Philadelphia - Law Schools Penn Law School: A Leader In Legal Education Launches An Interdisciplinary Work In Progress

Thursday, July 1, 2004 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Michael A. Fitts, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Editor: Dean Fitts, would you tell our readers how you came to choose a career as an academic lawyer?

Fitts: Law is a wonderful profession - the training ground for society's current and future leaders. The rule of law serves to resolve our most challenging social disputes and furthers our most fundamental social goals.In other words, our legal system addresses the mundane as well as the sublime: it seeks to ensure that our society works efficiently as well as fairly.

I was originally attracted to legal academia precisely because it allows me to study, as well as to further, these fundamental goals. As an academic, I am able to explore how this complicated process does and should work - a subject of endless fascination.But I also am able to train the next generation of leaders.I know of few other careers that offer that challenge and opportunity.

Editor: How did you come to Penn Law School?

Fitts: In some sense I have always been at Penn. My grandfather was a professor and Dean of the Wharton Business School, and my father was a professor and chair of the department of surgery at Penn Medical School. In light of this background, I understood the tremendous opportunities that areavailable at this truly distinguished cross disciplinary University. When I decided on an academic career, there was no place I preferred to be than Penn.

Editor: You have been head of one of the nation's premier law schools since 2000. Can you tell us about the highlights of that four-year period?

Fitts: While Penn Law School has long been one of America's premier academic institutions, the school enjoys many exciting pedagogical opportunities today that are unique and critical to educating lawyers in the 21st century. One of the greatest strengths of the law and legal reasoning has always been its ability to organize and integrate divergent types of information and disciplinary approaches. While these abilities have always been important, they are being demanded today like never before, due to the increasing complexity of the world in which we live. Whether lawyers are litigating, advising clients, running organizations, or exercising leadership in other arenas, they must be able to understand and synthesize an ever increasing variety of disciplines and fields.

Given these social changes, Penn Law School is in an extraordinary - indeed unique - position. Because we are so closely connected geographically and intellectually to a series of world class law-related professional schools and departments with this university, our ability to offer an integrated education for making decisions and exercising leadership is unsurpassed. During my tenure as Dean we have hired more than 15 new full-time faculty members, most in areas where we can intersect and connect with other departments and schools at the University of Pennsylvania.We have also enhanced our direct curricular connections with a number of the schools here through formal joint masters and certificate programs.This process has allowed us to greatly enhance our curriculum along a number of dimensions. I would have to characterize the development of a cross-disciplinary curriculum as the as the single most important highlight of my deanship to date.

Editor: What have been the principal challenges?

Fitts: There are, inevitably, resource constraints. When you expand the faculty, increase course offerings and provide increased financial aid to a hard-pressed student body, the impact on the assets you have allocated for these undertakings is substantial. Penn Law School has always enjoyed a superb reputation, but it has not enjoyed the financial resources of many of its peer institutions. We have embarked on a major fund raising campaign to support the current expansion and to provide a stronger financial foundation for the future.

Editor: As an academic lawyer - someone who has spent much of his career teaching and writing - how do you feel about being an administrator?

Fitts: I miss the opportunity to be able to spend sustained time teaching and writing - and just thinking. As a Quaker, I have always understood the value of contemplation. On the other hand, I now have the opportunity to practice much of what I taught - administrative law, namely, guiding bureaucracies and legislative institutions.Just as I draw on my scholarly background in making decisions as dean, this practical experience has served to broaden my horizons.

Editor: Penn Law School takes great pride in its distinguished faculty. Please tell us how you go about recruiting, and then retaining, scholars and teachers of this caliber?

Fitts: There is nothing I do that is more important than recruiting and supporting our faculty. Penn is a wonderful place to be a faculty member, and its reputation helps immensely with our recruiting efforts.In convincing a faculty member to join us, I try to show them that, at Penn, they will be able to do their best work, interact with the brightest faculty and students, and ultimately have the most successful career. The ability to link up with the faculties and student bodies of the other great schools at this university is also a major attraction. We have a superb faculty, one that is sought after by all the other leading law schools in the country. But once they are here, we are greatly aided in our retention efforts by the same qualities that attracted them to Penn: the culture of the institution, the quality of the students and faculty, and the strength of the other law-related schools in the university.

Editor: Is Philadelphia a selling feature?

