Law dean aims to put transparency at center stage

Paul Schiff Berman believes assuming the deanship for the GW Law School is not so different from a curtain rising on a play.

Years of stage experience taught Berman the importance of openness and transparency, values he said he will use to lead the top 20 school.

“My philosophy as a dean actually comes from my life before I came to law school when I was a theater director creating original shows in New York,” he said. “As a director and as a dean, you want people to feel safe to have ideas, you want to put those ideas in motion as quickly as possible and you want to build structures that take advantage of the strengths of the personnel you have rather than forcing people into abstract roles.”

GW named Berman dean on April 28, after his four-year stint leading Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which jolted from No. 52 to No. 40 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings during his tenure.

Berman graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1995 and chose law briefs over play scripts after he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She later presided over Berman’s wedding to Laura Dickinson, who will also leave ASU to teach law courses at GW.

At 46, Berman is the third-youngest dean at a top 20 law school.

“Given by how young he is, I’m struck by how well-liked and respected he was by the old guard here,” ASU law professor Joel Garreau said. “He’s very transparent and straightforward.”

Berman said he will focus on tangible reform for the Law School, with a particular emphasis on helping second- and third-year students “bridge the gap from law school to law practice.”

Integrating coursework with internships, policy research and law firms can help balance a law school’s split identity as both a trade school and an academic institution, he said.

“This is not a lawyer factory. It’s a school that wants to work with each individual student and wants to create as much of a personalized approach as we can,” Berman said.

Law School officials sifted through a pool of candidates to replace former Dean Frederick Lawrence, who left GW last July after five years to serve as president of Brandeis University.

Berman’s history as an aggressive fundraiser also made him an attractive candidate for the position, Roger Trangsrud, the law school dean search committee chair, said. Lawrence’s tenure was marked by his successful fundraising programs, so his replacement needed an especially impressive development resume.

Berman dove headfirst into fundraising last year when he guided ASU’s law school off of state funds in light of budget cuts. Student tempers flared when his proposal included a $2,700 tuition increase, but Berman said his fundraising boost minimized that increase.

Berman will maintain a classroom presence as the Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law and hold open office hours for students, a practice that he began as law dean at ASU to remain accessible.

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