Interview with Dean Doug Blaze of the University of Tennessee - Knoxville College of Law

Published September 2009 would like to thank Dean Doug Blaze for answering questions regarding the University of Tennessee - Knoxville College of Law.

TLS: How would you describe the ideal candidate for The University of Tennessee College of Law?

We look for engaged, motivated, bright people that bring something special to the law school in terms of background, experience, education, perspective, or plans for using their legal training.

TLS: Do you have any advice for students preparing to apply to law school? What about for admitted students to prepare for their first year at Tennessee?

Get a broad undergraduate education and lots of different pre-law school experiences so that you can bring a breadth of perspective to the classroom and your course work. Have fun, enjoy life, and keeping doing so once you are here.

TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?

What is the real mission of the school? What are the strengths of the faculty? And what is the law school “community” like? Look for a school that is committed to educating and training students as effectively as possible to be professionals, that is lawyers, regardless of the student’s ultimate career path. The faculty, like those at Tennessee, should be influential scholars that use that expertise to be the best possible teachers. Carefully consider the cost of living and the location of the law school, both of which will significantly impact your experience. But, most important, three years is a long-time anywhere – so find a school that has a strong sense of community between faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

TLS: Why do you think students should choose Tennessee over other competitive law schools?

Because we do all the things I mentioned in #3 above – and we do them very well. I think we are one of the best law schools in the country at preparing and training our students to be effective lawyers when then graduate. We strive to produce lawyers that can hit the ground running. That translates to job opportunities and better and more successful careers. We are very committed to the best in experiential learning opportunities through our curricular concentrations, clinical programs, and field placements. But the same teaching methods are used throughout our curriculum to connect legal theory with practical application.

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

Our clinical programs are a real strength and have been for over sixty years (making our program the oldest clinical program in the nation). And we have built on that strength in our business and advocacy curricular concentrations. But most important we have integrated experiential learning and problem-solving pedagogy throughout our curriculum. A reflection of that commitment is the fact that our dean (me) directed our clinical programs for well over twelve years. Our faculty is committed to effective legal training through a variety of teaching methods and experiences.

TLS: Since becoming Dean, what changes or developments within the law school are you particularly proud of?

It has been a fast-paced first year for all of us. But we have made remarkable progress. But most of it has been building on our strengths, including connecting with and involving our alumni and expanding our clinical programs. Most recently, we have announced creation of an Access to Justice Coordinator to help make our very successful student pro bono program even better. We also are developing a mentoring program that will match every entering student with a mentor from the practicing bar. Finally, we have managed to stay as affordable as possible in a challenging economy through limited tuition increases and greater scholarship spending.

TLS: Do you have any goals for the law school to achieve in the next 5 to 10 years – either large scale or small?

First, I want to do everything possible to make sure Tennessee remains accessible and affordable to the types of students I described above. So we are working hard to increase our scholarship resources for students. Second, we want to make sure that our students get the best legal education possible – in other words, we need to make sure we continue to improve our innovative curriculum to keep up with the changing legal profession. Finally, we are committed to working to expand career opportunities for our graduates so that we continue to have over 95% of our students employed soon after the bar results are released.

TLS: Will the recent economic downturn greatly impact your goals? How has the state of Tennessee in particular and more specifically its legal market weathered the recession?

So far so good. We have had an impact on hiring of our graduates to be sure, but it has been significantly limited by the hard work of our career services staff. Graduates have had to be more flexible in terms of location and area of interest, but have remained successful in finding jobs. Tennessee and the surrounding region, which is where a significant number of our students are looking for jobs, historically has not suffered as severely in time of economic stress – but it takes the state a little longer to fully recover.

TLS: Are there any particular areas where you are looking to expand the faculty or curriculum at Tennessee Law?

First, we want to build on out strength of effectively connecting theory and practice by expanding our clinical offerings. And I anticipate hiring new clinical faculty over the next couple years. We also are working to expand our legal writing faculty because we believe that full-time faculty should be teaching that essential skill set. We have expanded our international and intellectual property offerings over the past few years. We have also been talking about expanding our heath care and sports/entertainment law curriculum.

TLS: What are your thoughts on the U.S. News Law School Rankings?

Just do the right things. In other words, if a school works hard at providing a very high quality and affordable legal education, the rankings will take care of themselves – or the rankings aren’t meaningful. Our focus is, and should be, on being the law school we can possibly be.

TLS: Can you speak about the clinical programs at your law school?

