Dean Limelight: Patricia E. Salkin, Touro College Law Center

TOURO SALKI2If there is one subject in which Patricia Salkin is fluent – even more, perhaps, than the land use laws on which she is an expert and the intersection of law and governmental affairs where her experience is longstanding – it’s the lives and life stories of her students at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center.

And if there is one thing that infuriates and energizes Salkin, the dean, it’s that the data used to recommend a law school (or not) don’t reflect the true quality of the education her students receive and the opportunities available to them.

“The fact is that many of our part-time day and evening students are older, parents — often single parents, holding down jobs and trying to raise their children and support their families while they are studying at home for the bar exam,” Salkin said in a telephone interview.  “No wonder it made a difference to their results when we raised enough money to pay for babysitters, so they could at least study free from distractions, and take test-prep courses they couldn’t otherwise afford.

The result was that the bar-pass rate of Touro graduates was among only a handful in New York State to improve in July, bucking the precipitous fall in exam pass-rates state- and nationwide.

It was a poignant victory for Salkin, a graduate of the State University at Albany who earned her juris doctorate at Albany Law School of Union University and has spent the bulk of her academic career there. It suited her well, she said:  “Albany is the state capital and I’ve always wanted to be in the place where law and public policy meet.”

Early on she positioned herself as a leader at the nexus of land use and zoning laws and policies, where her extensive scholarship and advisory roles have secured her a national reputation.

She has also held a score of leadership positions with the American Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association, with many of the posts focusing on municipal law, government affairs or matters related to legal education and the profession. Then there is her longstanding commitment to advancing the status of women in the legal profession, evidenced in her writing, speeches and her work as a member of several women’s bar associations.

LAWDRAGON: Why did you decide to attend law school?

PATRICIA E. SALKIN: Everything in my educational and extra-curricular background from high school on seems to have pushed me in the direction of law school, with its opportunities for advocacy and involvement in public policy.

I was involved, for example, in both school politics – student government, high school and college – and local politics, where I worked campaigns for family court judge in both high school and college. And yes, both of my candidates won (Rockland County, N.Y., and Albany, N.Y.). While in high school, I also worked at my uncle’s law firm for academic credit. That’s where I essentially learned how to do legal research; where I actually wrote a memorandum of law on a DWI (driving while intoxicated) case; where I learned how to use the law books before online legal research.

Around that same time, I was researching and writing a paper for my AP history class on prayer in public school, which meant spending time digging into law books in the Pace University Law School library, the closest law school to my home. I found that I loved the ability to use words effectively, and learned that as an advocate you can affect how laws are made and applied.

Drawn to government and politics, I saw law as a calling that would enable me not just to help one person at a time, which is critically important and what most lawyers do, but to help create and, when necessary, reform the laws by which we all live.

LD: You chose to attend both undergraduate and graduate schools in Albany. What drew you there?   

PES: It was my interest in government that made attending school in the state capital an obvious choice. In college, I was able to secure an internship in the consumer fraud division of the Attorney General’s Office when Robert Abrams was A.G.

Through opportunities at Rockefeller College, part of the University at Albany, I was able to spend a summer in Washington, D.C., working on the Hill for now former Republican U.S. Rep. Benjamin Gilman.

I also interned in state government with the late Sen. Charles D. Cook, who chaired the local government committee and the commission on rural resources. It was an amazing experience that, I believe, shaped the rest of my career – in part because we were open and honest with each other about our respective politics: I was an active Democrat who was president of the College Democrats and a Committeeperson for the Town of Guilderland, where my dorm room was located, and he was a Republican lawmaker. The result is that we were able to develop a mutually respectful relationship that lasted many years.

He actually appointed me, a young lawyer, to the land use advisory committee of the legislative commission on resources. This committee was responsible for modernizing the planning and zoning enabling acts in the state. Just out of law school, I had the opportunity of a lifetime for a person passionate about land use law and policy.

LD: What drew you into the field of legal academia?

PES: While in law school I worked for state government in the executive branch.  Drawn to state service when Mario Cuomo was governor, I worked at the New York State Department of State, which is the community affairs agency working on, among other things, local government, land use and coastal issues. I worked at the State Office of Rural Affairs both during and after law school. Less than two years later, I was presented with the opportunity to join the Government Law Center at Albany Law School. The center was my home for more than 20 years as I moved from assistant director to director, and eventually to associate dean and a named distinguished professorship.

LD: What interested you in becoming a law dean?

PES: After years of working with governments at all levels to develop laws and regulations that would enhance people’s lives and affect our society, I was drawn to using the same skills I had developed in the public policy arena to address the crisis in the legal profession and legal education. At the time, I had spent 22 years at a law school-based think tank working on the legal aspects of public policy reform. I loved the challenge of responding to contemporary law and policy problems by creatively finding solutions to make laws and regulations work better and to achieve their intended results for society.

