Interview with Former Dean Earl Martin of Gonzaga University School of Law

Published November 2009 thanks Dean Earl Martin of Gonzaga University School of Law for providing TLS with this exclusive and informative interview.

TLS: How would you describe the ideal candidate for Gonzaga Law?

The ideal candidate for admission to our law school possesses a desire, and the capacity, to successfully engage a rigorous program of academic study. We are looking for students who will both excel in our program individually and contribute to the success of their classmates. Additionally, we want law students who are willing to be challenged by an innovative new curriculum which places emphasis on practical skills training and professionalism. Finally, we are always interested in recruiting individuals who are motivated by the values of public service and social justice that exemplify the Jesuit mission of Gonzaga University.

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 Gonzaga Law?

Potential law students should first define for themselves why they want to attend law school and what it is they hope to obtain from the experience. Securing a legal education is a major investment in time and money, and applicants must be certain that the cost makes sense to them. This exercise will also help shape the choice of school, as an applicant determines whether it is a particular academic program, geographic region, or ranking that motivates the decision of what schools to consider.

Students preparing for their first year at Gonzaga should spend time thinking about how they hope to define themselves as lawyers. This is not so much a question of what type of law you will practice, but rather what type of lawyer you will be. Professionalism and ethics shape all decisions made at Gonzaga School of Law and we encourage our students to define themselves by those values and habits.

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

As I touched on above, I would encourage all students to define why they want to attend law school and what they hope to obtain from the experience. This decision is different for each person and can help determine the appropriate school. In general, I would encourage every candidate to consider the size of the school, the student/faculty ratio, the strength of the faculty and the academic program, and whether the school offers a particular program that may be of interest. As a precursor to the next question, I also recommend examining the tradition of the school and its mission statement.

TLS: Some applicants have questions about how the religious affiliation Gonzaga has affects the academics and culture. What impact do you feel Gonzaga’s Jesuit roots have on the school? Can you describe the culture at Gonzaga?

Gonzaga law school’s Jesuit ethos is best exemplified by the school’s commitment to public service, social justice, and the common good. This ethos demands that the Gonzaga experience include the exploration of ideas, questions, and professional identity that go beyond the simple transfer of knowledge to an individual. These practices exemplify the Jesuit mission of educating the “whole person” and enhance the development of leadership qualities that advance the career objectives of students, regardless of their chosen field of law, while also enabling them to make constructive contributions to their communities. It is this attention to the development of every student, regardless of religion or faith tradition, that defines the culture at Gonzaga.

TLS: The Thomas More Scholarship Program seems like a very appealing scholarship for students interested in going into public interest work. What are the benefits of the program? What requirements are there for the program before, during, and after law school?

Thomas More Scholarship students are awarded a full-tuition scholarship so that they may pursue careers in public service without the burden of substantial law school debt. The program, however, is much more than a scholarship. Thomas More Scholars benefit from a community of fellow students and faculty dedicated to serving the public interest through law. One of the primary goals of this community is to help scholars build the skills and experience they need to meet their career goals. For example, Thomas More Scholars strengthen their leadership skills through planning and executing public service activities, such as the Street Law outreach program for local high school students initiated by Thomas More Scholars this year. Scholars also meet regularly with their faculty advisor, Thomas More alumni and other public service lawyers in the community to learn about internship opportunities, career paths in public service law, and the reality of public service lawyering.

There are no specific requirements for students prior to applying for a Thomas More Scholarship. Applicants for the program should, however, be able to demonstrate a record of academic achievement, as well as a commitment to improving the welfare of others through a history of volunteer service and other activities.

During law school, Thomas More Scholars must meet the following requirements:

  • Maintain the same minimum cumulative GPA required of all other law school academic merit scholarships.
  • Actively serve the law school student body or the inland northwest community by completing at least twenty hours each academic year in service to one or more student organizations or in general volunteer public service. Scholars are encouraged to work with a group that reflects their public service career goals and to strive for a leadership position within their selected group.
  • For the 3L scholars, plan and execute public service programs for the law school community; for the 1L and 2L scholars, participate in these service projects.
  • Participate in at least one academic extracurricular activity per academic year, including, among other opportunities, the Gonzaga Law Review, the Gonzaga Journal of International Law, and various moot court and other student competitions.
  • Complete a minimum of 240 hours of attorney-supervised pro bono legal work to provide experience in a field of law that the scholar wishes to pursue as a career.
  • Restrict paid employment to working with traditionally disadvantaged people or with a local, state, tribal or national entity.
  • Take at least two of a list of classes with a substantive focus on traditionally disadvantaged groups and other underserved populations, depending on the scholar’s own interests and career goals.
  • Attend potlucks, meetings and leadership seminars sponsored by the program.
  • Represent the Thomas More Scholarship Program at school-sponsored events.

Thomas More Scholars graduating in 2013 or later are expected to perform at least three years of full-time public service work within the first five years following graduation. Public service work includes employment devoted to working for traditionally disadvantaged people, as well as employment for a local, state, tribal or national entity. There also is an informal tradition that Thomas More graduates make themselves available to discuss public service law with current Thomas More Scholars seeking information, and that graduates donate to help sustain the program when they are financially capable of doing so.

