Looking at Leadership: Perspectives from American Law School Deans

By Jeff Allum and Katie Kempner
September 2022

  • At a Glance: 10 min read
  • Key takeaways for NALP members from the American Law School Dean Study.
  • Deans spent a lot more time on crisis management, DEI, financial management, and student life/conduct issues.
  • There are now more women of color serving as law school deans than at any other time in American history.

Conversations about who becomes a leader — and how — have assumed a new level of meaning in recent years, and American law schools are no exception. More than two years ago, perennial challenges concerning law school access and affordability, as well as bar passage and employment prospects for newly minted JDs, seemed suddenly mundane in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, social and racial justice movements, and attacks on the rule of law. This was a harrowing time for anyone, including the deans who were leading American law schools during the spring of 2020.

 A new study, the American Law School Dean Study, led by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), sheds light on how things have changed since then, and offers insights into many previously unknown aspects of the law school deanship itself. Using a spring 2021 survey of roughly 400 current and former American law school deans, AALS and its independent social research partner NORC spearheaded an effort to better understand the career pathways of law school deans, the details of the dean search and selection process, and the ways in which the role of law school deans changed during the pandemic. Made possible with support from the AccessLex Institute, Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), this study not only offers a reflection on the state of legal education leadership in the present, but also provides some glimpses of what the future might hold.

The Evolving Deanship

Understanding how the leadership approaches of law school deans have changed over the past two years necessarily begins with understanding what they actually do. The American Law School Dean Study provides insights into some of the conditions in which law school deans operate. About 3 in 5 (61%) deans have between 1 and 10 direct reports. A similar percentage (62%) of deans stated that they report to the board of trustees/governing board a few times a year. And the vast majority (90%) of deans have positive relationships with their associate deans.

More importantly, however, the study reveals what deans actually do on the job. Far and away the most important priorities of a dean are fundraising and budget/financial management. Secondarily, law school deans report that strategic planning, improving outcomes for graduates, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are important as well. Improving relationships with their university, faculty governance, and marketing, communications, and media relations are generally not identified as important priorities.

While deans are most likely to see fundraising and budget/financial management as the most important priorities of the deanship, they also feel unprepared for this aspect of the job. More than one-half of deans report that they felt unprepared for fundraising/development and budget/financial management. Michael Hunter Schwartz, Dean of the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, put it this way, “In the beginning, it’s anxiety provoking — it’s not something that we get training on — but it can be exhilarating. You can do really good things in the world just by convincing people to give you some money.”

Ultimately, how a dean goes about doing their work is a function of decision-making. Law school deans serve a variety of constituents, and it is often the case that these constituents disagree about some issues even in the best of times. “We’re not going to be liked all the time for everything we do as a dean,” offers Dean Schwartz. “It’s not that you’re not going to feel uncomfortable or in pain, say, delivering bad news or holding people accountable. But you have to understand, that’s the job. That’s what you have to do.” Sean Scott, President and Dean of the California Western School of Law, puts it this way: “You have to have clarity about what your principles are, what your strategic goals and objectives are, and have the fortitude to stick with them even if they’re not going to make everyone happy.”

Turning to the past two years, a time when everyone had to consume, process, and deliver a parade of bad news, law school deans made decisions accordingly. Deans were more likely to spend “a lot” of time on crisis management, DEI, and student life and conduct issues in 2020 compared to 2019. Specifically, 88% of deans spent a lot of time on crisis management in 2020 compared to just 11% in 2019. In 2020, 79% of law school deans allocated a lot of time to DEI compared to 16% in 2019. Nearly one half (43%) of deans spent a lot of time on student life and conduct in 2020, compared to 8% who spent a lot of time on these issues in 2019. And 74% of law school deans spent a lot of time on budget/financial management in 2020 compared to 49% in 2019.

Whether or not these changes will be permanent remains to be seen, but there is little question that the deanship has been forever altered. Marc Miller, Dean of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, described the need for deans to go above and beyond in this new environment. “Not only did I need to have the traditional skills of being a manager and understanding budgets and so forth, but I had to innovate in a changed space. Having a good steady hand at the tiller was no longer sufficient to help a law school — any law school — prosper.”

Dean Search and Selection Process

The study found that law school deans, for the most part, tend to enter the deanship from within the legal academy. Underscoring this further is the point that almost two-thirds (62%) of law school deans report that their candidacy for the deanship was initiated by someone else, such as a search firm, an individual at the law school, or a nomination with or without the candidate’s knowledge. A much smaller proportion (28%) of law school deans applied for the deanship on their own, and only a fraction (10%) obtained their position without going through a full search process.

