Eduardo Peñalver’s social activism started long before he led Cornell classmates in their 1993 takeover of the university’s administrative office building. It was an effort to elicit more university support for Hispanic students after racial slurs and a swastika were scrawled across a Hispanic artist’s work on campus.
“Both my parents were involved in the nuclear freeze movement in Seattle,” Peñalver, the dean of Cornell Law School, said in a telephone interview. “I remember them driving the whole family to Bangor, Washington, to march and protest at the nuclear submarine base there. They were real activists, believers in working toward social transformation.”
That drive for social transformation was what propelled Peñalver to law school. “I talked with my dad, who’s a pediatrician and who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1962 after the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion,” he said. “He made me realize that the medical profession operates on a more intimate scale of helping people. But if I wanted to affect large-scale social change, law school seemed to be the path.”
It led Peñalver to Yale. “I was attracted to what I understood about Yale Law as an applicant,” he said. “It was systematic and theoretical in its approach to legal education. It got people thinking creatively about the law and in a more interdisciplinary fashion than other law schools, instead of being purely or even largely doctrinal.”
The reality was “a bit frustrating,” he found. “I was drawn to the pedagogical reputation of the place; I didn’t go to law school intending to be a law professor.” And Yale, at the time, was known more for educating academicians than practitioners.
It wasn’t until he spent several years as a litigation associate in a Washington, D.C., law firm – Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd & Evans – that he recognized the lessons implicit in his Yale J.D.
“What with my legal education, my work as a lawyer and, perhaps most important, simply getting older, I learned that systemic change is difficult, and that law school had been a lesson in humility,” he said.
The result was a growing satisfaction with enabling incremental change through other means, such as scholarship and teaching. The added fillip: He loved to write. “And writing is very collaborative, which is nice,” he said.
Peñalver said he realized that the life of an academic would enable him to engage with those around him so as to have an effect, incrementally through teaching, on a small group of people and, through scholarship, on the way in which a larger group of people thinks about legal questions.
He taught at Fordham Law School first, with visiting professorships at Harvard and Yale law schools, having sought a position in a city where his wife’s firm had offices: Sital Kalantry, who now leads the human rights and immigration clinics at Cornell, was doing transactional work at the time for O’Melveny & Myers.
“Fordham had a wonderful faculty, and a vibrant junior faculty, when I came there in 2003,” Peñalver said.
Faculty positions at Cornell Law followed, with some visiting professorships along the way, until in 2012 Peñalver and his family, including two children, left for Chicago. “It was a family decision,” he said. “The University of Chicago Law School wanted Sital to build a human rights clinic. It was a unique opportunity for her to do so in a highly supportive setting, as there were lots of non-governmental organizations in town.”
Despite the couple’s success at Chicago, the path back to Cornell and the position of law school dean was easily taken. “It’s where we had a lot of wonderful history, many friends and connections; it’s always felt like home,” Peñalver said. “The search committee reached out to me, yes, but I wasn’t hard to convince.”
LAWDRAGON: What surprised you about the job?
EDUARDO PEÑALVER: The biggest surprise is how much fun it is going out and meeting alumni in the course of fundraising. It’s especially encouraging to me, personally, given the narrative of law schools today, to see alums 20 years out, to hear what they’ve been doing – our alums are in every corner of the profession – and how Cornell contributed to their success.
LD: Is there anything you wish you had known before you became dean?
EP: I feel that I went in with my eyes open. And because I was in undergrad here, it’s been relatively easy for me to think in terms of the law school’s broader university audience, which can often be an unanticipated challenge. Still, I wish I knew in advance how much I’d miss teaching.
We had a faculty member who injured herself falling from a horse. My areas of interest and expertise are property and land use. She taught land use and to maintain the class continuity until she returned (she’s fine, by the way) I took over her class for a week while she was out. I just loved it – so much so that I’m going to try to teach land use next year, since that can be a two-day-a-week course. Property, which I really enjoy, would require three days and I simply couldn’t commit to that, which isn’t fair to students.
LD: As Cornell’s first Latino dean, do you feel a particular need to be a role model for or mentor to minority students generally and Latino/a students in particular?
EP: Since I’ve entered law teaching, I’ve always made it an effort to reach out to students of color. I’ve been the faculty adviser for LALSA (Latino/a Law Students Association) at every institution where I’ve been on the faculty. Cornell has a wonderful faculty that is extremely supportive of our students of color. And our student body is remarkably diverse. Ensuring that minority students — and all students — experience Cornell as a welcoming and supportive environment will continue to be a priority for me as dean.
LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?
EP: Our location and size create unique opportunities for anyone attending Cornell Law. Ithaca is part of who we are; we attract a faculty and student who like being in a rural setting, who enjoy the outdoors. And when students are here, they are here. We form a tight-knit geographic community. Students don’t melt away into the city. I think it has fostered collegiality and has fueled the creation of very rich educational and student-supportive programs.