I realized that administrators, faculty and staff at law schools need to change the way we do business and how we educate students to ensure that they are valuable and prepared for the changing profession. I am energized by the opportunities to be a leader in reforming legal education to meet the challenges of law practice not only today but in the future.

LD: Is there anything you wish you knew before you took the job as dean?

PES: It may be corny, but it is sincere. I wish I knew earlier in my career how much I would enjoy and be energized by the opportunity to lead the right law school. I might have done it years ago.

That said, I am also a realist, and I know that my positive experience at Touro is shaped in large part by the people who make Touro Law Center what it is. I am fortunate to be working with a faculty and staff who are passionate and dedicated to the power of legal education, social justice and making a difference. It is a true team in every sense of the word. The alumni engagement is strong and the support from the local/regional legal community has been consistently outstanding.

LD: What, if anything, surprised you when you became dean of Touro Law?

PES: I came from a private, independent school, which meant that for more than 20 years there was no university-based central administration in my world. I had heard anecdotal stories from colleagues around the country – and I’d read some news accounts – leading me to believe that law school deans might be at odds with college presidents when it came to support and investment in the law school. I have been pleasantly surprised and appreciative to experience the exact opposite at Touro.

The college president, Dr. Alan Kadish, has stepped up his support of the Law Center as the crisis in legal education heated up. During the time I’ve been here, not only has the law school not been viewed as the college’s proverbial “cash cow,” but we have benefitted and are thriving in part because of the college’s increased support.

I have also been impressed and surprised that so many other graduate schools within the college – such as social welfare, business, medicine, public health, pharmacy and education – have an interest in developing partnerships with the law school. We have been working on a number of interdisciplinary efforts as a result.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

PES: Touro is the only law school in the U.S. that houses approximately a dozen community-based legal service agencies in the building – in our Public Advocacy Center. The center provides incredible synergies and unique opportunities for hands-on learning by students, exposing them to the legal challenges faced by members of the local community and enabling them to fulfill their commitment to pro bono at the same time.

In addition, what I call our “courthouse campus” provides students with unprecedented access to both the federal and the state courthouses a short stroll from our front door. When we moved to our new law school facility in 2007, our faculty redesigned the curriculum to immediately integrate the courthouse opportunities with classroom learning. Our students, for example, meet everyone in both courthouses. They know all the players, who they are and what they do, and how the court segment of the justice system works.

Today, our new Portals to Practice strategic plan provides an exciting, cutting-edge road map for students to ensure practice-ready law graduates who are capable and confident in serving the needs of their clients and ensuring access to justice.

All Touro Law first-year students participate in a pro bono program where they work with unrepresented litigants seeking uncontested divorces. Through the exposure to live litigants, students develop counseling skills, somewhat akin to a doctor’s bedside manner, when dealing with people in crisis who also often distrust the legal system. By the way, the program is being expanded next year to include landlord/tenant cases.

Touro Law has launched new institutes and concentrations over the past 18 months. These areas of specialty were established based on employment trends, ensuring our students are best prepared to meet the needs of the shifting job market upon graduation. For example, our Aging and Longevity Law Institute addresses the fact that in the year 2030, according to according to the U.S. Administration on Aging, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15 in the U.S. Touro Law students have opportunities to focus study and gain experience to best serve the needs of our aging population.

Our Institute on Land Use and Sustainable Development Law responds to the challenges in our two-county region, home to more than 100 units of local government all engaged in significant land-use planning, zoning and environmental challenges.

In November 2013, Touro Law opened the pioneering Community Justice Center of Long Island, which is an incubator for start-up law firms where more than 12 alumni have set up their own individual law practices. The incubator setting provides our alumni with mentoring and guidance from an on-site experienced attorney and support from Touro Law faculty and staff.

In response to American Bar Association data indicating that approximately 70-75 percent of all lawyers practice in small and solo settings, the faculty has added a concentration in solo and small-firm practice. This will provide business and professionalism training for students who are interested in joining our incubator or paving their own way.

Touro Law students can earn their J.D. in two, three, four or five years. We also offer summer-abroad programs in Germany and Croatia and we are the only law school to host a summer-abroad program in Vietnam.

Our law school is further distinguished by being just one of two in the U.S. established under Jewish auspices. In the Jewish tradition, we close for all religious days of observance, close early on the Sabbath, and provide Kosher food service on campus. We also are home to a nationally recognized Jewish Law Institute.

LD: What are your biggest challenges as dean and how are you meeting them? 

