Midwest - Law Schools Northwestern Law: Taking A Tradition Of Excellence Into A Changing Legal Environment

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 - 01:00
David E. Van Zandt

Editor: Dean Van Zandt, will you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Van Zandt: I received an A.B. degree from Princeton in 1975 and then went to the London School of Economics to do a Ph.D. In 1978 I returned to the U.S. to go to Yale Law School, from which I graduated in 1981. After clerking for Judge Pierre Leval in the Southern District of New York, I clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun in the United States Supreme Court. I then spent a year and a half with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York. I joined the faculty of Northwestern Law in the fall of 1985 and became dean ten years later.

Editor: Can you tell us about the highlights of that ten-year period?

Van Zandt: The principal highlights involve overseeing a change in our approach to legal education. This entailed coming to an understanding of the changing environment in which law is practiced.

In the 1980s the practice of law became much more competitive. Clients brought in savvy general counsel and began to break away from long-established law firm relationships. For many of the larger firms these relationships had existed for generations. At the same time, and perhaps as a parallel and not unrelated development, lawyers became increasingly mobile. In an earlier day, a person became a partner at the firm by virtue of hard work and the quality of that work, and partnership at one firm was a career-long commitment. More recently, equity partnership appears to require a demonstrated ability to generate client trust, whether in acquiring new clients or retaining existing ones. And those skills are seen as portable.

As we observed these changes in the profession, we at Northwestern came to the conclusion that we should revise our selection process and focus on applicants with strong interpersonal skills of the kind necessary to succeed in law and business, and, at the same time, on applicants with maturity and motivation. For this reason, we make every effort to interview a majority of our applicants, which distinguishes us from any other law school. In addition, post-college work experience has become increasingly important in our admissions process. Ninety-one percent of the students who entered in 2005 have had at least one year of work experience, and close to 50 percent have had three years or more. Very often we will tell applicants just out of college that they have been admitted but deferred for a year so that they can spend some time gaining work experience before coming to Northwestern Law.

I have also focused on diversifying our student body and extending our national reach. At the time I became dean, about 60 percent of our student body came from the Midwest, which really meant Chicago and its suburbs. Today that figure is closer to 30 percent. We have seen a substantial increase in the number of students coming from the two coasts. Following graduation, some return to their home regions and others are more likely to go somewhere new, which gives us a substantial alumni presence in New York and Washington, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and that serves to spread the word about Northwestern Law and helps us attract an increasingly stronger, more diverse group of applicants.

Editor: Please tell us about the changes in curriculum during the ten years you have been dean. Are there trends here?

Van Zandt: There are definite trends. Any good law school must have a core curriculum that prepares its students in such areas as analysis, legal reasoning and legal writing. In addition, however, we believe that it is important to foster some of the talents that our students bring to us, and to that end we emphasize communication and presentation skills and working in teams.

Concerning the latter, we have a number of courses which are conducted as group exercises: everyone on the team receives the same grade. This is meant to reflect what takes place in the real world, where legal briefs are written by teams.

Another trend has to do with real world experience. We attempt to provide our students with as many opportunities as possible in our clinics and externships with corporate counsel and judges.

We also have very strong simulation programs in trial advocacy and in negotiations and mediations. We have a mediation course, for example, that is focused on the advocate's perspective, as opposed to merely teaching how the mediator goes about deciding a case.

In light of the accelerating pace of globalization, we have instituted a course entitled "International Team Projects," in which the legal system of particular countries is studied. During spring break the students visit those countries to interview people in the legal system and then make a team presentation upon their return.

Finally, we are fully engaged in cross-training with Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, which is the number one business school in the world. We believe, as does the dean of Kellogg, that students in each of these areas need to know a great deal about what their peers are doing in the other. I learned accounting in a law firm setting, but I do not believe clients would tolerate that today. Our law students take accounting and finance courses, among others, at Kellogg, and we reserve seats in our basic corporations class, as well as in contracts, transactional structures and mergers and acquisitions, for business students. In addition, we have one of the largest J.D./M.B.A. programs in the country, which is distinctive for being three years in length, as opposed to the more traditional four.

