Eric Lane, the new dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, wants applicants to know he’s reading their personal statements. Where he sees potential, he encourages the applicants to call him directly.
When they take him up on the offer, Lane said he tries to find common ground with them. He shares his own experiences of the intersection of law and politics, and he extols what the school has to offer.
That "personal touch" is a key recruitment strategy, he said.
"In this particular time, it’s so much harder to be the dean because of the declining job market and declining applicant pool," Lane said. "You’re asking people not just to sail the ship in the same old way and do the same job — raise the flag, put the oars in. Now you’re saying, ‘Well, the sea is stormy and we’re going to have to ask different things from people.’"
Lane, 69, took the dean’s position permanently in December after serving as interim dean since March.
He has taught at the school for more than 36 years while holding public service positions at the city and state levels, among them counsel for the New York state Senate’s Democratic minority and executive director of New York City’s charter revision commission.
Hofstra Law, which has 945 students, received 3,892 applications for 2012, down from 4,605 for 2011 and 5,435 for 2010. Nine months after graduation, 40.7 percent of the class of 2011 had secured employment requiring bar passage, compared to 57.2 percent of all New York’s law school graduates.
The job market "has declined," Lane said. "That’s real. You can’t hide that from people."
School faculty and trustees are confident that Lane is the right leader for a challenging time.
"The law school environment has changed, and Eric is on top of that," said Janis Meyer, chair of Hofstra University’s board of trustees and a member of the law school dean search committee. "He understands the fact that there needs to be a curriculum that includes both the academic and practical sides."
It doesn’t hurt, Meyer said, that faculty and students "like him and trust him."
‘DEEP RELATIONS’ WITH ALUMNI
Lane’s goal for the school is to turn out practice-ready lawyers. That means more emphasis on simulating practical skills such as how to interview clients, how to lobby and how to approach administrative agencies.
Last fall, Lane appointed Jennifer Gundlach to the newly created post of senior associate dean for experiential education. Gundlach has been serving as the senior associate dean for academic affairs but will give up the position. She will work to expand externships, clinical offerings and opportunities for students to meet the state’s new 50-hour pro bono requirement for bar admission.
Lane also has spent several months getting feedback from alumni, who could be potential future employers, on ways to improve students’ practical skills.
"He’ll ask them, ‘What are you seeing? What can we be doing to better prepare our students?’" Gundlach said. "He has incredibly deep relations with our alumni base. He has been bringing alumni along to every meeting where he thinks they might be interested."
Several alumni in Washington, D.C., have agreed to host students as part of a full-time, semester-long externship program to start next fall. Lane also has brought alumni into recruitment efforts.
Sensing job opportunities in health law and policy, Hofstra is developing a program where students will examine underserved communities’ access to quality health care. The school recently received a $1 million gift to support that project.
Lane recently oversaw the reorganization of the administration to devote more resources to career services. The initiative meant cuts to some "excess" staff, Lane said, but no faculty were eliminated.
The school’s bar pass rate is creeping upward. Last year, 82 percent of graduates who took the bar exam for the first time passed, compared to 81 percent in 2011 and 78 percent in 2010. Lane credits the faculty for that progress.
"It’s reflective of a lot of hard work on our part making sure our students are better prepared," Lane said. "It’s excellent and we expect it to go up further."
Lane was chosen from three candidates for dean selected by a search committee. He was the only one from within the school.
His status as an insider did not give him a competitive edge, said Meyer, a Hofstra Law alum. Rather, the committee was impressed with his record.
"Eric has a broad-based understanding of the legal world," Meyer said. "He’s been a law professor for 36 years, he has worked in the government sector, and he has published a lot of important work."
As counsel to the New York State Senate Minority, Lane advised the Democratic leadership on policy programs, proposed legislation and Senate negotiations.
The New York City charter revision commission he served on proposed the most far-reaching changes in the city government’s decision-making processes in almost a century. In 1990, Lane chaired a task force to implement the revised charter. More recently, he was special counsel to the City Council speaker from 2002 to 2005.
Lane said that his background in public affairs helps him "think collectively" and "hear other people’s ideas."
His "mixed experience" in academia and government provides an "enormous benefit" for students, said Frederick Schwarz, who served as the New York City’s corporation counsel under Mayor Edward Koch.
"Eric is brilliant with people. He’s candid, he’s critical, he’s very experienced and cares deeply about issues," said Schwarz, who worked alongside Lane as chair of the Charter Revision Committee.
Students said Lane "shows his face a lot" on campus. He chats with students studying in the library and holds regular meetings with a student advisory group.
"We have an open dialogue on what the law school’s doing, and he’ll ask us what they should be doing or any type of feedback we might have," said Jenelle DeVits, a 3L and associate editor of the law review.
A constitutional scholar, Lane co-authored the book The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Again, on the Constitution’s role in a politically polarized nation. He also has written two textbooks on the legislative process and statutory interpretation.
He said instilling fundamental values in his students is more important now than ever before.
"I want them to leave here thinking that being a lawyer is an honor and a privilege," Lane said. "In this society the only private people who swear an oath to support the Constitution are lawyers. That is a very important and symbolic moment because in one sense, it makes you a public servant. I don’t care if you’re private."
Lane said he didn’t start out to be a lawyer. After earning an advanced degree in English and American literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Lane said he realized he didn’t have a clear career goal, so he enrolled at Fordham University School of Law. As a 1L, he was soon bored with rote memorization of case law, and took several months off to backpack throughout South America and Mexico. He got his J.D. in 1970 and soon started a small general practice in Mineola, N.Y., with two partners.
In 1976, Monroe Freedman, then dean of Hofstra Law and a client of Lane’s, recruited him to teach just two weeks before the academic year began. Never mind that he’d never taught before or taken classes on public international law or conflicts of law, his assigned course topics.
"When first-semester student evaluations came in, I was in tears," Lane said, laughing.
But he caught on quickly, he said, going on to teach courses that drew on his time in Albany and city government.
This semester, Lane is teaching an introductory course on administrative law to first-year students. In the classroom he takes a problem-first approach, teaching his students to think like lawyers do.
"What we’re trying to do in courses throughout the school — and I’ve always done this because I come out of a practical background — is to make sure the class isn’t about simply reciting case law," Lane said. "We take real problems and use those as the basis to make diagnostic decisions."
For the past decade, he has operated a 200-acre farm in Columbia County, N.Y., where he raises alpacas and Angus steer — "all grass-fed, no hormones," he stressed.
Lane had been spending 180 days a year at the farm. But now that he has become dean, he has hired someone to run the property full time and he expects to spend most of his time tending to the law school.
As dean, Lane wants his students to take pride in their chosen field.
"I want students to understand that this is not just a job," he said. "This is an important profession for the overall good of the country. Lawyers are good. They do good things. Being a lawyer is a damn good profession."