Interview with Chris Guthrie, Dean of the Vanderbilt University Law School

Chris GuthriePublished November 2009

Dean Guthrie, thank you for taking the time for this informative interview for members.

TLS: Dean Guthrie, congratulations on your appointment as Dean. The start of a new Dean's tenure is a time which invites introspection about the state of a school and its future. What are the most pressing challenges you see facing Vanderbilt University Law School, and how do you intend to deal with those challenges?

Thank you! I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to serve Vanderbilt Law School as Dean.

The most pressing short-term, and perhaps longer-term, challenge facing us, which is facing all law schools, is the downturn in the economy and the legal services sector in particular. We are acting boldly to help our students, but before I describe some of our efforts to you, I think it is important to put this challenge in some perspective.

The legal services industry has certainly suffered during this downturn. Demand for legal services has fallen, and clients have become more cost-sensitive. But the legal services industry hasn’t suffered nearly as much as many other industries. Job losses in manufacturing, construction, retail, and other industries vastly outpace the more modest job losses in legal services. And looking forward, Money Magazine identifies law as one of the top 50 professions during the next decade (#18 overall) and projects an 11% growth rate in legal employment.

Moreover, Vanderbilt Law School is fortunate to occupy a privileged position in the legal marketplace. By any measure, we have some of the finest law students in the nation. Our students are extremely bright – with median undergraduate GPAs above 3.70 and median LSAT scores at approximately the 96th percentile – and they are also well-rounded, personable, and socially adept. In short, they are the kind of students who will be successful lawyers because they possess both smarts and the other skills it takes to be successful as professionals.

We are also fortunate to have a diversified employment portfolio and dedicated alums all over the country. In contrast to some schools that are heavily dependent on one or two employment markets, we send a significant percentage of each class to eight different markets – Atlanta, California, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, New York, and Washington (as well as many other cities and towns around the country and world). In all of these places, we have devoted Law School alums who want to hire Vanderbilt Law School graduates. Given that job losses in large law firms have been much higher in certain markets (e.g., New York) than others (e.g., Dallas or Nashville), our diversified employment portfolio and alumni base has been, and will continue to be, incredibly valuable to us and to our students.

Finally, we have an outstanding Career Services Office and Judicial Clerkship Program to help students secure employment.

Despite these reasons for optimism, Vanderbilt is not immune to the difficulties in this market. As a Law School, we are concerned, and we are committed to doing what we can to help our students. Let me identify some of the concrete steps we are taking:

First, for our student body size, we have a large Career Services staff. Nonetheless, we are expanding the staff by one member (approximately a 17% increase in the size of the staff) this academic year to broaden our services to students.

Second, to ensure our students have the expertise necessary to navigate this challenging marketplace, we have initiated a new career services workshop series. We are hosting workshops on how law firms think; how law firms are financed; how to get a job in a depressed market; how to succeed as a summer associate and beginning lawyer; and how to get a public interest job.

Third, we are expanding summer employment and educational opportunities for our students. Specifically, we are freezing the tuition of our Vanderbilt-in-Venice summer program as well as our summer externship program to make these programs more accessible to our students; we are dramatically increasing financial support for students interested in pursuing summer public interest opportunities; and we are increasing the number of externship opportunities available to our students.

Finally, we are creating employment opportunities for our graduates through the Vanderbilt Law School Public Service Initiative. This Initiative provides a modest, six-month stipend beginning in the September following a student’s graduation for any graduate who secures – either on her own or with our help -- a voluntary 20-hour-per week position at a public interest organization (not-for-profit, NGO, governmental entity).

We expect that participation in the Vanderbilt Law School Public Service Initiative will enable graduates to acquire and refine practice skills; build their resumes; make contacts in the geographic region in which they intend to practice; facilitate transition into full-time employment; become acquainted with the rewards of public interest; and make meaningful contributions to communities around the country.

TLS: Has the recent economic downturn impacted your goals at all?

Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt Law School have made it through this downturn in remarkably good shape. This is so for two reasons. First, as a University and a Law School, we are not as endowment-dependent as many of the schools with which we compete for faculty and students, so the downturn in the market hasn’t hurt us as much as it has hurt some schools. Second, our endowment has been managed more conservatively. We certainly suffered during fiscal year 2009, but we did not incur the kinds of losses that many other schools incurred. Thus, we feel optimistic as we emerge from the downturn (assuming, as I hope, that the economy is, in fact, on the mend). We have the resources we need to compete aggressively for top students and top faculty – and we intend to do so.

