Dean of Pace Law School David Yassky
Dean of Pace Law School David Yassky (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

The new dean at Pace Law School in White Plains, David Yassky, said he figures out his priorities by using a device he learned from his former boss, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

To demonstrate, Yassky turned to the back page of a spiral notebook and drew a square, then divided it into four quadrants. He labeled the boxes “urgent,” “not urgent,” “important” and “not important.”

“Everything in the world is either important or not important. And everything is either urgent or not urgent,” Yassky said in a recent interview. “But the trick is … I’ve got to make sure every day I’m spending some time on the important problems that are not urgent.”

Where legal education is concerned, that means addressing the long-term, nationwide problem of declining applications and enrollment figures. It also means churning out students who are not only “practice-ready”—the favored buzzword of legal employers and educators alike—but adaptable to a profession that is changing faster than ever.

Yassky plans to help Pace law students meet those challenges, and those who have met him and worked with him say he won’t hesitate to push the limits to do so.

Yassky, 50, took the helm at Pace Law on April 1 after four years leading New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, where he managed 500 employees, and an annual budget of $42 million. It licenses and regulates 60,000 vehicles and 100,000 drivers.

Before that, he served as a City Council member representing downtown Brooklyn and as chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, which was chaired by Schumer.

He also has taught at Brooklyn Law School and New York University School of Law.

Members of the Pace search committee said they were impressed with Yassky’s diverse work experience. But what stood out most, said committee co-chair and law professor Michael Mushlin, was Yassky’s willingness to challenge the status quo at the taxi commission.

“Some people can generate ideas and some people can implement them,” Mushlin said. “He seems to have both, and that’s really attractive. This is the moment for innovation and thoughtful change in legal education.”

At the TLC, Yassky was in charge of regulating an industry that is notoriously resistant to change.

He led major policy overhauls such as a fare increase and the introduction of an on-demand accessible taxi service for wheelchair users, a revamped in-taxi credit card processing system and an outer-borough taxi system. He also brought in a pilot program that enables customers to hail yellow cabs using their smartphones.

At Pace, his first priority is improving the school’s job placement rate and students’ job readiness, Yassky said.

Nine months after graduation, 41.5 percent of 2013 graduates had found full-time, long-term employment requiring bar passage, according to figures released last week by the American Bar Association, compared to 57 percent of law graduates nationwide. The Pace figure fell slightly from the 48.3 percent from the class of 2012 who found such jobs.

“It’s a tough market, but even still, those numbers are not good enough,” Yassky said. As dean, he said he plans to strengthen the practical components of Pace’s curriculum and steer students toward more nontraditional jobs in fields such as regulatory compliance.

In 2012, Pace Law became the second school in New York to open a “legal residency” program for recent graduates, following a model started at City University of New York School of Law. Called the Pace Community Law Practice, the nonprofit law firm trains participants on building a client base, maintaining case files, billing and malpractice insurance (NYLJ, April 9, 2013). The idea is for new lawyers to finish the yearlong program ready to go solo.

Last month, the school approved a “semester in practice” program where third-year students can spend their final semester working full-time for a legal nonprofit while taking a weekly bridge-to-practice seminar at Pace. It will start next spring. The students are not paid, nor are they guaranteed full-time jobs at the end.

Yassky praised the two programs as steps in the right direction. As dean, he said he would like to build on the school’s long-standing emphasis on environmental law.

“There’s not a transaction that any corporation does that does not have an environmental component—often a substantial environmental component,” he said. “Every business, every government agency has got to be concerned about the sustainability dimension of what it’s doing.”

His own introduction to Pace Law’s environmental specialty came more than a decade ago, when students from its environmental litigation clinic represented him in his capacity as a councilman plaintiff in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn groundwater oil-spill case against ExxonMobil. The clinic, founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., helped secure a $25 million settlement with the oil giant in 2010 after years of litigation.

