Interview with Anthony Crowell, Former Dean of New York Law School

Published April 2013.

TLS: thanks Anthony Crowell, the dean and president of New York Law School, for taking the time to answer our questions. Dean Crowell discusses his own background, his thoughts about the school and its neighborhood, the tough legal market, and the cost and value of a New York Law School J.D.

TLS: You’ve been the top man at NYLS for about eight months now. What has been the most surprising part of the job so far?

Dean Crowell: New York Law School is an absolutely wonderful place. Even though I had been involved with NYLS for almost a decade as an adjunct professor, joining as dean and president means getting to know the Law School inside and out, top to bottom. In order to do that, one of the first things I did was go on a listening tour. I wanted to hear from all of the Law School’s major constituent groups—students, alumni, employers, faculty, administrators, trustees, deans of other law schools, and more. It was a wonderful experience. What surprised me was that despite how wonderful the Law School is, and how much our constituents agreed on this, everyone overlooked something that seemed so obvious to me: We are New York’s law school. The School has always leveraged its prime location and its unique history of being a place that has graduated some of the City’s most influential leaders over the years. I wanted to pull those ideas into the forefront of our communications.

The Law School has an enviable location in the heart of New York City’s legal, government, technology, and financial districts. Our connection to these sectors—which are driving the economy locally and globally—is saleable. Not every law school has that. Like the City itself, we have to think big—big opportunities, big partnerships—and yet be focused so we can help our students find their focus. My job as dean is to work with the faculty and administration to make sure that we play to our strengths and all that we do is connected to the sectors of the economy that are growing and expanding. As New York’s law school, we have to set the pace.

TLS: Your background is a little unusual for a dean in that you’ve had vast experience practicing law as well as teaching it. How does your experience inform your approach to running the school? Are other schools too focused on the purely academic side of things, at the expense of preparing students to become practicing lawyers?

In addition to practicing and teaching law, I have hired, managed, and mentored many NYLS graduates in my previous role as Counselor to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and, before that, in other roles in government. I am fortunate to have the employer perspective, in particular, inform my approach to leading the Law School.

I think most law schools are working to provide a learning experience that bridges doctrinal law and experiential learning so that graduates are well prepared to hit the ground running. However, as the economy diversifies, it is critical that law schools mark changes in trends and adapt their curricula, including experiential learning opportunities, in ways that prepare students to enter new fields with the skills, innovative thinking, and confidence required to succeed. My time in City Hall made me very attuned to looking at the major industry sectors expected to grow or diversify in the City over the next 10 to 20 years—for us, that means government and nonprofits, science and technology, and business and financial services. It is imperative that we provide our students with the tools needed to excel in those industries, and one of my major areas of focus is expanding and deepening our relationships with employers in these areas.

I believe it is also critical that our profession places equal value on traditional and non-traditional jobs performed by those with legal educations. In addition to traditional roles in large and small firm settings, lawyers are a driving force in business, government, and the nonprofit sector. Lawyers are leaders, and constitute the ranks of middle- and high-level management, in government and business alike, and we need to ensure that our law schools prepare students for these roles and that our profession values these contributions. It is time for us to ensure that our newly minted lawyers are equipped with skills that all employers are looking for: leadership, professional behavior and values, the ability to contribute to a team, manage and deliver on projects, and communicate effectively. These are skills that employers are seeking, and law schools can teach these skills through project-based learning, clinics, and other experiential offerings. Because of our location, the City is our classroom; NYLS is uniquely positioned to provide our students with these important opportunities.

TLS: A recent article in the New York Law Journal seemed to indicate that your time working for the city government would benefit NYLS students seeking work in the city government. Has that been your experience so far? Why in particular is NYLS, as you said, “the only game in town” when it comes to city government?

