Dean Limelight: Steven J. Kaminshine, Georgia State Law

GEORGIA STATE KAMINSHINEThere is a certain symmetry in the fact that Steven J. Kaminshine, dean of Georgia State University College of Law, entered law school to maintain his accreditation to teach, that he entered legal academia to sustain his love of law, and that the twining of the two strands have led to a career aimed at improving legal education.

Teaching came first. “I did the whole student-teacher program in college and then taught high school history right after graduating because I loved being in a classroom, working with students, making a difference in their lives,” Kaminshine said in a telephone interview.

To continue teaching, however, he needed a graduate degree, which meant he had to get a master’s degree in education or history, which he didn’t want. When he learned that a legal education would count, he chose law school.

And there he discovered a surprise: “I loved that, too,” he said. “The continual problem-solving; the human relations aspects of the law; learning how to put theory into practice, seeing how the law affects people’s lives – I looked forward to every class every day.”

His detour into labor law is attributable to Tom Christensen, a New York University Law School professor considered a guru in the field. Kaminshine had transferred from DePaul University College of Law to NYU after his 2L year because he preferred New York to Illinois for both his home and practice. Christensen’s was his first course at the law school, and it was a decision-maker: “I knew without question that I wanted to work with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., after graduation,” he said.

His success there came in part because of John Truesdale, who later became NLRB chairman. Truesdale was newly appointed when Kaminshine called saying he planned to be in D.C. for Election Day — “I really hadn’t” — and wanted to drop off a resume — “I really did.” The two spoke at length. “Then John advised me to go across the street for coffee while he looked at my writing sample,” Kaminshine said. He returned and was offered a job on the spot. “I thought that only happened in the movies,” said Kaminshine, who began two weeks later.

It was 1977 and the stunningly simple start of what Kaminshine calls his “labor law clerkship.” In 1980, he joined a labor and employment law practice in New York. Kaminshine said, however, that he never felt as satisfied as he did when teaching, even as an adjunct. He needed to get back to academia – this time, legal academia.

“That’s when I began looking for a law school that I could call home in a city that would interest me and my family,” he said. “I found an upstart institution – Georgia State College of Law was only three years old in 1985 – in a fabulous urban setting: Atlanta.”

The upside to joining a new school was that it had a lot of institution-building to do. Nothing was firmly established in terms of pedagogy and culture. Even junior faculty members had opportunities – to create courses, try different teaching methods, help establish an environment and culture – that they wouldn’t have at a well-established law school.

What keeps Kaminshine energized about leading Georgia State law is that it remains a student-centered institution that continues to innovate as much as it did at the start. “We are and can continue to be a loud voice in legal education for innovative curricula that integrates theory and practice,” Kaminshine said. “Our ultimate responsibility is to educate students to enter a profession. That in a nutshell is where law schools must differ from pure graduate programs.”

LAWDRAGON: Given your love of teaching, why become a dean?

STEVEN J. KAMINSHINE: I think it was my affinity for problem-solving and the rapid pace of problem-solving at the dean level. It gives me great satisfaction leading people toward consensus; I still feel a sense of gratification and fulfillment when I can engage with real people and issues as against abstracts. I’m also in a position as dean to encourage and help shape new curriculum and pedagogy reform. All that said, I miss the classroom and plan to teach more as dean as soon as I can shift my focus away from our new building. To my delight, we move into the building this summer.

LD: Did anything surprise you when you became dean?

SJK: The challenge of actually understanding and doing the job of dean, as opposed to hanging on to my associate dean job. It’s a matter of mindset and clearly articulating – and then implementing – roles and responsibilities. In my early time as dean, it was natural to gravitate toward the familiar. I know that I gave far less freedom to my associate deans than I do now. I looked over their shoulders far more than was necessary, because what they were doing was what I had done and had been supremely comfortable doing. Ultimately, and with the support of others, I grew to embrace this deanship as an extraordinary opportunity to help define this great law school as it transitioned to full adulthood. My job is to set a vision, assemble a team to help implement it and serve our diverse constituencies— especially our external friends and communities.

LD: Is there anything else you would like to have known before becoming dean?

SJK: I wish that everyone in legal academia had anticipated the profound restructuring of the legal profession that began in 2008-2009 and its effects on students – that so many students nationwide would be graduating with such high debt into a constricting legal job market. I had seen recessions before, but none had the severity or long-term effect on the legal profession and the legal job market as the 2008-09 recession. To be sure, Georgia State tuition and student debt is significantly below than national norms, and we are consistently recognized as a “best value” law school. However, we, too, have felt the effect of these national economic changes.

Understanding some of these forces in advance, we would have been faster and more effective in managing the current expectations and future goal-setting of our different constituencies – our university presidents, faculty, staff, alumni and enrolled students – regarding, for example, changes in our applicant pools. Early on, we all might have gotten a jump on the challenges underlying the crisis we needed to face about who we should be admitting, their financial and educational needs, affordable tuition levels and educational changes that might improve their chances for employment success.

LD: How has this played out in your institution?

SJK: I’m lucky in that we have always been a good buy: Students here pay just over $8,000 per semester, if they pay the full amount. That means our students can afford to practice their passion; they don’t have to skew their career choices because they have to pay off a six-figure debt. They don’t graduate with six-figure debt. That’s why we have a fair number of graduates going into public service in addition to practice areas such as intellectual property, health law, environmental law, criminal law (prosecution and defense), litigation and trial practice, and general practice, and why they can work for law firms of all sizes across the state and southeast region.

