The University of Connecticut School of Law turned a new page in its epic identity crisis this month. It snared a tip-top, white-shoe lawyer to serve as its next dean. Folks at the law school can’t stop congratulating themselves on the significance of it all. Why, the new dean is no academic, he’s a practitioner.
Timothy Fisher is jumping from ship from McCarter & English, a 400-lawyer mega-firm with offices in Philadelphia, Boston, Wilmington, New York, Newark, Stamford, and, oh, yes, Hartford. The firm’s website boasts a list of impressive and lucrative sounding practice areas. If it’s not quite a Lamborghini on the law’s open road, it is certainly a Mercedes Benz. It’s the sort of place you go for representation if you’ve got lots of money, or an invitation from the pro bono committee.
In other words, the new dean will come waltzing over to the law school inspired by a corporate lawyer’s sense of noblesse oblige. It’s a new chapter all right. Expect Grey Poupon to be served as a condiment in the school cafeteria.
If this new move means that the university will stop obsessing about its middling rank in national polls rating law schools, that will be a welcome change. When ratings sank to the middle of the pack, former Dean Jeremy Paul hit the streets so fast one can still smell the burning shoe leather he left on the pavement as he fled town for a new deanship in Boston.
One hopes that the law school will stop trying to be Yale. We really don’t need a second law school in the state that thinks legal scholarship is wedding solid research in actual academic disciplines to the law’s quotidian conflicts. I’d like to see the following epigram chiseled into the portal above the law library’s door: "Practice conceived isn’t theory relieved."
The fact is that the University of Connecticut lacks the intellectual firepower to compete with Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan or the University of Chicago. When it bends in the direction of serving these idols, it poorly serves the students trapped within its walls for the three-year tour a law student must endure before sitting for the bar. I thumbed through an alumni magazine the other day and learned of lectures far and wide given by the faculty. It was an ostensive definition of pretense.
I am a consumer of legal services in Connecticut. I hire young lawyers, and chain them to a desk. I want lawyers who know how to research the law, compose a memo or brief, talk to clients who have real and pressing problems, but either little money, or no appeal to the pro bono set looking to round out its portfolio with the charity it chooses to give. I don’t think I have ever hired a University of Connecticut law school graduate, although I myself escaped the place with a degree.
When I need a lawyer to help serve my clients, I go to Quinnipiac University School of Law. The school has never pretended to be something other than a place to teach young men and women to help ordinary folks in crisis. The last four lawyers I’ve hired have come from Quinnipiac. It is the first place I look when I have an opening.
Dean Fisher has goals for Uconn. He wants to maintain the school’s academic reputation. I assume that means more riding the high spot on a bell-shaped curve. He also wants to "engage the law school with all of the communities within the profession." Huh? And here I thought clarity of prose was a hallmark of McCarter & English.
He also wants to make sure young lawyers are ready for the challenges they will face in "today’s market." Just how is a white-shoe guy going to do that?
Forgive me for mashing sour grapes on a day I should be looking to a bright new future with optimism. But this new dean looks like more of the same. Legal academics and big firm lawyers represent the apex of the law’s vast pyramid. Most students, and most practitioners, stumble along in a far less rarefied world, a world populated by people who don’t read law reviews or get invited to shindigs at big firm parties.
There’s a new skipper at the helm at the University of Connecticut. I suppose that’s good. But just where is this Titanic heading? One hopes it will move out of Yale’s shadow, and out of the shadow of the corporations whose money buys the best justice it can find.
With so many lawyers out there, perhaps we ought simply to close a law school in this state. Quinnipiac serves the bread and butter class; Yale serves caviar to the leisure class. In a world in which the gap between rich and poor grows broader each year, whither a middling university?•