Alex Schneider: In law dean search, find balance between innovation and tradition

The GW Law School is at a crossroads.

This fall, the school will search for new leadership after dropping Dean Paul Schiff Berman after only 18 months. The search coincides with a changing legal market and increased scrutiny of what is traditionally required of a legal education.

The law school can innovate to adapt to a new legal job market. Or, it can adhere to a more traditional approach that has served the school well – and placed it at the coveted No. 20 rank.

But to remain competitive, the new dean of the law school will have to adopt both approaches.

There was the approach of Berman – an outsider and proponent of challenging traditional notions of legal education. And then there’s Gregory Maggs, the re-appointed interim dean and a senior member of the school’s faculty approach, who calls for careful review of new initiatives and collective decision making.

Four months ago, Berman was still talking about his new initiatives for the law school, and chief among them was tailoring legal education.

“What I was interested in was, how can we take each individual student’s set of interests and tailor a set of experiences that respond to those interests,” Berman told me.

In an increasingly competitive legal job market, Berman wanted to use GW’s vast resources and reach to help students design a set of experiences that would help make them competitive. He also expanded a program that allocates stipends to struggling graduates for internships until they find jobs.

And last summer, Berman’s unconventional thinking won him the National Law Journal’s award as one of 20 “Champion and Visionaries” of the law in the District.

But the dean moved to the provost’s office as the new vice provost for online education and academic innovation at the end of last semester. It seems like Berman’s “academic innovation” was out of place in GW’s flagship law school.

Maggs, who was also interim dean before Berman was hired, replaced him. His return avoided giving the school a fourth dean in four years.

Maggs’ approach is quite different from Berman’s. In an interview, I asked Maggs about his top priorities as dean. He responded by highlighting the importance of collective decision making and sending major decisions at all levels through the committee.

I pressed Maggs to explain his reasoning.

“It’s a priority because I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I think we work best when we make collective decisions.”

Maggs is the law school’s answer to Berman’s 18 months of new initiatives. Unlike Berman, who tried to make an immediate impact on the law school, Maggs is more careful and cautious.

Where Berman emphasized to me his initiatives to change the face of the law school, Maggs emphasized that for him, relying on other leaders there for support and guidance is a priority.

At this time of uncertainty in legal education, Berman’s departure was a poor decision for the law school. He was trying to be proactive and find new ways to provide students a quality legal education.

Going forward, the law school needs a leader who recognizes that innovation is necessary if the school is going to stay ahead. But it also needs someone who is pragmatic and who would look to the faculty for guidance and support. The new dean will have to balance these two perspectives. He or she must be someone who can push the boundaries of a legal education while also maintaining the trust and high opinion of his or her colleagues.

The new dean will have to find a way to strike a balance or else he or she will be out too.

Alex Schneider is a first-year student in the GW Law School.

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