Indeed, my experience in City government makes me very well-suited to strengthen the School’s position in the market. I have a deep knowledge of the government and the nature of the legal work available, am able to connect individual students to job opportunities, and to work with people in government to create new opportunities for students. Plus, as I mentioned, I have hired and mentored NYLS graduates. I know what our students need and have to offer and how hard they will work to prove themselves.

Of course, our proximity to City Hall and the courts means that we have students and alumni working in jobs across City government. If you work for New York City, you know NYLS—either because you work alongside an alum or you rely on the School’s Center for New York City Law for information about the laws and legal processes that govern the City. The Center hosts events featuring top leaders in City government. In addition it produces several publications, including CityLand, a monthly newsletter that covers NYC land use news and legal research. We are excited about the possibilities to expand and diversify the Center’s reach.

TLS: Who is the ideal NYLS student?

Our students are like New York City: bright, practical, tenacious, and willing to work hard. We are also a very diverse school. I am not just talking about race and gender, but also in terms of background, professional experience, and age. Just take our Evening Division as an example. At NYLS, you may be sitting in a classroom with a police officer, a middle school principal, an insurance executive, a financial analyst, and a social worker. All of our students bring their unique backgrounds to the table, and our community and our students’ experiences here are all the richer and more sophisticated for it.

TLS: How would you describe your long-term vision for the law school? How is the school adapting to the changing legal market?

We must set our sights on the high-growth fields of tomorrow. As the economy moves, so will NYLS. And that means we must focus on technology and the applied sciences; business and financial services; and government and public interest—all of which broadly encompass what will be the major areas of employment and growth in New York City over the next 10 to 20 years. This focus, in turn, will provide a clear framework for rationalizing our curriculum.

We also will embrace the City as our classroom by complementing a rigorous legal education with a growing and diverse set of “uniquely New York” experiential learning opportunities. Our goal is to ensure that every student will be able to take advantage of a clinical placement or structured externship. Further, we will use these placements as vehicles not only to help our students find rewarding employment, but also to make NYLS a leader in facilitating access to justice and teaching the value of a lifelong commitment to pro bono service.

TLS: Last month an Appellate Division judge upheld the dismissal of a class-action lawsuit filed by alumni over allegedly deceptive employment data put out by NYLS. What are your thoughts on the transparency of employment statistics in general and at your school? Are law schools doing enough to ensure that prospective students get enough information to decide whether to go a quarter-million dollars into debt for a J.D.?

Transparency, metrics, and accountability are fundamental tenets of my management style. The Law School has always complied with ABA standards in this regard. After I was appointed and before I started as dean, I reviewed the employment information we had available on our website and added more detail to ensure it was as comprehensive as possible. More recently, we have been working with the Law School Transparency Project as well.

TLS: Is an NYLS J.D. a good investment? Why? Is tuition too high, or does it accurately reflect the cost of a law degree?

Investing in any graduate degree is a big decision. I believe that the value of a law degree is measured over the course of a lifelong career. Legal education always has been an incredibly worthwhile and valuable pursuit because the foundations of a good legal education—developing sound reasoning, critical reading, strong writing, and communications skills; a passion for advocacy; and a deep sense of societal, business, and civic constructs—are valued across so many professions.

In general, legal education costs are largely attributable to providing ever increasing and evolving opportunities for student learning—whether that takes the form of adding outstanding faculty to offer a wide array of classes, introducing innovative clinics and other programs for more tactical and experiential learning opportunities, or introducing the latest technology into the academic setting. For us, there are also additional costs associated with being situated in one of the most expensive cities in the country; however, the access to an abundance of truly unique learning opportunities and a broad diversity of job prospects make the study of law in New York City an unparalleled commodity.

I recognize that the cost of tuition is a critical issue, and one of my major areas of focus as the new dean is to expand scholarship opportunities for students while undertaking every effort to operate the school as efficiently as possible to stabilize tuition.

TLS: How do you perceive the media’s treatment of law schools in recent months? When students ask you how they should go about paying off six-figure loans in this historically depressed legal market, what do you tell them?

