Dean Limelight: Michael Wolff, Saint Louis University School of Law

SLU WOLFF3Michael Wolff’’s journey to the Saint Louis University School of Law makes for both a good yarn and an illustration of how smarts and serendipity contribute to the making of a law dean.

Graduating from Dartmouth College, where he was editor of “America’s oldest college newspaper” (founded 1799), Wolff eschewed journalism for a law career, though he worked for what was then the Minneapolis Star throughout his University of Minnesota Law School years. “I thought I’d have more autonomy as a lawyer,” he said in an interview.

Among his best stories: the riot at a prison for the criminally insane; the outdoor philharmonic concert punctuated by a city bus that hadn’t been rerouted; a profile of Warren Burger, then the nation’s new Chief Justice, as local boy making good (he interviewed Harry Blackmun for that one, before Blackmun himself joined the High Court); and the widow of a car accident victim donating her husband’s organs to people in need.

“Organ donors were generally anonymous,” Wolff recalled. “As luck had it, our morning competition, the Tribune, ran a story about three people receiving organs from a guy who died in a car accident. The last line said something like, ‘They’ll never know who’s the donor.’

“Of course we published my story that afternoon naming the donor. I loved it.”

Then there was his coverage of the first public dance held by FREE – Fight Repression of Erotic Expression, the university’s first gay-rights organization.

“A district court judge who was looking for a clerk was intrigued that I was a reporter while in law school,” Wolff said. “He called Bower Hawthorne, the Tribune editor who was an executive at the Star Tribune Company, asking about me. Hawthorne said that I was a fine reporter, a fine writer; that I had done a sensitive job covering this gay rights group without offending the families who were our readers.”

Wolff was hired. It was the start of a legal career that would comprise four years working for legal services in three states as he mostly followed his wife through her medical training; 23 years on the Saint Louis University School of Law faculty; faculty appointments in the university’s Department of Community Medicine, School of Medicine and School of Public Health; visiting professor at Sichuan University, China; transition director, chief counsel and special counsel to former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan; a stint in private practice, and 13 years on the Missouri Supreme Court, several of them as Chief Justice.

“But here’s the thing,” Wolff said. “I’d never met Bower Hawthorne and to my knowledge, he didn’t really know me.”

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

MICHAEL WOLFF: I began my legal career as a law clerk and spent four years in legal services before becoming a law professor. Now that was an interesting choice and a curious outgrowth of my being in legal services.

Some of my early moves came as a result of finding work where my wife could pursue her medical practice and pediatrics training. While in legal services in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1975, a letter came around saying there were some faculty vacancies at Saint Louis University Law. I applied for a clinical job knowing that I liked working with students and teaching people how to think about the law and legal issues. Turns out the clinical job had been filled. But the dean asked if I’d like to teach civil procedure and other subjects. I didn’t understand the difference between clinical and regular “professing,” but I was offered a regular faculty position. So I took it.

I became involved in public health and medicine, not because of my wife, Patricia, who is a pediatrician and now runs a malnutrition program in Haiti, but because I got to know the chair of the department of community medicine at Saint Louis University. He invited me to teach a course, which I did. We soon saw all sorts of synergies between law school people and the folks in public health and medicine.

Later, a group of us law professors ended up sketching out on a napkin plans for a Center for Health Law Studies and started the venture on a shoestring in the early 1980s. My colleagues grew the center to be nationally recognized as a premier program in health law.

LD: What do you wish you had known before becoming dean?

MW: I received a lot of good advice and some not so good advice before I took on the role of dean. What surprised me a bit, however, is how little I personally can do as dean. I can direct things; I can lead. That’s not the same as doing, which is why I’m extraordinarily grateful to the leadership in our faculty, who are not only expert but also extremely competent. I can rely on them to do things without me having to explain in detail.

Another way of saying it is that I’ve been impressed by the kind of management job being a dean is. I got a taste of it when I worked for Gov. Mel Carnahan, first as his transition director, then as chief counsel (1993-1994) and finally as special counsel (1994-1998). That’s when I realized that a governor – or dean – needs at all levels people who understand what’s going on and how the institution fundamentally works and works well.

Most people don’t get that last part. Weaknesses generally don’t surprise. It’s finding the strengths of an institution and its people that’s the trick. The manifold strengths of this school and the people here — that is a somewhat humbling and ongoing process of discovery.

LD: Did your years as a law professor inform your work as a judge, and vice versa?