I have been already, which is not surprising since I am a clinician. We have an exceptional clinical program – the oldest, continuously operating law school clinic in the country. We have a wide range of clinical offerings including juvenile, housing, immigration, environmental, business transactions, mediation, and domestic violence. We have just added a new wills clinic and an education law practicum. We also have externship programs in the state prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s office. Next year we will add a new placement at the US Attorney’s Office. So we have incredible breadth and serve every student that is interested in a clinical experience.

TLS: How does Law Review and other journal selection work at your law school?

All three of our journals (Tennessee Law Review, Transactions, and Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy) make their staff selection based on a bluebook exam and a writing assignment involving the need to synopsize a recent case. The selections are made y the incoming editorial boards of the respective journals.

TLS: How does Tennessee regard prior military service when evaluating an applicant’s application? What about post-collegiate service commitments such as Teach For America, Peace Corps, or other AmeriCorps programs?

The Volunteer school nickname is pretty indicative of the value this university places on giving back, and the law school is no exception. Civic, community, military and other types of service are valued in the admission process and characterize our students and faculty. If you could read a summary of the qualifications of our students, you would be amazed at the breadth and depth of their experiences that involve helping others. Our students come here as accomplished citizens already, and leave here as alumni with even more skills to use in their personal and professional lives.

TLS: What do you think students enjoy most about the University of Tennessee -Knoxville?

Besides the terrific legal education, there is something for everyone and we have a great sense of community. East Tennessee is beautiful, especially in the fall and spring. We have wonderful outdoor opportunities. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 45 minutes away. The music scene in Knoxville is remarkable. At the university and law school we have every student organization imaginable. Our students are competitive like all law students, but are still supportive of each other and want everyone to succeed. The faculty members all have an open door policy and truly care about students. Oh yea – and we have great football and basketball.

TLS: How is the law school adapting to the changing legal market? Will there be any changes to the OCI process or career services?

I think we are in a very fortunate position, quite honestly. Our students' career interests are diversified - they want to work in many locations and across all job settings - so the changing landscape in the largest firms in the largest markets has not hurt our employment outcomes significantly so far. But we are making sure that our students are well informed about the current crisis in legal hiring, that they recognize that more change lies ahead, and that they understand the implications for their individual job searches. They know to expect more competition for fewer jobs. But we also have loyal alumni and employers, who recognize that talented UT graduates will be immediately effective in their places of work, supporting our recruiting programs.

TLS: What do students typically do during their 1L and 2L summers?

You name it. Some take summer school classes. We try to offer some of the required upper level courses – professional responsibility and constitutional law – as well as clinics and field placements each summer. Many get jobs with firms or agencies. We also have a very successful fellowship program for students working in public interest jobs, such as legal services. We provide stipends to those students to try and minimize the financial impact of doing volunteer legal work. Other students participate in our summer programs at Cambridge and in Rio de Janeiro.

TLS: Can you describe the general culture of Tennessee Law?

We are a close community – students, faculty, and staff. Our students are competitive like all law students, but are still supportive of each other and want everyone to succeed. The faculty members all have an open door policy and truly care about students. And our staff is committed to the student’s success. So it is a challenging but relaxed learning environment. You have to work hard to be sure, but we also help moderate the stress of the experience. And it is a culture of involvement. We have lots of student organizations, a great pro bono program, wonderful speakers, and a host of similar opportunities.

TLS: Can you offer any general advice to TLS members on succeeding in the law school application process, while in law school, and in their legal careers?

Find your passion. In terms of applications, really let the admissions committee members know why you want to go to law school. During school find the part of the curriculum that really gets you excited. And then early in your career be flexible but find that part of the practice, business or other work environment that feeds your passion and pursue it.

TLS: University of Tennessee graduates face a lot of competition from Vanderbilt graduates for legal jobs in Nashville and around the state. For students who want to ‘stay local,’ how do you suggest they maximize their odds of competing successfully against the graduates of such an elite school?

I think the quality of our student and the education they receive here is all they need. We don’t find that our students are at a disadvantage in competing for jobs in Nashville or elsewhere in Tennessee with students from any other law school. And we have alumni in virtually every firm of any size all across the state and southeast.

TLS: Are you concerned about UT’s recent dip in the rankings? Why or why not?

I am not concerned. If the ranking reflected some drop or failure, I would be. But our program, faculty, and students truly get better every year. So I am pretty confident that if the rankings really do measure the quality of a law school, the dip will be short lived.