All of these trends constitute an effort to inject something of the reality of legal practice today into our curriculum. We take great pride in our leadership role in this development.

Editor: The Corporate Counsel Institute has been underway for many years. What is this project intended to accomplish?

Van Zandt: The Corporate Counsel Institute is Northwestern Law's main CLE program. It dates back to the 1960s and was intended to provide in-house counsel with an exposure to the major corporate legal issues of the day and to connect them with their peers across the corporate counsel community. That continues to be the basic mission of the program, which takes place twice a year - in Chicago and in San Francisco. In addition, our Corporate Counsel Center has a membership consisting of 50 public companies and their general counsel.

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

Van Zandt: That is a challenge. Just as lawyers will move from firm to firm over the course of a career, legal scholars are now used to moving from one law school to another. One of the things we have implemented is a division of labor among the faculty, which permits those interested in research to carry on this activity and teach some of the basic courses, while others such as clinical faculty and senior lecturers, supported by an adjunct faculty, teach the specialized courses.

Chicago is a wonderful resource for us in terms of the talent we draw upon to supplement our full-time faculty. We have access to lawyers with extraordinary expertise, to say nothing of their valuable connections in government, in the corporate world and in law firms which today operate on national and international platforms. Their contribution is vital, and they serve to make Northwestern Law a very attractive destination for full-time legal scholars.

Also, many of our research faculty members have, in addition to law degrees, credentials and experience in disciplines other than the law, including economics, sociology, political science and psychology to name a few. It is important for us to put the right people into the right roles. If we get it right, it enhances our ability to recruit and then retain the best faculty members because they can focus and concentrate on what they do best, whether that is teaching or conducting research.

Editor: Will you tell us about the pro bono and community activities Northwestern Law supports in Chicago?

Van Zandt: We have long been celebrated for our clinical work, but our strategy for public service is not as well known. Several years ago a group of students and faculty put together a strategy aimed at getting people involved with their communities at the outset of their careers and thereafter as a matter of course. Our alumni serve their communities in a variety of ways, both as lawyers and in ways that are not related to the law but are valuable contributions notwithstanding. They serve on the governing boards of charities, arts organizations, museums and educational institutions, and civic and community groups of every possible description. And, of course, they give of their professional time in a variety of pro bono undertakings. We determined to introduce our students to this mindset early on. Many of our first-year students participate in a public service project during orientation, and we ask them - we do not require them - to complete 40 hours of public service over the course of their time at Northwestern Law. At commencement this year we honored 70 members of the graduating class for having met this goal.

Editor: Will you tell us about Northwestern's recruitment of minority students?

Van Zandt: We have had a great deal of success in the area of minority student recruitment, increasing minority students from approximately 20 percent of our student body to over 30 percent. There are issues, however. We have excellent representation on the part of African American women, but it has been difficult to recruit African American men. Those who are qualified find themselves courted by all of the leading law schools. Ten years ago, we had very few Latino students, but today their numbers are also up. One of the things that has made a difference in our minority recruiting is the perception that our student environment here is special, that we support a collaborative culture. I believe we were the first law school to have a director of minority affairs. She provides guidance and help throughout the process, with admissions, through their time at Northwestern Law and then in starting their careers.

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

Van Zandt: I would like Northwestern to be known as the law school with the strongest faculty because we understand where academic research is headed and how the law is connected to other disciplines. Also, I would hope that Northwestern Law will be recognized for recruiting the most talented students and producing the strongest new lawyers for the marketplace. Those are the pillars on which a good law school is built, and they are interactive. The quality of the faculty is crucial because the best students wish to be exposed to the finest legal minds in the academic world. Over the past ten years I think we have taken steps that were somewhat unorthodox - in terms of the inherited traditions of legal education - but which are beginning to pay off in a very meaningful way.