll need after graduation, but also to understand what it means to be a professional. And by that I mean a grasp of the balance of responsibilities between the individual attorney and her client, the courts, opposing counsel and society as a whole."•