The media plays a valuable role in society and one that we discuss frequently at NYLS. That said, an investment in a legal education, or any education, is a serious commitment of money and time. I am a big believer that what you put into something is what you get out of it. The best thing about being a lawyer is the ability to have an impact on society, and this can be done across a range of jobs. This is why I think it is critical to educate our students about the opportunities that exist in non-traditional roles. Our law school has always had a good number of alumni working in business and government. I think we should celebrate this and amplify it. I can’t think of an industry that doesn’t need legal expertise; that is why one of my goals is to deepen and expand employment opportunities in traditional law firm settings as well as in businesses, nonprofits, government, and other sectors.

TLS: When deciding to go to law school in general or NYLS in particular, how much weight should students place on employment statistics such as those promulgated by Law School Transparency, which [in 2012 gave] NYLS a 35.1% employment score (meaning that 35.1% of the class of 2011 obtained full-time, long-term legal jobs, excluding hanging a shingle)? What is NYLS doing to help students find long-term legal employment?

Prospective students should do extensive research when applying to law school, and employment statistics are one of many important factors to consider. NYLS posts employment data of its two most recent graduating classes on the website, and of course, this information can always be found at the ABA’s website.

We are proud of the breadth of employers that hire our graduates, and of the numerous exceptional ways in which our graduates utilize their law degrees. In addition to more traditional legal positions, which the LST number specifically reflects, NYLS also sends a large number of its graduates into jobs in government, business, and industry, where their law degrees are a vital asset to completing their work. This has always been true for us, particularly because we have an evening program that allows people who are already employed to further their careers, largely outside of the law firm environment, by getting a law degree.

NYLS provides comprehensive career planning services to its students and alumni.

  • Employment Opportunities: The Office of Career Planning (OCP) hosts robust fall and spring recruitment programs, and the OCP’s employer relations team engages hundreds of employers monthly to ensure that its job posting board is flush with internship and post-graduate opportunities. Furthermore, the OCP arranges for students to take advantage of off-campus job fairs, including the Patent Law Interview Program, Lavender Law, and the various BLSA job fairs.
  • Résumés and Cover Letters: The OCP works with each student to prepare (at least) one professional résumé and cover letter. In conjunction with the faculty who teach our first-year Legal Practice course, the OCP assists students in selecting and preparing a writing sample for submission to an employer.
  • Professional Development Curriculum: The OCP conducts six mandatory professional development workshops for the 1L class, where an array of topics that have been requested by employers—from conducting practice area research, to interviewing skills, to how to execute a summer work assignment—are addressed. Additional programming, addressing more sophisticated issues such as professional branding and the business of law, is offered to upper-level students to round out their professional development training.
  • Programs: The OCP offers an array of programs aimed at introducing students to lawyers in different practice areas. Regular “Lunch with a Lawyer” events offer students an intimate setting for a conversation about a particular lawyer’s (or lawyers’) practice and background. The larger practice-area-specific networking forums offer students a chance to network with dozens of lawyers from a particular practice area.
  • Individual Counseling: Each 1L student is required to meet with a counselor to discuss his or her initial career ideas, to review his or her résumé, and to prepare an initial job search strategy for 1L summer employment. Counselors are available to meet with students at any time Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Beginning in the spring of 2013, all 3L students will be required to attend a one-on-one “exit interview” and discuss their post-graduate job search strategies with a counselor.
  • Resources: The OCP offers an array of print and online resources that aid students with every topic pertinent to preparing and executing a job search, including résumés, cover letters, writing samples, interview preparation, networking, practice-area research, and practice-specific job research.  

We have also launched a new program called “Law Student to Lawyer,” which links the School’s admissions, academic affairs, alumni relations, and career planning and student life offices to create a continuum of support and strategic guidance for all students from the time they are contemplating attendance at NYLS until after they graduate, whether they are coming directly from college or the workforce. The program ties together admissions, academic advising, and career counseling at the earliest points possible, along with clinical and experiential learning opportunities, alumni mentoring and networking, and other student programming. By taking these steps, NYLS will scale its operations to help students take advantage of the range and diversity of traditional and non-traditional job opportunities that exist for lawyers today. NYLS is not just creating lawyers; we are creating leaders, helping them to plan and build their careers whether in the classroom, courtroom, or boardroom.