Cornell has exceptionally strong clinical offerings, for example; a deep internship program, and a robust externship program in New York City.
Our Career Services Office is superb: Some 90 percent of last year’s class by graduation was employed in full-time, long-term, bar-passage required jobs. Cornell Law is habitually in the top 10 schools in terms of its graduates’ law firm placement. But then we’re always among the top institutions in terms of other employment metrics, such as average earnings and representation on corporate boards. Yes, the employment scene is challenging, but we collectively rise to challenges.
A lot of that comes back to our size. Compared with other law schools, and as an entity within Cornell University, we are small – only 600 students total, with about 200 in each class. Because of our size, we’ve developed a strong sense of community. We value relationships and collaboration, which enhances students’ time here and leads nicely to the practice of law, which is a collaborative, social profession.
Faculty and students engage with each other. Students take full advantage of faculty office hours. I have office hours and students come. Sometimes they have suggestions for the school; sometimes we talk about how they’re doing, any issues they have. Contributing to this may be the university’s history as the site of the state’s land-grant college. There’s an informality, a lack of pretension and a sense of democracy about this law school, this place.
Because of our small size we don’t enmesh ourselves in bureaucracy, but can work nimbly and effectively in our students’ behalf. We can and do tailor what we offer to the individual student. We look after each student. And by “we,” I include an incredibly loyal alumni network. One example:
Late in the season, two firms rescinded their job offers to our students, because of staffing revisions they made in the wake of the profession’s crisis. Our Career Services and Alumni Offices worked together, reaching out to alumni, who stepped in with job openings. These students have landed on their feet.
Speaking of law firms, so many firms want a piece of us even now, even in the throes of downsizing, which we weathered very well in terms of Big Law because of our size. It’s a scenario where small schools have an advantage. The firms would rather cut back on the 10th person from a larger school than on the third or fourth person from Cornell.
Cornell Law is also distinguished by several unique programs. Subject to New York State approval, we’ll be offering something that no one else has – an LL.M. in business, technology and entrepreneurship, in partnership with Cornell NYC Tech. That’s a $2 billion graduate campus on Roosevelt Island where the focus is on technology startups. We chose this collaboration because we all recognized that law is a crucial part of what tech startups need, especially since they are often stymied in implementing their ideas by not understanding the rules and regulations by which they have to play, by not understanding how their own leaders have to work together. This LL.M. is for lawyers who want to practice in this space.
For our students, the program will create strong curricular scaffolding for internships – they’d be able to spend a semester on the Roosevelt campus – and ultimately jobs.
There’s a new initiative I want to mention as well that has to do with professional development in the first year. We want to teach young lawyers about teamwork, about leading and participating in a team; about how to collaborate productively, because regardless of any popular perceptions or the portrayal of lawyers as lone wolves by some of the media, lawyering is really a collaborative process. Even sole practitioners work collaboratively with, say, a paralegal and others. To do this well is to be more practice-ready when you graduate. We aim to have our graduates even more attractive as candidates in that way.
LD: What are your biggest challenges and how are you meeting them?
EP: My mission is to focus on the student experience and making it the best it can be. My challenge is to recruit a broad spectrum of top-quality students to apply every year.
That may seem strange for me to say, given the picture that I paint of Cornell Law as having a stable applicant pool of about 4,000 a year and a continuing high quality of applicant. But there is a narrative out there in the press about the value – or not – of a law school education: That you’ll accumulate high debt, for example, and that there are too few jobs for all the law school graduates such that there is a strong likelihood of being saddled with debt with no way to repay it.
I think it’s still the case that some people – who would make fine lawyers, people in whom we’d be interested – are waiting on the sidelines, deterred from considering law school, and Cornell in particular, because of that narrative. It’s my job to counter that narrative and to encourage these people to apply.
It’s a kind of risk aversion, which is understandable with the cost of most law schools and the contours of the job market, and it’s particularly strong among black and Latino applicants. It’s often rooted, too, in these students having strong GPAs and relatively weak LSAT scores.
But LSAT scores are usually correlated with parental incomes. I want to tell these potential applicants that we have an institutional commitment to student diversity and a willingness to look beyond the raw numbers. Our admissions staff really does consider the whole applicant. And we do so with an eye on who will thrive here, who can and will graduate from this school and into a job as the lawyer they want to be. I want to tell them that every year we have people who don’t fit the classic profile and who do extraordinarily well.
LD: What do you do outside the law school when you’re not being dean?
EP: I fly single-engine, piston-powered planes. Actually, I share a plane, a Mooney, through a flying club. Between that and being with my family – Sital and our two sons, ages 6 and 8 – I keep pretty busy. Our older son plays violin and the younger son plays cello. We’re always ferrying them to lessons and such. We recently went ice-skating together.
Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.