In an interview, the law school’s dean David Yassky fielded questions about the news, his views on the state of legal education, and the recent “kerfuffle” around George Mason University’s law school being named after the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“To me, that is certainly a fit person to name a law school after,” he said.
Yassky is the tenth dean of Pace Law School. He was appointed to the position in 2014 after he served as chair of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He practiced law at O’Melveny & Myers in the 1990’s.
We’ve posted an abbreviated transcript of our conversation with him below.
Big Law Business: There have been a number of donations to law schools lately. Do you think it’s a sign of turbulence in the business of legal education that administrative officials are seeking outside funding like this?
Yassky: I think there is a bit of a myth that took hold in the past few years that law school isn’t what it used to be, and maybe the value to the students isn’t what it used to be. I think that’s clearly wrong. Part of what you’re seeing with these investments is that donors recognize that having first rate legal education available to students isn’t just important and valuable (to the students), but also is (important) to society... I feel very strongly that the law school “turbulence” was the story for a while, but I think it’s the past. To me, this gift and some of the other recent ones, rather than being signs of turbulence, I think they are more signs that the turbulence has passed. Someone making a big investment is doing so because they believe that there is a bright future ahead and they are confident that we will be able to use that investment to turn out terrific law students. I think gifts like this are a sign of optimism and confidence.
Big Law Business: There has recently been quite a bit of press about the George Mason name change. What do you make of that?
Yassky: I saw that, and I’ve seen some other recent investments. There was the kerfuffle, notwithstanding, but to me the bigger point that comes out of the George Mason investment and the other recent investments is that people do recognize the value of legal education.
Big Law Business: Clearly schools can do a lot of good with the money that comes from these donations, but how important is getting the name change right? There seems to be a lot of controversy around George Mason’s decision.
Yassky: Whatever your politics are, a SCOTUS Justice who has had an enormous interest in the country’s jurisprudence, to me that is certainly a fit person to name a law school after. That is just my personal view. I don’t want to be part of any criticizing of what George Mason did, because I think that’s incorrect.
Big Law Business: How significant is a name change at all for a law school and how do you go about deciding on what’s best?
Yassky: I think each of the individual naming decisions have their own features and contours. In some cases, it’s a particular relationship between the law school and the individual and in some cases it’s a statement about philosophy or approach. In our case, we were really fortunate that we have a family that both has a long relationship with the school and that stands for the environmental passion that many of our students and faculty share. So for us it was really a fortuitous match between the relationship and the philosophy. I do think every law school that’s made a decision like this has its own combination of factors that make it appropriate for them.
Big Law Business: Tell us more about Pace’s recent donation and what it will bring to the school.
Yassky: It’s a thrilling milestone for the law school. We have had a longstanding partnership with the Haub family, particularly focused on our environmental law program. This gift will allow us not just to expand that program but, I think, to take our overall program to the next level. It will fund a Haub scholarship program, so the best and brightest environmental law students will get substantial scholarships to go out and do environmental law without the debt burden that can narrow your options. It will expand our variety of classes into international law fields, and expand our experiential learning and clinics. We are really working to craft a kind of legal education that suits today’s practice world. Law firms can’t just devote a year or two years training people. They need graduates who can practice right away.
Big Law Business: How are you going about that?
Yassky: We have tailored a variety of supervised practice programs including a fall semester practice program. They (3Ls) can spend their last semester full time as a student at a law firm. That kind of transition to practice is where legal education is heading. We did a pilot version this year. We had nine students participate. We had people at McDermott Will & Emery and Greenberg Traurig. What I hear from employers from law firms across the board is that they want to be able to hire people who can deliver value from the day they get there, or pretty close to that, and they want students coming out with not just the doctrinal education but practice skills. Skills for a live-client environment and legal skills in the workplace that will prepare them for what they are going to do in the real world.
Big Law Business: How do you feel that the donor’s history, in Pace’s case, reflects on the direction of the law school?
Yassky: We are thrilled with Elisabeth Haub and her broader legacy of environmental advocacy and passion. For us, it’s a really perfect fit between her legacy and our existing brand, which is where the pursuit of environmental protection has a place in our hearts at Pace. Most of our students go on to get careers in litigation or business law or real estate, and all the things that lawyers do, but our environmental law program that has always been a special focus here, so we thought it made perfect sense to join Elisabeth Haub’s name to ours.