Top row, from left: Jennifer Bard, Deborah Bell, Kathleen Boozang, Danielle Conway. Row 2, from left: Lyn Entzeroth, Melanie Leslie, Jennifer Mnookin, Suzanne Reynolds. Bottom row, from left: Jennifer Rosato Perea, Laura Ann Rosenbury, Melanie Wilson. (Photography by Harry Briscoe (Bell); Ken Bennett/WFU (Reynolds))

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the first woman dean at an ABA-accredited law school. The historical record is inconclusive, but the earliest we could identify was Grace Hays Riley, dean at American University Washington College of Law when that school won accreditation in 1940.

Since 1989, women who run law schools have dined together during an annual American Bar Association workshop for leaders in legal education. Tradition dictates that each attendee talk about her greatest success and failure during the year. They share support and ideas.

When Katherine Broderick assumed the deanship of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law in 1998, the 14 female law deans could fit at a relatively small table. Today, 59 women run American Bar Association-accredited law schools, comprising 30 percent of all law deans. That’s up from under 21 percent in 2008, according to a survey of law faculty by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS).

Clearly, they need a bigger table.

“Because we are so many, the stories of triumph and disaster are much shorter,” said Broderick, now the longest-serving woman dean.

The numbers are set to rise even higher. Eleven — fully 40 percent — of the 28 deans slated to take over this summer are women — a spike that has not gone unnoticed. Incoming deans who attended a two-day ABA conference in Chicago this month buzzed about the number of women in the room.

“It felt to me like there were a striking number of new female deans,” said Jennifer Mnookin, who will take the top spot at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law on July 1. “At one point, I was talking with a group of six soon-to-be deans, and five of them were women. I don’t think that would have been possible a decade ago.”

Legal educators in part credit diversity initiatives that began in the 1990s. The subsequent growth in the number of female law graduates and faculty has deepened the pool of eligible dean candidates. And successful leadership by women in law schools and the broader profession has opened doors.

“It is now not unthinkable to have a woman in a leadership position,” said Judith Areen, executive director of the AALS, who served as dean of George­town University Law Center from 1989 to 2004. “Some of it is as basic as, ‘Well, now we have our second woman attorney general, and isn’t she terrific.’ Even on television, we see women in leadership positions playing members of the cabinet or sometimes president.”

The people who hire deans no longer automatically equate leadership with men, said Wendy Greene, a professor at Samford University Cumberland School of Law who chairs the AALS Section on Women in Legal Education. “Either consciously or unconsciously, we’re starting to see a reconceptualization of who constitutes a leader,” she said. “Having a woman leader is no longer exceptional.”

That is certainly true at Seton Hall University School of Law, where longtime professor Kathleen Boozang will become dean next month. She will be the third female dean at the Newark law school, which was founded by a woman. Miriam Rooney, who served as dean from 1951 to 1961, one of the first women to run an ABA-accredited school. (The historical record is inconclusive, but the earliest we identified was Grace Hays Riley, dean at American University Washington College of Law when that school won accreditation in 1940.) “For our faculty, it’s a point of pride and not a phenomenal thing to have a woman dean,” Boozang said. Women now comprise 47 percent of Juris Doctor students and more than 34 percent of full-time law faculty, although historical data on women deans is spotty.

Part of the increase is due to efforts — at times more effective than others — within the profession to get women in the top spots. Areen helped build a database of women and minority faculty members interested in leadership in the mid-1990s, although it later expanded to include all candidates. Law schools on the hunt for deans can consult the database to find candidates’ résumés. The AALS women’s section has at times maintained a formal mentoring program for members hoping to become deans. Greene said the section plans to resurrect the program.

RÉSUMÉ BUILDING

But women still faced disadvantages. When Seattle University School of Law undertook a dean search in 2005, the semifinalists included a healthy proportion of women and minorities, dean Annette Clark recalled. The search committee had eliminated those candidates by the final round. “They hadn’t built their résumés in a way that suggested they were ready to be deans,” Clark said. “We realized we needed to demystify the process.”

In 2007, Seattle Law and the Society of American Law Teachers hosted the first Promoting Diversity in Law School Leadership program — a two-day conference devoted to preparing women and minorities for the search process. The University of Washington School of Law has joined as a co-sponsor, and every two years 20 or more aspiring deans learn about the interview process; leadership positions available; financial management and budgeting; dealing with constituents including alumni and donors; and paths into associate or assistant deanships. Attendees develop relationships with sitting deans.

Jim Rosenblatt, a former dean at Mississippi College School of Law, maintains a website that tracks information about law deans. He said women tend to be promoted from within the academy, rather than from the bar or bench. “They have had the opportunity to move through the ranks, to see firsthand whether decanal leadership is something they enjoy and aspire to, to acquire a professional reputation and become known, and to develop a cohort of colleagues and supporters.”

Indeed, many of the women assuming deanships this summer have served as interim, associate or assistant dean, or have chaired faculty committees. None will arrive directly from the bench or bar, although two of the 15 men stepping in as dean come directly from law firms.

When Areen first began organizing that annual deans’ dinner, much of the conversation centered around the challenge of being a woman in charge. Not so today. During the recent ABA workshop for new deans, “several women mentioned that they’ve encountered some hesitation among some traditional alumni, but it’s much less of an issue,” Areen said. “Now the focus is on the challenges facing all law school deans, and being creative in this difficult environment.”

Law schools used to emphasize scholarly research in dean searches, Boozang said. Today, with enrollment down and budgets strained, search committees look for a broader skill set. Emotional intelligence is important, Clark said. Areen pointed to social science research suggesting women are more collaborative than men, better at bridging differences. “Deans have to do a lot of hard things these days,” Boozang said. “Their schools might, for example, decide they need to right-size. In some instances, you’re looking for a combination of the soft skills to do hard things in a humane way.”

Clark and University of Washington School of Law dean Kellye Testy expressed concern that women may be getting more opportunities to lead because traditional dean candidates are waiting for legal education’s problems to subside. “It’s not a good time to be a dean. It’s very difficult. The goal is housekeeping, rather than growth,” Testy said. “I’m going to be keeping an eye on whether, as things stabilize, opportunities for women decline.”

Mnookin, the new dean at the Uni­ver­sity of California at Los Angeles, takes a more positive view. “I’m pleased that we have lots of excellent candidates willing to rise to the challenges, whether they are male or female,” she said.

Clark said the academy must remain focused on diversity at the top. “It’s very encouraging to see the gains in recent years, but we’ve got a ways to go,” Clark said. “This is a long-term project.”