I’m also lucky in that the president and provost of Georgia State University get it. They understand the challenges facing legal education and the choices we are making in building our program, increasing experiential education, seizing opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration across the university, and having one of the most talented and committed law faculties in the nation. Of course, we have the added benefit of Atlanta. We take this city and our presence here very seriously.

LD: Improving legal education and pedagogy is a theme in your career and this conversation. What kinds of innovations have been introduced here?

SJKThese days, it is fashionable for law schools to tout their experiential learning and skills training. Georgia State Law has been integrating legal theory and skills education from its beginning in 1982. It’s in our DNA. Not surprisingly we have a large externship program with an innovative classroom component. We embrace the city of Atlanta as an extension of our classroom, clinics, externships and doctrinal courses, rich with exercises that help put the law in context.

What’s innovative about our approach is that we’re integrating experiential learning into doctrinal courses and we’ve incentivized our faculty members to do it. We’ll award them an $11,000 teaching innovation grant to spend the summer retooling purely doctrinal areas of the curriculum (such as bankruptcy, health law, corporations and international law), to integrate experiential components that might includea live-client mini clinic, simulations, skills labs, a practicum supplement and the like. While all our faculty members have practiced law, we encourage faculty members to partner with adjuncts in developing and teaching these kind of courses. Adjuncts are enriched by the full-time faculty members’ doctrinal expertise, and our full-time faculty members are enriched by the adjunct’s practice expertise.

An example is the bankruptcy course we offer in which a tenured professor teaches the legal doctrine while integrating attorneys who permit their pro bono cases to be part of the course and mentor students assigned to those cases.

We have a fundamentals of law practice class, which focuses on teaching about small-firm practice, whose students represent women seeking protection orders– again, in concert with practitioners participating in the class.

Another faculty member is restructuring the 1L contracts class, which accounts for six credit hours and deals primarily with contract doctrine, to devote one credit hour to the actual drafting of contracts. We might consider something similar for civil procedure.

LD: Has innovative pedagogy extended to your part-time program?

SJK: We’ve always delivered an unusually flexible part-time legal education program. Students can attend in the evening, during the day or divide their studies between the two, which a number of students do seamlessly. What’s distinctive about our program is the effort we put into integrating part-time students into all the experiences available on campus.

From serving as staff members of our law journal (this year, the editor-in-chief is a part-time student) to externships (which can be a challenge, since we need to offer some at night), part-time students are virtually indistinguishable from our full-time students. Moreover, all faculty members teach in both programs. As I see it, the only distinction is the pace at which you progress through to your law degree.

In that regard, we’re recognizing that some people don’t really need a three-year J.D., but rather want a highly focused, one-year program or less that will enhance their credentials and knowledge base in a current area of expertise. That’s why we’re developing non-J.D. programs for area professionals with an initial focus on health law and, potentially, intellectual property.

LD: In what way, if at all, does the new law school building tie into innovative teaching?

SJK: It’s an amazing seven-story structure with state-of-the-art classrooms that accommodate learning as it should be. For example, large classrooms are horseshoe-shaped to give a more intimate feel. There are skills suites in which students and others can conduct mediations and team meetings. We’ve provided huge clinic space, underscoring our commitment to serving our local community.

The same can be said about our new conference center, including a 230-seat auditorium with breakout rooms. We hope that community groups, government groups and agencies will use our conference facilities for all sorts of gatherings, which will in turn enrich the experiences of our students. You know, Georgia State is funded by taxpayer dollars. It’s only right that we give back.

We made two important decisions in the design of this building, which I want to point out: The top two floors are library floors devoted to the students. In the top floor is a traditional library. On the next floor, a kind of grab-and-go arrangement: study rooms with flexible furniture to accommodate teamwork and collaborative learning, an outdoor terrace and a small cafe. The idea is to create an urban oasis that invites our students to stay and talk and study.

This decision to devote the top two floors of the building to the students was related to our faculty’s unanimous decision to be in the middle of the building with the classrooms, where they would be most accessible to students and more available for student interactions.

Finally, on the fourth floor, we joined with Atlanta’s business and legal communities to provide a venue for international commercial arbitrations. There is an academic and teaching dimension to this floor as well. But the idea is that the legal and business communities can use it to the fullest.

In conjunction with the new building, we’ve retooled two basic required courses. For our writing program, we have doubled the credit hours, added teaching faculty and shortened the assignments while tripling their number to include all kinds of legal writing done on deadline with a lot of feedback. Professor Paul Milich has also revamped lawyering advocacy, a program in which the entire second-year class is divided into 15 sections, each taught by adjunct faculty members who are leading trial attorneys from the Atlanta bar and who use the same structured course materials to teach 12 students each. What they teach now includes client interviewing, jury voir dire – all the important dimensions of skills, values and advocacy.

LD: What do you do when you’re not being dean and supervising a construction site? 

SJK: I enjoy traveling with my wife, Cathy Jamison, who is a mediator and an artist, and bicycling. I love to tinker with technology, read biographies and historical novels, and read aloud to my granddaughter via Skype. I also enjoy a good game of basketball, though my playing days are over.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or