TLS: Gonzaga has a 30-hour public service requirement in order for students to graduate. How have students traditionally fulfilled this requirement?

For purposes of the graduation requirement the term “public service” is broadly interpreted and encompasses both traditional pro bono legal work and a broad range of volunteer charitable and community work. Students have traditionally fulfilled this requirement by working with legal service providers, environmental organizations, religious charities, and a wide variety of other organizations. Many student groups at Gonzaga organize public service activities.

TLS: The ABA reported that Gonzaga placed 13% of its class in clerkships. Where were the majority of these clerkships and with what type of courts?

The majority of these clerkships were within the Western region of the United States and included state courts and federal courts. Examples of placements include the Washington, Idaho, and Nevada Supreme Courts, and the Federal District Courts in Texas, Nevada, Alaska, Idaho, and Utah.

TLS: What goals do you have for the law school over the next 5 to 10 years – either large scale or small? Will the recent economic downturn have any effect on those goals?

My two primary goals are to grow the law school’s endowment and to expand the institution’s presence in the international arena. The first goal grows out of the fact that our law school is primarily a tuition-driven institution. While this has left us in a better position that many of the endowment funded law schools across the country over the last year, the long-term health of the place depends on increasing the amount of external funding available to the program. The economic downturn that we have experienced has obvious implications for fundraising expectations going forward.

For over half a millennium, the Society of Jesus has been bringing education to the world’s people. The execution of this mission over such a long period of time has made the Jesuit brand of education a highly valued experience around the globe. The reality of this means that opportunities exist for our law school to expand its presence in the international arena in ways that will enhance our students’ education and our faculty’s professional development activities, and extend our excellent program of legal education far beyond the boundaries of Spokane, Washington. Recent outreach of this type has resulted in five students from the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, China, joining our first year class for the current academic year and an exchange of faculty between our institution and a law school in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I see these initial results as just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be accomplished by our school going forward.

TLS: What are your thoughts on the U.S. News Law School rankings? What factors do you think it fails to take into account that potentially hurt Gonzaga’s position in the rankings?

Although the U.S. News and World Report ranking of law schools tends to get attention beyond what is justified, especially by law school applicants, it does serve the valid purpose of gathering important information about law schools in a single place and presenting that information in a somewhat easy to understand format. The central critique of the ranking is, of course, that it is impossible to capture the true experience of a place in any compilation of statistics and reputational scores. For example, I can say with great confidence that our faculty members are some of the best law teachers in this country. They invest a great deal of time and energy in trying to reach each student through a variety of teaching methods, and they make themselves available to their students outside of class to a much greater degree than I have witnessed at other institutions. The factors used by USNWR do not, and really cannot, adequately account for the value that this culture of teaching excellence returns to our students.

TLS: Many applicants perceive law schools as “playing a numbers game,” in order to gain spots in the U.S. News Rankings. Do you believe improving a school in general is different than working to improve a school’s ranking? What is Gonzaga doing to improve the experience it provides its students?

We really don’t spend much time at all worrying about improving our position in the USNWR rankings. Rather, we try to stay focused on delivering on our mission promise of providing our students with an excellent legal education. In recent years that has translated into a lot of innovation that has been driven by the desire to improve the quality of the experience that our students have across our entire program. Two prime examples of change that has been embraced for this reason are the intentional reduction in our student population and the way in which we have reformed our curriculum. I will talk about each of these, in turn.

Over two years ago we committed ourselves to reducing our population from a student body of 600 to one of 475. We are presently in the middle of this effort, with our current student body hovering around 530. This reduction in size was explicitly done for the sake of the quality of our program. Being less dependent on the quantity of 1Ls that we enroll means that we can be more selective on those measures that define quality for our school’s entering students. Understanding the critical role that law students play in the collective educational experience of the overall program, matriculating more talented and qualified students has a direct positive effect on the experience that is offered to everyone. Additionally, the decrease in our student population means that our faculty members have more time to work with students on projects and to engage with them outside of class.

Another major improvement that we recently made in our program is to reform our curriculum. Our fall 2009 entering class is experiencing a program that is very different that what has been offered at Gonzaga in the past. Our first year curriculum, often the hardest part of any law school program to change, has been revised in ways that upset decades of practice at the school. The second year curriculum has both lost and gained required credits, while the third year was left largely untouched except for the requirement that all students have to earn three credits in the law school’s clinic or through its externship program. In all these instances the revisions were adopted to serve the goals of improving our students’ acquisition of the substantive knowledge and legal skills they will need to be competent advocates, and to inculcate them with the professional values that will make them ethical advisors for their clients.

Our revised first year program includes six doctrinal courses totaling twenty-two credit hours, four credits hours of LRW, and four credit hours split evenly between two new Skills and Professionalism Labs. The six doctrinal courses are Civil Procedure, Contracts, Property, Torts, Criminal Law, and Perspectives on the Law. The first four courses have converted from five credits, two semester courses to four credits, one semester courses. The Perspectives course is new and has been added to the fall semester, and Criminal Law has been moved from its traditional place in the fall semester to the spring. Our two LRW classes in the first year remain largely undisturbed with the change from the old to new curriculum.

