Even in this economy, there seems to still be a demand for one high-paying job — law school dean. At least 27 law schools throughout the country are searching for new deans — and many are having a tough time filling the position.

Law schools from Harvard to the University of Arizona to Case Western to the University of Miami have all embarked on dean searches, and some are finding somewhat slim pickings, with the same applicants recycled for many of the jobs.

That’s because law school deanships, once highly sought after, are now high-stress jobs, thanks in part to the economy. With fundraising plummeting, donors in short supply and state budgets being slashed, law school deans are finding themselves up to their necks in stress. Many have quit in the past year to go back to teaching, which still pays fairly well and has far fewer headaches.

“Being a dean is less attractive than it used to be,” said Thomas Ulen, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. “An increasing percentage of the job — upwards of 80 to 90% — is devoted to fundraising. And with the economy in this state, that is not easy. And let’s face it, being a law professor is one of the best jobs in the universe.”

An ‘austerity dean’

Tony Alfieri, head of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law and a tenured professor there, agrees. Alfieri has had feelers for deanships but is ambivalent about the prospect of being “an austerity dean.”

“Many more contemporary deans are trying to strike a more appropriate work/life balance and are taking active roles in raising their children,” he said. “Plus they have serious commitments to their own scholarship, to their writing and, for many, to existing public service commitments. Add to that the fact that these are turbulent times. An austerity deanship poses uncommon and especially high challenges. And it’s doubly vexing for women.”

What attracts deans is the opportunity to recruit top professors, to build new buildings, to start new, splashy programs. With donors in short supply for private schools and state budgets slashed for public schools, these prospects are currently dim.

“To build the impressive building, hire the impressive faculty and start an impressive program, you need money,” said Bob Jarvis, a law school professor at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center. “So you may say to yourself, ‘Maybe this isn’t the time to be a dean, maybe I should wait for another time.’ Finding an acceptable dean candidate is very difficult anyway. Now, to find an acceptable dean candidate who actually wants the job is terribly difficult.”

Going old school

The old model for finding a dean was to look internally at one’s best professors, according to Susan Prager, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of American Law Schools. That was replaced in the past couple of decades by the model of hooking a dean or associate dean at a better law school, to give one’s school cachet.

“You try to go up the pecking order,” Jarvis said.

But in the past year or so, schools — either unsatisfied with the crop of candidates or unable to persuade top choices to take the jobs — appear to be reverting to the old model.

“Choosing someone from within is an old idea,” said Prager, a former dean of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. “I think it’s healthy that more people are thinking of looking inside, particularly in tough times when there aren’t as many attractive things about the job.”

That’s what happened at the University of Illinois. After hiring a search firm a year ago, the law school was unsatisfied with the pool of 200 candidates — or couldn’t find many candidates who were willing to take the job. “There aren’t that many people who want to be dean at a top 25 law school,” said Ulen, co-chairman of the school’s dean search committee. “We found it difficult to persuade the first-rate candidates to become interested in the job.”

The search committee reorganized, printed up new advertising materials and launched into another search with the help of the search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates of Florida, this time attracting 150 candidates. They were narrowed down to three finalists. Then, in an anticlimactic move, the university scrapped the whole thing and chose its own associate dean, Bruce Smith.

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