Dean Limelight: Douglas J. Sylvester, Arizona State University Law

ASU Sylvester2The story of Douglas J. Sylvester, dean of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, comprises brinksmanship, gratefulness and the road nearly missed, but not for lack of trying.

Sylvester, a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, describes his student-self as the classic liberal arts major, deciding on a Ph.D. in history with its attendant life of poverty as he burrowed into a subject – the Medieval period – about which relatively few people cared.

Why law school? “I loved learning new things, but my undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto felt so unreal, except for the joint law and political science classes I took during my last two years,” he said in a telephone interview. “They made me realize that in law the matters you deal with affect real people: The unfairness, the injustice – it’s all real. I knew I’d love law school from day one.”

What he didn’t know is how pivotal to his career would be several discreet assists and a few lucky breaks. It is a career that, on the official CV, certainly looks conventionally distinguished:

Bigelow Fellow and Lecturer-in-Law at the University of Chicago, for example; Lecturer-in-Law at Northwestern University; attorney in the Global e-Commerce Practice Group at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, and clerk for U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins in Florida. More recently there were appointments as special consultant to the National Academy of Sciences panel charged with reforming the U.S. Census; an opportunity to teach nanotechnology and the law, the first time such a course was offered by full-time law faculty in the U.S., and appearances as an expert witness in cases involving licensing, intellectual property and technology.

“I grew up mainly in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the son of Canadian immigrants,” he said. “I enjoyed the University of Toronto but was not a stellar student by any means.” The University at Buffalo Law School, he said, was near home and accepted him. “I never regretted it, not for an instant,” he said. “I loved my classmates. Everyone was so smart and passionate. But what I mainly remember was how social and welcoming they all were. None of the stereotypes of law schools students, save perhaps for me, seemed true. That was also true of the faculty. I look back and can’t believe just how much of an interest the faculty took in our lives and, in my case, helping me to succeed despite my younger self.”


One faculty member in particular, Guyora Binder (currently SUNY Distinguished Professor and vice dean for research and faculty development) saw in him a budding teacher. “He showed me a path in legal academics,” Sylvester said. “I became his teaching and research assistant, and loved it. It wasn’t just my first taste of the academic life, it was the first time someone had taken the time beyond the classroom to truly ‘teach’ me. I carry that experience forward every chance I can. I don’t just want to teach our students in the classroom; I want to see what we can do in every aspect of their lives to help them achieve what their talent deserves.”

One problem for Sylvester’s new-found passion for teaching was that few Buffalo graduates became academics. “So I never saw my path as ‘I’m going to graduate and be an academic, just like that,” Sylvester said. “Many do have that view – that by virtue of their achievements and talent, a career as a law professor is the obvious, deserved, path. And for many that is true. But it was never true for me. Indeed, at many, many points, I truly believed that it wasn’t going to happen.”

He had good reason for this view. While he did well in law school, he didn’t find immediate success in the law, failing to secure an offer from his 2L summer clerkship firm. “I just didn’t know how to be a lawyer, how to be a mature professional. I was smart, but I was clueless,” he said.

There he was, a 3L with no job prospects. “That’s when Binder sat me down and said, ‘There is a way forward,’” Sylvester recalled. “He told me to get an LL.M. and apply for a federal clerkship – late in law school, as a 3L.” Even though a clerkship would mean a year between law school and his start date – with little prospect of employment – Sylvester took Binder’s advice and applied.

He sent out 300 clerkship applications to virtually every federal judge in the U.S. “I finished right near the top of my class – law review and all that. But I got three interviews with senior judges and one offer – and that one wouldn’t start for a year. So what did I do? Decided OK, I’ll put myself another $70,000 in debt getting my LL.M. at New York University School of Law.”

Half way through that program, Sylvester learned that the judge was canceling the clerkship. Another dead-end to a career as an academic loomed. “Then out of the blue, someone apparently convinced the judge to honor his original decision to hire me and stay on the bench for a few more years,” Sylvester said. “This all happened right as my LL.M was ending and, again, with no job as an attorney. I am so grateful to the judge for deciding to let me join his chambers after all and for those who intervened to convince him to stay on for a while longer.”


