I am enthusiastically looking forward to my second full year as dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law. What a privilege it is to serve in this capacity! I know so much more than I did a year ago about the law school and all of its extraordinary students and committed alumni and friends. The most important thing I have learned is how much the entire law school community and the University care about making certain that this law school continues to build upon a tradition of academic excellence, student-centered teaching and learning, and service to the profession, nation, and world. It has been energizing and enriching to work with the University administration, students, faculty, alumni, and friends to nurture and enhance the law school in these challenging times.
I have also learned graphically that these are challenging times indeed. While on a friend-building trip just as I was just beginning my tenure as dean, I woke up in a hotel room to a front-page New York Times article decrying the value of a legal education in large measure because of a failure of law schools to teach “practice-ready” skills. That particular article claimed that new law graduates may know enough to pass the relevant bar examination, but can’t draft a contract. I won’t take this space to debate the truth or merits of those assertions, but, suffice it to say, that the New York Times article was just the beginning of a drumbeat of critiques of the value of a legal education. More important than the external critics, is the appropriate inquiry that current and prospective students are engaging in regarding whether law school is worthwhile for them. Applications to law school nationwide and at Pepperdine are down significantly. Student debt load is at an all-time high. At least in the short-term, the legal employment market is providing fewer employment opportunities for graduating law students than at any time in the recent past. These and other issues facing legal education are discussed in Paul Caron’s article on page 14- a necessary message in difficult times.
We will spend much of this year at Pepperdine Law looking at the questions that are being raised about legal education. Some are quite legitimate and provide us an avenue for analyzing how well we are equipping our graduates for a rapidly changing legal market where students move into a host of employment venues. We will be looking at our clinical and experiential offerings and asking many questions about their integration into the curriculum, their rigor, and their costs. We will be taking a hard look at how we approach the teaching of legal research and writing. Integration of writing experiences into some of the traditional law school classes addresses the New York Times indictment about drafting a contract. Perhaps of utmost importance, we will be looking at how we can maximize effective experiential opportunities for our students through clerkships, externships, internships, and any other “on-the-job” placements that will give students the kind of apprenticeship experience that helps them move more seamlessly into the legal employment world. I am gratified by how many Pepperdine alumni—in many professional settings— have stepped up this past year to offer these opportunities for our students. We thank you and hope you will continue to help us in this way.
Toward the end of introducing our students to the profession early, we are beginning a preceptor program for our entering first-year students this year. This program is discussed in Al Sturgeon’s (JD ’11) article on page 10. In short, 80 generous alumni have volunteered to serve as preceptors so far. I am grateful to them and to Al, Pepperdine’s assistant dean for student life and director of academic success, who has provided inspired leadership for this initiative.
I could not write about the challenges in legal education without underscoring how important it is for us to address, in as many ways as we can, the cost of legal education. We must analyze this issue internally, but it also requires renewed attention and vigor in providing financial assistance to our students. My primary goal in attracting resources to the school this year will be to try to alleviate, as much as we can, the great financial burden that a good legal education imposes. Again, I will need your help.
Lest this all sound like gloom and Malibu doom, it is not!! We have a productive and truly exciting faculty doing work on the cutting edge of very important issues in legal scholarship. Our students are so bright and such high achievers! The University administration is notably supportive of the School of Law. In particular, President Benton and Provost Tippens are working closely with us on all of the challenges we confront. Best of all, we continue to place our mission of purpose, service, and leadership at the focus of all we do. I am humbled to be working at such a place and to join hands, hearts, and intellects in a renewed commitment to a bright future for Pepperdine University and its School of Law.
Deanell Reece Tacha