Looking forward, Yassky said he would like to bring more technology into Pace’s classrooms by encouraging professors to tape their lectures and conduct some discussions online.

He said his tenure at the taxi commission showed him the importance of embracing technology. He compared the rise of the Internet and smartphones to the Industrial Revolution, arguing that any industry conducting business as usual is unsustainable in the long run.

Those lessons translate directly to running a law school, Yassky said.

“The mandate of someone becoming a law school dean in 2014 is: what should legal education look like in 2024 and 2034? And what is the practice of law going to look like in 2024 and 2034?” he said. “We have to be at the forefront of preparing our students for what that marketplace is going to look like.”

‘A Gateway School’

The youngest law school in the state, Pace Law opened in 1976 with a mission to serve the Hudson Valley. Many of its students still come from the region.

Though applications are down, following a national trend, Pace was one of only three law schools in the state to welcome a bigger first-year class this past fall than the year before. The school’s admissions profile for the latest entering class fell slightly: the median LSAT score was 151, compared to 153 a year earlier.

Yassky said he was attracted to the makeup of the school’s student body.

“It’s really been a gateway school,” he said. “So many of the students are first-generation Americans. So many are the first in their families to have gone to college. It’s really a school that helps people climb that economic ladder.”

David Yassky, 50
Dean, Pace Law School

Experience: Commissioner, New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, 2010-2013; member, New York City Council, 2002-2009; assistant professor, Brooklyn Law School, 1998-2001; counsel, chief counsel and Minority Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, 1991-1994 and 1997-1998; associate, O’Melveny & Myers, Washington, D.C. office, 1995-1996; clerk to retired Judge Stanley Sporkin of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Education: J.D., Yale Law School, 1990; A.B., Princeton University, 1986

Personal: Parents were both lawyers; Married to Diana Fortuna, CFO of the Metropolitan Opera; Two daughters, ages 15 and 20; Lives in Brooklyn Heights; Loves Alfred Hitchcock movies

Yassky was tapped to replace Michelle Simon, who led the school for seven years before returning to teaching.

He was one of 67 applicants for the job. The other two finalists were Sheryl Hanna, vice president for external relations and professor at Vermont Law School, and Raymond Brescia, a law professor and director of Albany Law School’s Government Law Center.

Neil Braun, dean of Pace University’s Lubin School of Business and the search committee co-chair, praised Yassky’s record of bringing improvements to the city taxi industry.

“You need someone who has the ability to dive into the deep water of something new and separate all the noise from the drivers of change,” Braun said of the dean’s role, adding Yassky has “demonstrated his ability to do that.”

At the taxi commission, Yassky was impatient with red tape and “very accessible,” said Emily Gallo, his former chief of staff who now holds that title at the city Department of Transportation. “His office door was always open, and when he would visit the operational facility he would spend a lot of time engaging the drivers and asking how it’s going. I’d get a lot of emails from him saying, ‘I was in a cab last night and this is what the driver was telling me.’”

Yassky often crossed swords with the industry he regulated.

Richard Emery, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade who filed about a dozen lawsuits on behalf of yellow-taxi fleets against the city over the past five years, described Yassky as an “ambitious, sophisticated lawyer,” but one who got too caught up in politics to truly hear the concerns of groups within the taxi industry.

“He was doing [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg’s bidding, which was erratic and poorly thought-out,” Emery said. “As a practical matter, he’ll do a lot better in the law school context.”

Yassky, for his part, said all the litigation was “a function of how much we tried to accomplish and how much we did in fact accomplish,” he said he is looking forward to the “culture of collaboration” that comes with working in an educational setting.

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Boy, you picked the wrong time to want to be a law school dean,’” Yassky said. “I think it’s the perfect time. Nobody has a crystal ball to know what the practice of law is going to be like in 10 years. But those of us doing legal education now, we’ve got to figure that out and do the best we can. That is a fun challenge to be taking on, and I’m enthused about it.”