The most significant change in the first year program is the addition of two new Skills and Professionalism Labs. These labs are bundled with two doctrinal courses each semester and will focus on skills sets that are needed in two broad areas of practice. In addition, the labs emphasize the professional values and habits that provide a foundation for the ethical practice of law.

During the fall semester of the first year Gonzaga students now take a two credit Skills and Professionalism Lab that uses the rules of Civil Procedure and the substantive law of Torts to teach the students the skills they need to be litigators. During the spring semester, the students will take a two credit Skills and Professionalism Lab that will use the substantive law of Contracts and Property to teach the students the skills they need to be transactional lawyers. Each of these labs will be small sections of no more than thirty students and will be taught by a full-time or adjunct faculty member. The labs will work from a common curriculum that has been developed in direct coordination with the content that is covered in their associated doctrinal courses. In this way, the labs can both affirm and supplement the subject matter coverage that takes place in those courses.

The most significant change in the second year curriculum is the expansion and revision of two LRW (Legal Research and Writing) classes. In keeping with the theme of the first year curriculum revisions of breaking down silos within the academic program, LRW III and IV will be reconstituted so that these courses build upon not only what the students learned in their first two LRW classes, but also upon what the students will have covered in their two Skills and Professionalism Labs. Following on the first year, fall semester Litigation Skills and Professionalism Lab, LRW III will focus on the research and writing skills that lawyers need for a litigation practice. Similarly, in the spring semester of the second year, LRW IV will follow the Transactional Skills and Professionalism Lab through assignments that require students to produce a variety of transactional documents.

The only change in the law school’s third year curriculum is the requirement that all students earn at least three credits in either the school’s clinic or in the externship program. The law school offers in-house clinics in family law, elder law, Indian and tribal law, consumer law, business law, civil rights law, environmental law, and other public interest issues. The externship program places students with governmental agencies and non-profit organizations, including the district attorney, public defender, judges, and public interest groups. The impetus behind this change is to ensure that each student graduates with some experience of having to apply their classroom knowledge and simulated skill set in an actual law practice setting.

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

The selection process for both the Gonzaga Law Review and the Gonzaga Journal of International Law are “write-on” competitions. Any student meeting the minimum GPA requirement is eligible to complete an application and prepare a submission to be scored by the editorial board of the relevant publication.

TLS: What do students typically do during their 1L and 2L summers? Roughly what percentage of those students end up doing work outside of Washington and Idaho?

Gonzaga law students work in a variety of summer positions in law firms, government agencies, and public service organizations. Normally, approximately 30%-40% of the student population spends their summers in states other than Washington or Idaho. In addition to working for pay, many of our students participate in our summer externship program (between 35-50 students each of the last 3 years), our law school clinic (around 25 to 35 students each summer) or attend our Gonzaga-in-Florence program (averaging 25 students the last 3 years).

TLS: How is the law school adapting to the changing legal market?

The legal market increasingly demands that students graduate not only with the ability to think analytically and spot legal issues in a fact pattern, but with concrete legal skills and the ability to perform the daily tasks that are required of an experienced lawyer, whether it is filing pleadings and motions or negotiating transactions and drafting contracts. Gonzaga is adapting to this changing market by requiring students to engage in experiential learning and increased skills training. The earlier discussion of our new curriculum explains, in detail, how we are helping our students gain the knowledge and skills they will need to become competent professionals and ethical advocates.

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?

As for the application process, the applicant wants to make sure that he or she is putting their best foot forward. The academic criteria, LSAT score and undergraduate GPA, are going to have the greatest influence on the outcome, so there is no shortcut for an individual doing the work necessary to get the best results possible on these measures. Beyond this, applicants should pay particular attention to their personal statement and letters of reference. The former must be in excellent technical form and should present an authentic case for why the applicant wants to pursue a legal education. The latter should come from references that can speak from personal experience with the applicant and state how the applicant’s interests and talents will enable him or her to succeed in law school.

Success in law school and in a legal career largely depends on the same set of habits. The first of these is a good work ethic. Both law school and law practice are hard work. You cannot succeed in either without putting in the time required to master a subject area or case in controversy. A second necessary habit is a commitment to be a life-long learner. Of course, in law school the need to demonstrate the fact that you are learning is at the heart of being assessed as a student. Similarly, given the ever evolving and expanding nature of the law as a body of knowledge, the successful lawyer must continue to learn the law throughout his or her professional life. A final habit that the successful law student and lawyer must develop is the ability to deal with the anxiety and stress that are a part of a life in the law. An unhappy law student or lawyer is inevitably going to struggle in their respective environments. It is incumbent upon each person to have a strategy for how he or she is going to manage the demands of law study and practice without the same impinging upon their emotional and mental health.

Dean Earl Martin, thank you for this very informative interview about Gonzaga University School of Law.