PES: Balancing all of the demands on my time – spending time in the legal and business communities while attending important community events and meetings, being physically and mentally present and engaged in the daily operation of the law school, and continuing my own scholarship in the area of land use and sustainable development law while keeping my blog ( up-to-date. It’s also critical to make it a priority to stay current on trends in the legal profession and indicators about the future. I am a member of various associations and professional organizations, and I try to spend quality time with alumni and leaders in the profession.

The challenges for the law school are several and here at Touro, we – meaning the faculty, staff and administration – are meeting them together. There’s the changing environment for lawyers, for example, that will require our graduates to work very differently from lawyers of even the immediate past: Technology for them requires more than proficiency in word processing.

The digitization of the legal profession challenges newly minted lawyers to use technology to make our work go faster so that we can serve more clients in a more effective, cost-effective and efficient manner. I don’t mean making lawyers into automatons who treat clients at all cavalierly. I mean harnessing technology to improve legal research, for example, and opening to more people the access to justice they need and deserve.

To answer this challenge in the spring we’ve established a new online course for our students on lawyers and lawyering in the 21st century. As word is starting to get out about the course, alumni and lawyers in the community have said they’d like to take this course as well.

Lawyers today are forced to be more business-like in the practice of law, yet most people in law school have no business experience whatsoever; they have no educational background to run the business enterprise known as a law firm. Touro Law not only created a new concentration in solo and small-firm practice, which I mentioned, but we also are partnering with the graduate school of business so that students can earn an M.B.A. in a cost-effective manner after their J.D.

Many of our students – about 14 percent of our full-time students and 43 percent of our part-time students – are 30 years old or older and looking at law as a second, new career. Many students go to school in the evening after work, and/or after caring for their children or older parents. The school-life balance is hard for them to achieve, especially if they are single parents – and many of our students are.

With the economy as it is, and their family responsibilities clear, these people don’t have the luxury of being full-time law students with no demands on their time – or money – except studying for the bar exam.

Last year we raised money from alumni and friends specifically to help these students during bar prep. We provided grants for child care. Many new graduates studying for the bar exam find that at the precise time that they need to focus like never before, their kids are home from school for summer break. Most of the recent graduates can’t afford camp and summer daycare.

One thing I see at Touro Law that is different from other schools is what I refer to as the “heart and soul” aura. The Touro faculty, administration and staff, all know our students and their stories. This is a caring and nurturing environment in which to study law and pursue a passion. Few people know, for example, that our faculty and staff created the TLC Fund – literally “tender loving care” fund, a separate and independent nonprofit fund that provides stop-gap money to students who need immediate help paying the rent, a utility bill, an unexpected car repair or simply buying food.

LD: What about easing student indebtedness?

PES: Last year we raised more than $1 million in student scholarship support. We’re aiming to do the same this year. When I came here we had only three named, endowed scholarships, and they were awarded mostly based on class rank and grades. This was insufficient to address the growing crisis in affordable access to a legal education.

As a result, in the last year we created about 20 new endowed scholarships. Each is funded with as little as $25,000 to as much as $200,000. Scholarship criteria are established by the individual donors, most of which provide funding for students interested in particular subject areas (e.g. real estate, business law, family law, corporate law, land use, health-care law etc.)

LD: Are you seeing any trends in what your students do with their degrees?

PES: Yes, and Touro Law is responding accordingly. In addition to the new institutes and concentrations in Aging and Longevity Law, Land Use and Sustainable Development and Solo and Small Practice, we are further developing our criminal law offerings. We now offer several clinical offerings in the field and have a very active criminal law student organization.

Our student body is very diverse and very determined and focused. They tend to be successful in whichever area they decide to practice and meet the goals they set for themselves.

We do our best to help our graduates secure long-term employment in areas and settings that they desire. We don’t encourage them to take temporary jobs or accept employment in areas where they have no interest or passion just to improve our rankings. We invest in a lot of career counseling.

LD: What do you do outside the law school when you’re not being dean?

PES: The glib – and honest – answer is that I am always the dean. But, as for hobbies, I am a collector of political memorabilia.  My collection consists mostly of political pins with a heavy concentration of campaigns from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I also have some earlier gems.  I have an LP recording of Mario Cuomo’s keynote speech at the DNC and lots of fun hats, T-shirts, posters and other items.

My favorite place to unwind, relax and spend time with my family (and also focus on my own research and scholarship) is in the Berkshires. The most peaceful place is in my kayak on the water in the middle of spectacular scenery.

I actively write a blog called “Law of the Land” that has more than 2,000 followers. As an aside: I may be the only current law school dean who was once named in the Guiness Book of World Records for organizing the world’s largest game of musical chairs, with 5,060 participants, in 1985 at the University at Albany. The record was short-lived as another university beat it shortly thereafter. But I had my year in the book!

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or