TLS: What public service opportunities will students have at NYLS? If graduates want to pursue low-paying public interest work after school, does the school fund programs that will help them pay back their debt?

NYLS provides students with a broad range of options if they are interested in public interest careers. The Office of Career Planning (OCP) provides a dedicated counselor and administrative assistant who work directly with students to identify and secure internships and post-graduate opportunities with nonprofit organizations as well as the government. Programs such as “Interviewing with a Prosecutor’s Office,” “Finding a Public Interest Job,” “Identifying Public Interest Fellowships,” and “Networking with Public Interest Employers” are held regularly to assist with individual counseling. Regular communication informs students about internships and post-graduate opportunities in the public interest field, and the OCP provides extensive online and print resources that assist students in their practice exploration and job search.

We offer a very modest loan repayment assistance program for our graduates who pursue lower-paying public interest work. In addition, we provide them with counseling and resources that allow them to tap into the other, more comprehensive programs now available from the government, including loan forgiveness for students who:

  • Consolidate and repay their loans under the income-based repayment plan and make timely payments for a period of 25 years.
  • Consolidate and repay their loans under the income-based repayment plan, work in a public service position, and make timely payments for a period of 10 years.
  • Teach full-time for five complete and consecutive years. These students are eligible for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness.

TLS: What advantages or disadvantages does the school’s location in Lower Manhattan have? Do many students pursue externships with “local” firms, businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits? What resources does the school provide to hook students up with these opportunities?

Because of our location in Lower Manhattan, our students are able to take advantage of a large number of opportunities with “local” employers. Our law office externship program provides nearly 200 students a year with the opportunity to work for a (non-judicial) legal employer and receive credit. Similarly, NYLS’s judicial externship program places nearly 100 students a year in judges’ chambers, providing them with an invaluable opportunity to learn litigation skills from judges who preside in the courts that are merely blocks away.

Our campus boasts courts, investment banks, Wall Street, government agencies, and tech start-ups as its neighbors, and we take every opportunity to integrate them into the fabric of our everyday law school life. Within a few blocks of the School, students have access to almost every kind of private law practice, in-house corporate legal staff, legal aid and public interest law practice, governmental law office, and court that exists in the United States. And through our clinical and skills-based curriculum, we provide students with many ways to take advantage of the resources that surround us. For example, students have opportunities to represent real clients in federal court, work in the chambers and courtrooms of federal and state judges, mediate disputes between parties, and work with mentor attorneys in private law firms and government agencies. The easy accessibility of the School also allows us to have many of the best lawyers in the City serving as adjunct professors. 

TLS: The NYLS website refers to the school’s “unique skills-based curriculum.” What is unique about it, how does it work, and how can students best take advantage of it?

The fall 2011 semester marked the launch of New York Law School's new first-year skills program, which features a redesigned curriculum that provides students with a comprehensive introduction to lawyering skills at the beginning of their law school careers. The goal of this program is to ensure that students really see how analysis, research, and writing are interconnected with lawyering skills like client interviewing, counseling, and negotiation.

Because of our first-year skills program, New York Law School was recently recognized by preLaw magazine as one of the "most innovative law schools" in the country and was singled out for applying the "medical school model." Students work with "standardized clients," trained actors with whom students practice their interviewing, fact-gathering, and counseling skills (modeled after "standardized patient" exercises in medical schools). The actors assess students based on various criteria, such as how students talk to them, what questions the students ask, and whether they, as clients, feel satisfied at the conclusion of their interaction.