TLS: In other interviews you have mentioned focusing on increasing the size of the Vanderbilt University Law School faculty. Do you foresee any specific focus for these newly hired faculty members?

When you reflect on your experiences as a student – whether in high school, college, or law school – what do you think mattered more to your learning: the people teaching you or the specific course content covered? Course content matters, of course, and we offer a terrific curriculum, but I firmly believe that teachers matter more to a student’s learning than the particular content the teacher happens to be teaching.

Because I believe placing great teachers in our core classes will do more to provide a first-rate education for our students than anything else, I am committed to investing in the next generation of Vanderbilt Law School faculty. Over the next few years, I aspire to expand the tenured/tenure-track faculty by about a quarter or a third, and my goal is to ensure that students have Vanderbilt Law faculty teaching their core courses. I am particularly interested in investing more of our teaching resources in the first-year courses, which is where I think most students find they have truly transformative educational experiences.

TLS: What do you consider the most important factors a prospective applicant should examine when deciding which law school to attend?

Good question! To a certain extent, I think this will vary from applicant-to-applicant, depending on a variety of individual life circumstances. As a very rough approximation, though, I would advise applicants to focus on two things in particular: (1) the anticipated experience at a school; and (2) the return on the investment. Let me elaborate on each of these.

Law school consumes three years of a student’s life. If a student is going to spend three years studying the law, I believe the student is well-advised to go the school where she thinks she will have the best experience, inside and outside of class. What is the quality of teaching? What are the other students like? What is the school’s overall culture like? Is the law school facility, university campus, and broader community some place that seems appealing to spend three years studying and living? (Not coincidentally, I think we do very well on this metric, and the Princeton Review’s annual surveys corroborate this, as we generally rank in the top five or ten schools in the nation in terms of our students’ “classroom experience” and “quality of life” while they are in school.)

Students shouldn’t focus solely on the three-year experience, though. They should also investigate carefully whether a particular law school is likely to open doors for them to pursue rewarding careers after they graduate. I would advise students to look at a few years worth of placement data at each school they are considering attending. How many employers have interviewed on campus, and how does that compare to the size of the student body? How many students are employed at graduation? How national is the school’s placement? Is a school heavily dependent on one market (e.g., New York) that might be disproportionately impacted by an economic downturn? How many students secure judicial clerkships? Do students pursue interesting jobs in the public sector as well as the private sector? In short, I would advise students to look hard at their eventual return on the investment they will make – in both financial and human capital – in a legal education. (We also do very well on this metric.)

I know, of course, that one conventional response to this question is “rankings.” I think rankings are relevant but only insofar as they correlate with the two criteria I described above. Ask yourself this question: would you rather go to a higher-ranked school with limited employment opportunities or a lower-ranked school with more expansive career options?

TLS: What attributes do you feel set Vanderbilt apart from other top law schools?

I attended one law school (Stanford); have taught at other law schools (Alabama, Missouri, Northwestern, Washington University); and have visited several other law schools for conferences, workshops, etc. But I know very little about most of the roughly 200 ABA-accredited law schools, so I am hesitant to do too much comparing and contrasting.

I do know that Vanderbilt has a distinctive culture. I would describe it as collegial, collaborative, and friendly. This culture applies not only to the students but also to faculty, staff, and alums. It means that the Law School is a wonderful place to study, work, and visit. The warm cultural environment is palpable in the building.

This isn’t true of all law schools. And I think this, more than any other single factor, is our comparative advantage when recruiting both students and faculty.

TLS: Vanderbilt is known for having a very tight knit and collegial atmosphere. What do you feel are the main factors contributing to Vanderbilt's culture, and how do you think the weakening demand for attorneys will affect competitiveness at the school?

You have accurately described our culture. The Law School has a long history of civility, collegiality, and friendship. This description captures our student culture, faculty culture, alumni culture, and staff culture.

I think the primary factors that contribute to this culture are our relatively small class size (i.e., approximately 195 students per first-year class); our approach to recruiting students (i.e., relying in part on interviews and on admit days, from which we receive a very high yield); self-selection among students who want this kind of collegial experience; our efforts to provide students with rich out-of-class experiences (including our famous “Blackacres” on Friday afternoons); and our collective commitment – as students, faculty, alums, and staff members – to perpetuate this culture.

I do think the employment climate could have a deleterious effect on our unique culture. Our students are a little nervous, as they should be, about their short-term employment prospects. But our students are more than holding their own in the marketplace – securing employment all over the country at rates nearly as high as in the recent past – and they remain committed as a group to supporting one another during this challenging period.