The study also provides evidence of a growing use of search firms in dean hiring processes. Nearly three in five (59%) of current sitting deans report that a search firm was used in their selection for the job, compared with just 45% percent of former deans. Generally speaking, the majority of deans who report that a search firm was used in the selection process are men and white, a finding that should be taken with a grain of salt due to the fact that search firms are used in an array of ways by different law schools. Some are hired explicitly to fill a niche role, while others are contracted by the parent institution simply to serve in an administrative capacity.

It is worth noting that the American Law School Dean Study captures some never-before-known details about dean selection, negotiation, and contracts. Scholarship, perhaps not surprisingly, is more likely to be a factor in the selection of deans who came from a different institution. Specifically, roughly two-thirds (64%) of deans who came from a different institution report that their scholarship was a significant factor in their selection as a dean, compared to roughly one-third (36%) of deans who came from the same institution. Most deans (69%) negotiated the terms of their employment with the provost or senior academic affairs officer, as opposed to the president/chancellor (25%) or board of trustees/governing board (6%). And a large majority (82%) of deans have an employment contract with their law school. Of those, most (81%) contracts have a specified contract length, most commonly five-year terms.

The Diversifying Deanship

For all the uncertainty of the past two years, and the likelihood that this uncertainty will continue in the years to come, one thing is certain: the diversification of the deanship is likely here to stay. Leadership in the legal academy has been rapidly diversifying by gender and race/ethnicity, particularly over the past several years. The percentage of law school deans who are women in the fall of 2020 was 41%, more than doubling from 18% in 2005.[1] The proportion of women deans is roughly in line with the proportion of law faculty who are women,[2] and is a dramatic increase given that, until the late 1990s, women held just 10% or less of the law school deanships.[3]

There has also been an increase in diversity among law school deans in terms of race/ethnicity. In fall 2020, 31% of law school deans were people of color or Latinx, doubling from just 13% in 2005. More specifically, in the fall of 2020, nearly 1-in-5 (18%) law school deans self-identified as Black/African American, up from roughly 1-in-10 (8%) in 2005. Given this recent trend toward greater diversity, it follows that there are now more women of color serving as law school deans than at any other time in American history. In fact, in fall 2020, there were 28 women deans who identified as other than white non-Hispanic, including 20 Black/African American women deans.

Though these trends may appear to be natural results of more diversification in higher education overall, legal education also seems to be adopting changes in perspective allowing for more diverse representation in leadership. Danielle Holley-Walker, Dean of the Howard University School of Law, explains it this way: “I think universities are just more open to the idea that their law school dean does not have to fit the previous mold — that it could be a woman, it could be a woman of color, or it could be a woman who is of color and a member of the LGBTQIA community.”

If there is one aspect of law school diversification that is lagging, it is diversification by educational backgrounds. More than two-thirds (69%) of deans earned their law degrees from one of the most selective law schools. Furthermore, deans serving at the most selective schools were more likely to have earned their JD from one of the most selective law schools. At least some of the roots of these trends can be found in their trajectory set before going to law school. Most law school deans earned their undergraduate degrees in humanities or social/behavioral sciences (81% combined).

Only time will tell how much these changes will be fully absorbed and institutionalized by the American law school community, but that won’t change the fact that leadership matters. For more on the study, visit the project website at www.aals.org/research/dean-study.

Please join us for a free NALP member webinar, “Looking at Leadership: Insights from the American Law School Deans Study,” on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 2:00 p.m. ET. Learn more and register at www.nalp.org/events.

Jeff Allum, EdD is the Director of the American Law School Dean Study.

Katie Kempner is the AALS Associate Director of Research.

[1] AALS records, including the Directory of Law Teachers and NetForum Database, and public records.

[2] ABA Required Disclosures, “2020 Faculty Resources” www.abarequireddisclosures.org. Accessed 1.23.2021.

[3] Jagdeep S. Bhandari, Nicholas P. Cafardi, and Matthew Marlin, “Who are These People? An Empirical Profile of the Nation’s Law School Deans,” Journal of Legal Education 48, no. 3 (1998): 329-364. Laura M. Padilla, “A Gendered Update on Women Law Deans: Who, Where, Why and Why Not?” American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 15, no. 3 (2007): 443-546. Herma Hill Kay, “Women Law School Deans: A Different Breed, Or Just One of the Boys?” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 14 (2002): 219-241. Ronald. F. Phillips, “The Origins and Destinations of Law School Deans,” Journal of Legal Education 38, no. 2 (1988): 331-344.

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