As Sylvester tells it, he loved his two years in Miami, Florida, with Judge Atkins, “a brilliant mind and wonderful mentor.” He became more convinced that academia was for him, but still saw no obvious way to get there. So he applied for visiting professorships and legal writing positions at every law school in the country.

“With just a few months left in my clerkship, all I had were more than 200 rejection letters from every law school in the country,” he said. “Then again, out of the blue, Binder called Dan Kahan at the University of Chicago, which had one opening for someone to be a Bigelow Fellow. I flew up, interviewed and got the job. Just as I was becoming convinced that legal academia wasn’t going to happen, the University of Chicago came calling.”

As that gig was ending, Sylvester ventured onto the law professor job market. Again he was left empty-handed. “I gave up on academia,” he said. “I was teaching at Chicago. I was no longer a Bigelow Fellow, but I was getting a Ph.D. It was crazy. I was earning $7,000 a year while my students were getting real, paying jobs with law firms. Seven years out of law school, I’d never made more than $35k in a year, often less than $10,000 and no prospect of an academic career. I figured it was time to make a change and take the bar.”

Even then, when Sylvester sent out his resumes to “hundreds of law firms,” he received nothing but rejections. That’s when one of Sylvester’s students at Chicago, Andy Cohen, who had an offer from Baker & McKenzie, recommended that the firm interview him. Sylvester, who was by now an expert in technology and intellectual property as it applied to software, computer code, privacy and the like, met with the partners and got the job.

“It was the era and I wanted to ride that wave,” Sylvester said. “While it lasted, it was exhilarating. Then it went bust. But, again, it worked out. I saw the end coming and decided to try, one last time, to test the academic waters in 2001. I was successful, landing numerous interviews and offers. By now, I had mentors from the University of Chicago, New York University and, of course, Binder. The era was over, but I had a career as a law professor.

“And my timing was finally right: I was on the phone accepting ASU’s offer to join its faculty the very moment my hiring partner at Baker & McKenzie knocked on my door to say that they were laying me off. He couldn’t figure out why I was smiling the whole time!”

All of which explains why Sylvester says he’s “incredibly grateful to ASU for taking a chance on me; to Professor Binder and others for intervening in my behalf.”

“I know that at any moment even your dream job can come to an end,” he said. “That’s why you fight to keep it. That’s why you show your gratitude. That’s why you intervene in some student’s behalf knowing that you wouldn’t be here doing what you love if it weren’t for the assistance of others.

“I understand how it can be for many students no matter where they go to law school; how that start to a career can be a real challenge. I saw it at Chicago and I see it here. But these people are so talented all they need is a chance and they just can’t help but succeed. As a professor and dean this is what I truly believe – we are here to help people get that chance.”

LD: If you love teaching so much, why become a law school administrator, let alone dean?

DJS: I had been deeply engaged in the administration of this law school almost since the day I arrived in 2002. In 2011, I took the interim dean position with the understanding that once a permanent hire was made, I could go back to being a full-time academic – a decision I had made earlier that year to get out of administration.

Two things happened to change my mind: By May that year – 2011 – law schools were in serious crisis and we were in difficult financial shape. I spent my first few months on the job cutting and cutting. We had a series of ventures that had begun for all the right reasons, but we had lots of people and money invested and now no revenue to make it all happen as philanthropy had dropped off, too.

One decision I had to make would involve setting the law school on a particular path. That’s when I decided that ASU law couldn’t afford an outside dean, it couldn’t wait the two years an outside candidate would need to find his or her way. We needed to have someone internal, who already knew the place, who could move quickly to make the changes needed to move us forward. By the way, I’ve made this recommendation at several other law schools since then.

The second thing was that I loved working with our alumni and the broader legal community. All new deans fear that part of their job, and I was no different. But I truly loved it.

LD: Is there anything you wish you had known before becoming dean?

DJS: I wish I had had more experience as a boss. Dealing with that many people and their careers, their jobs and lives – that was quite a burden and responsibility. Luckily I had taught in a few business schools, so I knew something about management theory. That’s not the same, however, as leading and managing faculty and staff. I’ve been able to rely, however, on a fantastic senior staff to teach me, mentor me and help me move forward in that capacity.