TLS: What are some of the more popular student organizations at Vanderbilt?

The Law School has 50 active student organizations, reflecting our students’ high level of engagement with the school. Large, well-established, and popular student organizations include the Legal Aid Society, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), the Women Law Student Association (WLSA), the Entertainment and Sports Law Society, the Law & Business Society, the International Law Society, the Federalist Society, and ACS.

TLS: How well is the law school incorporated with the rest of the Vanderbilt campus? Some students at other law schools report feeling cut off from the rest of the student body due to location or other factors.

Vanderbilt University rests on a beautiful, but small, campus (324 acres), which has been designated a national arboretum. From the Law School building, you can walk to most other schools and departments on campus in less than five minutes. On one side, the Law School is located immediately next to the business school, which is located immediately next to the divinity school, which is located immediately next to the main campus library. On the other side, the Law School is located immediately next to several Arts & Science departments, student dorms, the University Administration building, and the student union. In short, we are centrally located on campus, and our students and faculty are therefore embedded in the life of the overall university.

TLS: What do you feel are some of the strongest programs within Vanderbilt Law?

Our major strength – at least in my view – is that we provide an outstanding general legal education taught by gifted teachers/scholars who actually care deeply about the classroom experience (and who take great pains to be available outside the classroom as well).

For students who want to specialize, we have several upper-class programs with distinctive features. For example, students interested in Law & Business can pursue our Law & Business Certificate Program, which allows them to develop expertise in transactional practice (including accounting and finance) without the time and expense of a JD/MBA. Students interested in the realities of modern litigation can pursue a curriculum offered by the Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program that culminates in a “capstone” course, where a small group works closely with a faculty expert to study disputing. And students interested in international law practice can enroll in our International Law Practice Lab, where they do legal work for actual clients – e.g., the State Department, the Iraqi High Tribunal, the Sierra Leone Special Court, and so on -- under the tutelage of Professor Mike Newton. Many of these students will go on to do supervised externships – either during the semester or in one of their summers – all over the world.

These are just some of many examples.

TLS: Recent major additions to Vanderbilt's programs are the Cecil D. Branstetter Civil Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program, the law and business certificate, and the first-of-its-kind Ph.D. in Law and Economics. Are there any other areas where Vanderbilt is seeking to expand its programs?

We want to continue to provide the best general legal education we can provide while offering students with specific academic interests the opportunity to give expression to those interests while in school. Our current array of programs afford students that opportunity.

TLS: Vanderbilt is proud of its “Distinguished Lecture Series,” a collection of talks that addresses many different areas of law, including international law and health policy. Could you discuss these lectures in greater detail?

We want our students to have a rich intellectual life, both inside and outside the classroom. We ensure that this happens in a variety of ways, one of which is through endowed lectures. In recent years, we have brought many prominent lawyers, academics, and judges – including Justices O’Connor and Scalia – to the Law School to talk with our students.

TLS: Vanderbilt offers many different joint degree programs. What are some of the reasons a student might chose to pursue a joint degree? What job opportunities does a joint degree from Vanderbilt open up? Could you briefly describe Vanderbilt’s interesting “customized joint-degree” program.

We do offer a number of joint degree programs, including well-established programs with the business school, divinity school, and medical school. We also allow students with multi-disciplinary interests to design their own joint degree programs (subject to our approval, of course) to enable them to couple their study of law with the study of a companion field where we haven’t established a formal joint degree program.

Many of our joint-degree students pursue careers in law and report that their sustained study of another discipline has enriched their law practice. Students who pursue a JD/MBA and then practice transactional law often find their business education quite helpful. Other joint-degree students pursue careers in their other fields and report that they find that their legal training gives them an edge in those fields, either because of the general reasoning, researching, writing, and advocacy skills they developed in law school or because of the substantive legal knowledge they learned.

TLS: What are some of the clinics that Vanderbilt is most proud of?

Vanderbilt is proud of the diversity and breadth of its clinical program. We are able to provide our students with in-house clinical experience in both litigation and transactional practice. Even within the litigation model, our students represent clients in civil, criminal, and appellate courts as well as in administrative hearings. We also have an International Law Practice Lab in which students work with lawyers on active matters arising in public international law. The goal of all of these clinical programs is to allow students to mesh the procedural and substantive law that they learned in law school, to confront the realities of solving legal problems in the context of real world situations, and to learn how to develop a relationship with and counsel a client. We operate our clinical program as one law firm, which allows, encourages, and even sometimes requires our students to speak with and learn from students and faculty who are engaged in all of the clinical courses.