MW: Absolutely. My classroom teaching experience enabled me to see as a judge how important it is to make the law coherent – meaning approachable and understandable for lawyers and the public. This is especially true when I wrote opinions. I always avoided jargon and complicated legal terminology and tried to write for a sixth-grade reader.

Thanks to my years on the court, as a law dean and professor I have a more profound understanding of how law works in the real world and how important good advocacy is. And don’t forget my experience as chief counsel to the governor; that gave me an inside track on how government really functions and how government agencies actually work. I think it imperative that someone on every law faculty and state supreme court be familiar with these things. 

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

MW: A legal education at Saint Louis University School of Law is deeply rooted in social justice, a rigorous curriculum and practical experience. The law school’s new home at Scott Hall is located in the heart of downtown St. Louis and offers students unparalleled access to leading law firms, corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. The City of St. Louis Civil Courts Building and the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse are mere steps away, giving students a unique opportunity to see the law in action.

Integrated among the law books, the briefs and the oral and written arguments is SLU Law’s commitment to social justice. It is the cornerstone principle of an SLU Law education that reflects our students’ and faculty’s focus on community, academic excellence and public service that embodies the Jesuit mission. We provide tangible opportunities for students to see the law – and the power of what the law can do – by placing them in positions to help real people in real situations.

In short, SLU Law will challenge your intellect, develop your passion for the law and help you build lifelong connections with the greater legal community.

LD: Are there distinctive programs or initiatives?

MW: Established in 1982, the Center for Health Law Studies was one of the first law school programs to focus on the intersection of the health-care system and the legal system. For 11 consecutive years, the center has earned a reputation as the nation’s premier health law program. Students who earn a Concentration in Health Law have access to top-tier faculty, leading scholars, practitioners and employers.

With our move to downtown St. Louis, we have established new and expanded existing relationships with the legal community. For example, as the start-up community in St. Louis continues to thrive, our Entrepreneurial Working Group faculty are working with organizations supporting new businesses such as Arch Grants, Capital Innovators and TRex to provide our students with an integrated relationship with this exciting community.

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

MW: My big challenge so far was leading the effort to bring our law school to a new location off campus and into the heart of the downtown St. Louis legal community.

We have met the challenge of the decreased applicant pool by keeping our entering credentials the same. This has naturally led to smaller class sizes. Our most recent entering class in the new downtown location, while smaller than a few years ago, is 15 percent larger than last year’s.

LD: What issues did the move create and how did you resolve them?

MW: There was considerable unease about moving off campus. But the state-of-the-art building in the heart of the downtown legal community has become a real center of law-related activities and has provided great opportunities for students and faculty to network with the legal profession and the business community. The success of our new location has made converts of even the most skeptical.

There remains the ongoing challenge of coordinating interdisciplinary programs with departments on the university’s main campus and medical campus, but this transition has gone smoothly.

When I became dean there were controversies about the leadership of the university. With a new president now in place, we have an opportunity to build on the progress of the past and to highlight and enhance our status as a world-class institution.

LD: Are you seeing trends in the types of jobs your students are taking?

MW: One good trend is that law firms of all sizes continue to be good employers, somewhat better than they were at the trough of the recession. And as the class sizes have gotten smaller than in the recent decade, the employment stats will continue to improve.

Many students pursue careers in the health law field. With the institution of the Affordable Care Act, this is an area that will continue to grow. Our health law students practice both locally and nationally with a special concentration in Washington, D.C.

In addition, I see many of our students pursuing a career in public service after graduation. This is a response in part to the high level of importance we place on the social justice aspect of the law and the influential work they complete in our legal clinics. I should also mention that a good number of our students work in civil and criminal litigation in area firms and corporations.

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

MW: Having spent 13 years on the Missouri Supreme Court, I continue to devote a good amount of my time to keeping up with developments in the law and the legal profession. I have stayed involved with Bar activities, including most recently moderating a plenary session of the Missouri Bar annual meeting on legal issues relating to same-sex marriage. I also serve on the boards of the Missouri Historical Society, the St. Louis Library Foundation and the new National Courts and Science Institute.

I do a lot of reading. I sometimes obsessively watch high-quality movies and television series, such as “Boardwalk Empire” and the Ken Burns television documentary on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And my wife, a pediatrician in private practice in St. Louis and a professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine for many years, founded and runs Meds and Food for Kids — She’s in Haiti three weeks out of six. I sometimes join her in various places in the developing world.

We also spend time with our sons and their families. One son is a surgeon in Washington, D.C., and the other is a lawyer who does death penalty post-conviction work in Austin, Texas.

Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or