In addition, NYLS offers project-based learning courses that challenge students to develop both their legal knowledge and important new skills such as project planning and collaboration. Classes are small, and participating students work together with close guidance from faculty members on projects with concrete, real-world significance. We also are expanding our externships and clinical opportunities, an example of which is our new Criminal Prosecution Clinic in partnership with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. This clinic gives NYLS the unique distinction of supporting clinical programs within three of the five New York City District Attorney offices, and is one of approximately 10 new clinics, along with other innovative programs, that we are working on with our faculty to introduce in 2013.

TLS: What do you think of the proposal that the state of New York is considering to make the third year of law school essentially optional and allow students to sit for the bar exam after two years?

I am supportive of taking steps to ensure that the third year of law school is the most productive and beneficial year of a student’s time in school. Law schools must find a balance between what is being taught in the classroom and supervised experience that students gain in the field through externships, clinics, and other experiential programs. Shortening the time that students have to engage in their legal studies would disserve society and the profession as we all value having well-trained lawyers pursuing justice. That being said, I am highly sensitive to issues of cost, and to the extent that the cost of law school is a motivating factor in reducing it to two years, I will do all that I can to contain costs. We must address cost; however, we will not do it at the expense of the education we provide.

TLS: What is the John Marshall Harlan Scholars Program, and what benefits does it provide students?

The John Marshall Harlan Scholars Program is a rigorous academic honors program designed for students who have performed at the top of their law school class. It gives students the opportunity to focus their law school studies, gaining depth and substantive expertise beyond a broad understanding of the law. The program also facilitates the development of relationships among students, professionals in the field, and professors who are interested in the same areas of law.

Students whose first-year cumulative grade point average places them in the top 15 percent of their class division will be invited to join the program. Eligible students will be offered a new scholarship award if they have not received one during their first year, or will retain their award if they did receive one during their first year. Participation in the Harlan Program includes required participation in the New York Law School Law Review. Harlan Scholars also affiliate with one of the Law School’s academic centers: the Center for Business and Financial Law, the Center for International Law, the Center for New York City Law, the Center for Professional Values and Practice, the Center for Real Estate Studies, the Diane Abbey Law Center for Children and Families, the Institute for Information Law and Policy, and the Justice Action Center.

The Harlan Scholars Program is an academic and professional program that anticipates a high degree of commitment from students, and provides in return a rewarding intellectual experience, the opportunity to develop an impressive professional portfolio, and recognition of high academic achievement. Satisfactory completion of the curricular requirements of the center with which a student has affiliated, as well as completion of Law Review obligations, and otherwise maintaining academic and disciplinary good standing at the Law School, will culminate in a notation on the student’s final transcript after graduation, and recognition at commencement.

TLS: What about the Comprehensive Curriculum Program, which appears to be something akin to a remedial program for those who finished in the bottom third of the 1L class? What feedback has it received? Any success stories you can share with us?

The Comprehensive Curriculum Program (CCP), instituted in 2003, targets students who perform in the bottom third of their section after their first year (Day Division), or after the third semester (Evening Division), and requires them to take intensive courses that help them turn a weak start into a powerful finish. Some students in the program take an additional semester of concentrated study, tuition-free.

Although students enter New York Law School with a range of academic backgrounds and experiences, there is no effective way to predict a student’s law school achievement until that student begins to perform in law school. Once a student takes a semester of classes and related examinations, there is a basis for evaluating that student’s strengths, weaknesses, potential, and academic needs. After a year of law school, the basis for evaluation is even stronger.

Students whose grade point average places them in the bottom one-third of their class during the first year of law school need to strengthen their skills if they are to compete effectively and perform competently both in law school and as practicing attorneys. The Comprehensive Curriculum Program is designed to help students who have not developed these skills sufficiently during the first year of law school to do so before they graduate and take the bar. We have found that students enrolled in the Comprehensive Curriculum Program demonstrate improved performance on the bar exam.

TLS: Thanks again to Dean Crowell for taking the time to answer our questions!