LD: What has surprised you about the job of dean?

DJS: Suddenly, to be the boss and supervisor of so many people – that took me aback. I was constantly thinking about ensuring that the realities of these people’s lives were part of the decision making here. Many staff members, for example, live in Tempe or in Phoenix. If they lose their jobs with us, they can’t simply move away. They live in the very community we’ve pledged to serve and in which we’ve immersed ourselves. I think we succeeded in ensuring that our staff is extraordinarily well treated and appreciated, but it was, initially, a real surprise.

A more pleasant surprise has been how much I enjoy community outreach. And that is how I see it: I don’t engage in fundraising. I engage with alumni, with members of the local business and legal communities, telling them about us, asking them where they need us to be and what we should be doing. Telling them what we are about, what we stand for, and asking whether they wish to join us on that path.

I am truly grateful they have said “yes” nearly every time. So far, our alumni and the local community have invested more than $37 million in the law school in just the past 15 months. This makes a huge difference in students’ lives and in our success.

LD: Talk about this path for the law school, what you’ve sometimes called a “second founding.”

DJS: There’s a reason for that moniker. The founding faculty members are retiring. These are the ones who came here during our early years, after we held our first classes in the fall 1967. More than 60 percent of our faculty members joined ASU in the last 10 years and for the vast majority of that cohort, ASU is the only academic home they have known. That’s a massive influx of new individuals and provides real energy and vision for what this law school should be about for its next 50 years.

And what we’ve decided we need to be is incredibly student-centered and engaged in and with the community. We are named after one of the world’s greatest public servants and historical figures, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and we try to live up to that name every day.

We are the only public law school in the area, the country’s fifth- or sixth-largest metropolitan area, and one of only two – with the University of Arizona – in the state. I feared that over the preceding decades, we had became siloed off from what it means to be a public law school. The focus seemed to be proving to the nation that we were a serious academic institution with serious legal scholars. I don’t object to that path, but I think it is no longer, if it ever was, a question. We are one of the great research faculties in the U.S. with very little to prove but so much to add to our students and broader community.

So now we are focusing on those principles. Now, we are moving to downtown Phoenix into a new building near all the law firms, the businesses, the courts. Now we’re working in the community, working with our alumni every day to improve our world, however that’s defined.

So let’s look at the other recommitment we’ve made, because as you’ll see, these two go hand-in-hand. Members of our senior staff have been here for 10 years, some a bit longer. They know this place inside and out. For every initiative, for every decision, they ask: What does this mean for students?

Having a staff so dedicated to this law school, to our students and alumni, is an advantage we have over so many others. And they help me to always remember that first and foremost we have to make sure that our students get the legal education they deserve and the help in their lives they need. In addition, we have to initiate projects and other efforts that will help students throughout their careers. So, when choices are made about where and how to invest in the college, we invest when we believe our students will benefit.

When we were founded – the first time – we focused on an innovative curriculum and a particular engagement with the legal community in Native American Law/Tribal Law. We do have the best legal program of this kind in the country; it is the largest and maybe the oldest. So, we’ve always been engaged in the community – the wider community and the lawyer community.

But as I said, in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, we moved away from that a little too much. And the community’s impression during those years was that ASU Law held itself away from the city, from Phoenix, from the bar and community more than it should have. I want to ensure that is never the impression we leave again. And I want to do it – we are doing it – as part of a student-centered program and philosophy.

Every single year, this law school donates in excess of 100,000 hours of free legal services. Through student and faculty engagement, we donate services for the needy, helping to lead the way in areas such as sustainability, legislative reform, trial advocacy, combatting sex trafficking and many more. We’re doing all that an urban, comprehensive, public law school should be doing and doing it as well as any.

And we’re doing more. The associate deans and I are out talking with law firms every day asking, ‘What more can we do? We’re saying, too, that this is a law school that’s incredibly welcoming. Come back. Hold conferences here. Share your expertise. Continue learning. Be engaged with this law school– the law school for the city of Phoenix and much of the state.