Fitts: Absolutely. Philadelphia is a wonderful city. I live in downtown Philadelphia - the third largest downtown residential community in the country.The city also has superb suburbs. It is a very livable environment - a large but totally manageable city, with a vibrant artistic and cultural life and, of course, a very strong legal community, which provides us with a pool of excellent practitioners and judges from which to draw adjunct faculty. Philadelphia plays a very strong role in our ability to attract students and faculty

Editor: Would you tell us about the changes in your curriculum?

Fitts: Twenty-five years ago most law school curriculums were pretty standard: they were designed primarily to develop a student's deductive and inductive skills. These are critical abilities, and at the core of what lawyers, and the legal profession, offers. Today, however, in our educational program, we go far beyond that, offering a broad range of courses in new substantive legal fields such as intellectual property and comparative law that were not central when I was in school. Advances in technology and the internationalization of our society have revolutionized many fields, including law. We also offer courses in corporate finance, accounting, negotiating and the like with the Wharton School; in mass communications and technology issues with the Annenberg School; and in health-related legal and biotech issues with the Medical School.

To facilitate this cross school process, we permit students to take 25% of their course work outside the Law School after the first year, provided it is in some law-related field. Many of these classes may be co-taught with law faculty. We believe that the exposure to these different areas enhances our students ability to think through the issues they are going to face as practicing lawyers, issues which are not confined to a particular legal discipline but rather require a familiarity with a variety of intertwined business and legal and ethical concerns. I hasten to add, at Penn Law School this is not a one-way street. Even the traditional classes often include the participation of faculty members drawn from across the university. The student who does not venture over to the Annenberg School or Wharton is still going to have a much greater exposure to different areas than his or her predecessors of a generation ago.

Editor: Would you tell us about the place of Penn Law School in the larger Philadelphia community.

Fitts: One of our great strengths is our location in Philadelphia. We take advantage of this proximity in a number of programs.The most important are our clinical and public service offerings. We have a number of innovative in-house clinics - litigation, small business, technology, child advocacy, legislation, and mediation - that all draw on the city's large client base. Penn Law School also was the first major law school to require its students to perform pro bono service as part of their legal education. Before graduation, our students must perform 70 hours of public service, with over 70% of our students actually exceeding that requirement.

We simply could not run the public service program or our clinics if we were not in a major city such as Philadelphia.There are many different pro bono opportunities here, such as working with community legal providers, government agencies, Philadelphia law firms, the city schools, or a faculty member - the list is endless, as is the range of subject areas. A typical graduating class will have contributed over 20,000 hours of public service to the Philadelphia environment.

Editor: Today the cost of law school - and particularly the celebrated private schools that compete for the very best students - is very high. Students from minority communities are most affected.What is the answer here?

Fitts: It is a serious problem. We have increased the financial aid we offer, but there is no question but that we need to increase it more. The support includes scholarships as well as loan forgiveness for those who choose to take lower paying public interest jobs after graduation. These jobs do not pay as well as law firm positions, and everyone in the law school community is concerned that the burden of debt so many students carry is forcing them to choose positions simply because it will enable them to meet their debt obligations, rather than to join organizations with a public service orientation. This problem probably has a disproportionate impact on minority students, moreover. I do not have the answer, but I can say this is an issue that is receiving a great deal of attention at present.

Editor: The University of Pennsylvania is about to welcome a new president. Does that carry implications for Penn Law?

Fitts: Judith Rodin, our outgoing president, has been one of the truly outstanding university presidents in the country. Amy Gutmann, our new president, has done an absolutely superb job as provost and institute administrator at Princeton, and we look forward to her presidency at Penn building upon the momentum of Judy's presidency. Both are exceptional academics and academic leaders who are supportive of the type interdisciplinary work for which this institution is known.While each school at Penn is relatively autonomous, with its own endowment and academic governance structure, the president makes a profound difference. The president sets the university's intellectual agenda and facilitates the type of cross school programs and relationships that distinguish Penn.

Editor: Please tell us about your vision for Penn Law School. Where would you like it to be in, say, ten years?

Fitts: It will not surprise you to learn that I think legal education is in the process of becoming ever more cross-disciplinary. Penn Law School is as well positioned as any law school in the country - perhaps better positioned than any other - to further this goal, as a result of its proximity to, and connections with, the great professional schools of the University of Pennsylvania. My continuing vision for Penn Law School is that it be widely recognized as the cross-disciplinary and cross-professional law school in the country.

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