TLS: Can you please describe some public service opportunities at Vanderbilt, such as the Vanderbilt Law School Public Service Initiative?

The Law School aims to support students who seek to engage in public service, either as a full-time career choice or as part of their personal commitment to assisting their communities. We generously support a stipend program, which provides financial assistance to students who spend their summers working in otherwise unpaid governmental or not-for-profit legal offices throughout the United States and around the world. We also pay for our students to attend public interest job fairs so that they might interview with employers who do not visit campus. And just last year we began the Public Service Initiative through which we are providing financial support to students who are beginning their careers in public service positions by volunteering at those public interest or governmental offices.

Our students have initiated public interest programs as well. For the past twenty years, they have raised significant funds for our stipend program. And just last year, the students introduced a Pro Bono pledge which allows incoming students to commit to seventy five hours of pro bono work during their law school career. It has been quite a success.

TLS: Could you talk a bit about the “Vanderbilt in Venice” program?

The six-week summer program brings together a small group of law students and four professors to study selected international and comparative law topics. Classes are held in a 500-year-old palace with the modern conveniences of air-conditioning, a computer lab, and wireless internet access. Four courses (2 credits each) are offered. The summer 2010 courses are likely to include Comparative Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism, European Union Law, International Law: The International Arbitral Process, and Islamic Law.

TLS: Vanderbilt enjoys a high ranking in the US News and World Report Law School Rankings, which improved during the tenure of your predecessor. How important do you feel the rankings are, and what are your thoughts on the rankings in general?

We know that applicants look to the rankings when deciding where to apply and enroll, so I think every law school pays at least some attention to them. As a consequence, the rankings have influenced the way many law schools behave. Some of these influences have worked to the benefit of students. I believe, for example, that some law schools have invested more heavily in scholarship aid and career services than they otherwise would have because of the rankings. Other influences have been less salutatory. I believe, for example, that some law schools have over-invested in marketing materials and adopted some less-than-ideal admissions practices due to the rankings.

I think the rankings provide some meaningful information at the extremes. If you asked knowledgeable observers to rank the top 20 or so law schools based on their honest assessment of quality, I think you would find pretty widespread agreement about the schools that are in that group. Likewise, if you ranked law schools based solely on observable and objective data (e.g., median LSAT and GPA of entering students, mean citations counts of faculty on a per capita basis, etc), you would also find a pretty high correlation between the top 20 schools ranked that way and the top 20 or so schools in the U.S. News rankings. Once you try to assign a particular numerical rank – e.g., placing one school at number 7 and another at number 9 – and once you try to rank-order schools in the middle of the distribution, I think the rankings break down a bit and become less meaningful measures of quality or prestige.

As I mentioned earlier, I think students should focus on the experience a law school promises to provide them and the opportunities the school is likely to make available to them when they graduate rather than on the rankings.

TLS: Finally, do you have any parting words of wisdom for members either about succeeding in law school or in the legal profession?

Yes, I do.

First, don’t lose sight of the fact that law is a noble profession. Most of what we do as a society would be impossible without the rule of law, and lawyers enforce it. Lawyers are disproportionately represented in the legislative branch (roughly ½ of the senate and 1/3 of the house); often lead the executive branch (most presidents have been lawyers); and constitute the entire judicial branch. Lawyers perform valuable services to the public as legal aid lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, and so forth. And in the private sector, lawyers provide peace – by helping parties resolve those rare disputes they are unable to resolve on their own – and prosperity – by helping parties put together those rare deals they are unable to put together on their own. You should be proud of your choice to pursue legal education and a career in law.

Second, expect change. Even if you work in the same place of employment, your roles and responsibilities will change over time. More likely, you will work for more than one employer, and your jobs might look very different over time – from judicial clerk to law firm associate in a big firm to partner in a small firm to in-house counsel to general management position and so on. Embrace this, and understand that the foundational skills you develop in law school will help you navigate these inevitable changes successfully. One of the virtues of legal training is that it equips you to pursue so many different career paths successfully.

Finally, develop other skills that might enrich your legal career(s). Learn a foreign language. Learn a little something about balance sheets. Keep your computer skills up. In short, diversify!

Thank you, Ken, for inviting me to interview. As I hope I have made clear, I am very proud of the Law School and feel very fortunate to be a member of the Vanderbilt community.