We are, clearly, Phoenix’s law school. We are proud of that and we think it creates a sense of loyalty and familiarity that greatly benefits our students. To be clear, for enrolled students we’re saying yes, we’re here to make sure that if you want to practice law somewhere else when you graduate, we’ll help you. And in fact, we place students all over the world. But when we talk to students who want to stay in Phoenix, we don’t “push” them to go elsewhere. We are proud of the Phoenix legal community, which is truly world-class. Placing our grads into that market is a worthy end in and of itself.

As an example of our student-centered investments: We were the first in the country to hire a full-time legal placement expert (a head-hunter in more blunt prose) to aid graduates and alumni in career moves – all at no cost to the hiring entity or the alum. It has been an extraordinarily successful investment, one that has resulted in top 20 employment rates and a year-to-year placement rate that is among the best in the nation. But it didn’t happen without foresight and planning. My staff and I spent two years in law firm outreach compiling dossiers on each firm’s needs. Now many of them look to us to put our graduates in front of them, saying, “You should take a look at this person.”

Phoenix isn’t the same market as New York or LA. It has fewer “mega” firms and many smaller law firms that rely on us for legal placement; smaller firms with great compensation, by the way. In addition, we have a lot of corporations with in-house counsel positions. Here is where we do something typically innovative: We recruit students from these corporations to come to law school and then place them back in their companies.

You can see how this represents community engagement and student-centeredness. You can see why when I have room in the budget, before distributing it, I ask what our students need in terms of support to launch their careers and succeed. You can see why our Career Services grew from five people to nine, why our placement specialist knows all these people at the corporations, at the firms. She’s a matchmaker. Alumni call up and say they want to switch practice areas. We’ll make the calls. There is no charge. There shouldn’t be a charge. You paid tuition already. We’re always going to be here for you.

That’s our view: that we are your law school for life, not just the three years you are here studying. So what can we do to help at any point in your career? We are going to be launching a whole initiative along these lines – greatly reduced tuition for graduates to come back and take courses or degrees and free continuing legal education classes.

Here’s another example of community engagement and student centeredness: We have what may be the only teaching law firm in the world. The ASU Alumni Law Group is a nonprofit that simply retained a link to us with its name. After you graduate and pass the bar, you can apply for a residency in that law group, much like applying for a medical residency.

The alumni law group represents middle-class Arizonans. All the newly minted practitioners are under the supervision of full-time employees of the law firm, who have more than 10 years experience each. Fifty percent of their time is spent representing clients and 50 percent of their time is spent training the next generation of lawyers. Everyone at the firm is hired and can be fired as any employee can.

For our recent graduates, it teaches them to become lawyers in a way that no clinic or classroom can. You can’t really learn to be a lawyer until someone is paying you and you can be fired. You can’t be a lawyer until you understand the business of law; until you understand your clients’ needs. The ASU Alumni Law Group opened its doors in March. It has already helped more than 100 clients and is expanding every day. This is the next step in the evolution of legal education and a model we expect many to follow; we are proud to lead the effort.

LD: Is there anything more that distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

DJS: We’ve openly, aggressively pursued a particular model for our law school: It’s the model of a high-quality, urban, comprehensive law school. We’re of the city of Phoenix. We are a public law school. We’re incredibly innovative. There are no traditional ways of doing things to hold us back or tie us down. Almost any idea has a chance of succeeding. And the bar association is incredibly supportive.

Too many law schools are still trying to figure out what they are; in difficult times, that is stultifying. When you know who and what you are – as we do – you can accomplish your goals, as we are doing.

Certainly one of those goals has been to cut student debt. Our community has been so generous in their support of student scholarships that we cut student debt by $10,000 this year. We haven’t had to raise tuition once in four years and have no plans to do so for the next two at least. Not many can say that and couple those claims with great placement records, record-levels of alumni giving and a fantastic new facility that will open in Fall 2016.

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

DJS: My wife, Anna, and I are avid moviegoers. In fact, that’s how we met, at the University of Toronto on a free movie night. A roommate invited us both to that night’s film – “Casablanca,” which believe it or not I had never seen. Not sure I saw it that night either; I naturally had eyes for other sights.

Movies – and Anna – have been a passion ever since. We have a 6-year-old daughter, Darcy. Spending time with her when I go home is a major priority. And tennis. When I can, I play tennis.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or