For Trevor Morrison, the former Columbia Law professor who recently took up the helm as dean of New York University School of Law, the move from Morningside Heights to Greenwich Village was an exciting jump from one top-ranked school to another.
"They're both great schools, they both have great faculty, great student bodies," Morrison said. "They have different strengths. I don't know if I would make any of these a point of huge contrast, but NYU's reputation is terrifically strong in a lot of areas, including, over the last few years, being a real leader, being the leader, I think, in the conception of a global law school."
Morrison, 42, started at NYU Law on June 1. Regarded as an expert in constitutional law, federal courts and national security law, Morrison brings to NYU experience in academia, private practice, clerkships and federal government work—including serving in 2009 at the White House as associate counsel to President Barack Obama.
"Not only is he a well-regarded academic, but he is also a lawyer in the truest sense of the word," said Evan Chesler, chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, an NYU Law alum and a member of the dean search committee. "His skills are widely recognized as being absolutely terrific."
Morrison joins NYU at a time when law school applications nationally have plummeted about 40 percent since they peaked in 2010, according to statistics by the Law School Admissions Council. Even at a school like NYU, applications are down 21 percent in the last three years: This year it received 5,742 applications for about 450 J.D. spots, down from 6,392 in 2012 and 7,238 in 2011.
"Whether that's part of a cycle or part of a longer-term, more permanent change, I think, remains to be seen," Morrison said.
Still, he said, elite schools are not seeing many of the problems plaguing their lower-ranked counterparts, such as crushing debt and high unemployment among graduates—at least not to the same extent.
"Those are real, serious challenges. Stated, those extremes are not representative of what's going on at NYU or, in my sense, at any other of its immediate peers," Morrison said. "I think a question for all leading law schools to answer is to what extent do they feel a need to respond to any of the changing dynamics and challenges in the legal profession."
Of NYU Law graduates who took the bar exam for the first time in July 2012, 95 percent passed, ten points higher than the New York state average of 85 percent. NYU Law also saw 97 percent of its 2012 graduates secure jobs within nine months after graduation, according to American Bar Association data, and more than 91 percent took jobs requiring bar passage.
Morrison attributes the strong numbers to NYU's sheer size, which results in an "incredible diversity of strengths" in areas that span public interest, international work and government service. NYU Law is by far the largest law school in the state, with 1,471 J.D. students and 712 LL.M. or JSD students for the 2012-2013 school year.
Morrison also pointed to a series of recent innovations at the school, such as the retooling of its curriculum for third-year students announced last fall (NYLJ, Oct. 18). The reforms, called "professional pathways," are opportunities for third-year students to gain practical skills by specializing in certain areas, such as dispute resolution, criminal law, intellectual property or government lawyering.
The school also has rolled out study-abroad programs in Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Paris for students' final semesters, as well as a Washington, D.C., legislative and regulatory process clinic that will start this fall.
"These are ways that NYU has thought carefully about how to make the third-year experience distinctively valuable," Morrison said. "And that's an important thing for any top law school to be thinking about."
Morrison said he is monitoring the reforms to "make tweaks where necessary."
"I think we've started off well and I want to continue in that direction," he said.
As dean, Morrison said he plans to strengthen the school's Washington, D.C., ties by leveraging its relationships with alumni in federal government. Given his own experience in Washington, he said, exposing students to job opportunities there is an area he would like to emphasize. He'd also like to increase judicial clerkships for recent graduates, citing his term clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as one of the most influential experiences in shaping his career.
Morrison plans to teach one course at NYU Law per year, starting with constitutional law this fall.
Aware of the Marketplace
Chesler said Morrison has a clear view of how law schools must reform to graduate practice-ready lawyers.
"Law schools have a tendency to think they're disconnected from the marketplace into which they graduate their students," Chesler said. "But there is a connection between what happens in law school and what happens in the marketplace. Trevor understands that and makes sure there is a direct link between the two."
Morrison grew up on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. In 1994, he received his bachelor's degree in history from the University of British Columbia, taking a one-year break during college to study Japanese history and culture in Tokyo.
He entered Columbia University intending to complete a joint J.D.-Ph.D. specializing in Japanese legal history in the 1800s, when Japan was forming a modern legal system. But he quickly became more interested in his law coursework, he said, and earned his J.D. in 1998 without finishing the Ph.D.
"Very early on in my time there, a whole world really opened to me and my interests changed," Morrison said. "I continued to think through law school that I would be an academic, but it changed from history and Japan more to constitutional law and constitutional history."
He spent five years practicing law before returning to academia, first clerking for now-deceased Judge Betty Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit as well as Ginsburg. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Solicitor General and its Office of Legal Counsel and as an associate at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.
In 2003, Morrison began teaching at Cornell Law School. He was also a visiting associate professor at NYU Law in 2007. The following year, he joined Columbia as its Liviu Librescu professor of law. There he taught constitutional law, co-directed the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security, and established the school's Washington-based externship on federal government.
In 2011, Columbia Law students voted to award him the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the school's top prize for professors.
Morrison's willingness to help others is familiar to colleagues. "When he was at Cornell, he reached out to the people at the Death Penalty Project and said, 'I'd like to help,' even though he was under no obligation to help," said Kim Taylor-Thompson, a criminal law professor at NYU Law and member of the dean search committee who has professional connections to the Cornell program.
Richard Revesz, the former NYU Law dean who led the school for 11 years, announced last fall he would step down, kicking off the search for his successor. Revesz will remain on the law faculty while serving as director of a new Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment (NYLJ, March 4).
Morrison was selected for the job by a 10-member search committee comprised of faculty, trustees, students and alumni. There were three other finalists: Sujit Choudhry, an NYU constitutional law professor; Jennifer Arlen, an NYU business law professor; and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University politics and international affairs professor who was recently named president of the New America Foundation.
The search committee was attracted to Morrison's diverse practical legal experience as well as his charisma and leadership abilities.
"Managing a large and complex institution like this also requires the skill set of a CEO, and the ability to connect to people in all walks of the legal profession beyond the academy," said Daryl Levinson, the NYU constitutional law professor who led the search committee. Morrison fit the bill, he added.
"We were looking for the best candidate, not a set of criteria," Chesler said. "You know it when you see it. Our enthusiasm for him was very, very high and universal among the committee."
As far as law school deans go, Morrison is quite young, a quality search committee members saw as an asset.
"It brings a level of energy to the job that's critical going forward," Taylor-Thompson said. "NYU has always been an innovative place, so I think it's great to have someone relatively young in the position who brings the sense that there isn't anything we can't do to the job.
"He gets that, even though NYU might not be experiencing the crisis in legal education to the same degree, we have a role to play," she added.
Morrison has thought through "what we can do to make the experience more affordable and attractive to people so that it does prepare them to lead in the world," she said.
After being named dean in April, Morrison began a round of individual meetings with faculty members. Though he said he believes NYU has "answered the call" on how to best respond to a shifting legal job market, his conversations center around how the school can continue to improve.
"At any point, whether five years ago or right now or 10 years from now, a top school should be able to articulate in a compelling way the distinctive value of getting a legal education from that school," Morrison said. "And that's what I think NYU is exceptionally well-positioned to do."
@|Tania Karas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.