Dean Limelight: Annette Clark, Seattle University School of Law

Seattle University School of Law.Photo by Marcus Donner © 2013Annette Clark, dean of the Seattle University School of Law, understands more than most the importance of a good fit in careers and law schools.

Coming from a “medical family,” and interested in the sciences, Clark’s dream was to become a doctor. Then came the third year of medical school and work in clinical and hospital settings.

“I loved working with patients, but I had poor hand-eye coordination and no visualization abilities,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t listen to heart murmurs, for example, and picture what each signified for a diagnosis.” Admitting to being a Type A personality – and wanting to be top-notch at her job – Clark decided to finish medical school but not to practice. “Fortunately, in my fourth year I took the opportunity to do medical consulting with a law firm,” she said. “That’s when it clicked. I could hold onto the medical expertise I had and apply it in a different way to a career in the law.”

A graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Medicine, Clark received her J.D. (first in her class) at Seattle University School of Law. She recalled knowing that the law and the law school were the right fit for her when she took her first course as a 1L during the summer.

“Seattle has long allowed entering students to take one class – criminal law – as a way to ease into legal education,” Clark said. “It’s a kind of boot camp where you learn the language of law, for example, the give-and-take of dialogue and analytical reasoning, how to read and outline cases. As many as two-thirds of the class, including all part-time evening students, take it.”

The late George R. Nock was in charge. A former deputy attorney general for California and a prosecutor in Marin County, Nock was a passionate teacher, brilliant intellect and wicked punster. “He was nothing short of hilarious and inspirational,” Clark said. “As a law professor, I know that’s the kind of environment I want to recreate in my classrooms. As a 1L, I knew that in terms of career and law school I had absolutely found the right home.”

LAWDRAGON: What figured into your choice of law schools?

ANNETTE CLARK: Because I was a little bit older when I decided on law school, I had a life – family, my circumstances – that were place-bound. I needed to stay in the Seattle area. My choices were Seattle University School of Law, which was then the University of Puget Sound, and the University of Washington. I had gone to medical school at Washington and was ready for a change, which is why I favored Seattle. But what did it for me was a classroom visit. This was no lecture. This was a series of interactions with and among students and the professor. Over the course of that hour or two I was completely caught up.

I later realized that I’d like to be at a law school that prides itself on treating each student as an individual, which is what I had seen in that class. I’m glad to say that we’ve continued that tradition. That’s why I always encourage students to visit the law schools they’re considering: Spend time on-site; talk with students and faculty, get a feel for the culture. We’re not the right law school for everyone. For many students, however, we are the perfect law school.

LD: What attracted you to legal academia?

AC: The idea of enjoying the lifelong learning part of education. I’ve loved school since kindergarten. I suspect that’s true for many in the academy. In law school, I had the good fortune of getting to know faculty members really well. Three of my professors approached me during my 2L year and asked if I had given thought to going into the academy. I had, but assumed that I needed to work as a practitioner first. To show you the power of mentoring, they convinced me to try for a tenure-track position at Seattle.

I was a third year when I interviewed with the faculty. There were four openings and five finalists. I came in fifth. I didn’t get the job and, frankly, I wasn’t chagrined. Law schools rarely hire their own and, again, I would have been moving from law school straight onto a tenure track. Then one of the four turned down the job offer. So I said yes. I graduated in May, took the bar exam in July and was teaching in August.

Right from the start, I’ve loved the give and take with the students, as well as the fact that every group of students is different, which means that no two classes are the same. The law changes, too, so you’re constantly educating yourself. Then there’s watching that light go on when a student gets it.

My favorite class to teach is still civil procedure in the first year, because first year is such a steep learning curve and because I get to watch as students grasp the pieces of the puzzle and how they connect. At the end of the course, I always have the class review the very first case we discussed, so they can see how far they’ve come.

LD: You’re the first alumnus of the law school to lead it. Is being an insider an advantage or a disadvantage?

AC: I’ve been tracking recent law school dean appointments and it’s increasingly common for law schools to go inside. I think it has to do with concern regarding the time it takes for deans coming in from the outside to get up to speed, and at a very tumultuous time for most law schools. That’s one advantage of being an insider.

Another is in the fact that I’ve taught thousands of our grads who are now our alums. I know most everyone here in Seattle’s bench and bar. I guess I’d answer by saying that while an external appointment gives an institution new eyes and insights, an internal appointment brings a deep understanding of the place, how it works and all of its constituents. I think this institution has a history of always trying to find the right dean for the right time. At this time, choosing me made the most sense.

LD: Why move from member of the faculty to administrator, especially since you’ve said that teaching is one of your greatest joys?

AC: James E. Bond, one of my predecessors as dean, early on in my career identified my diligence, work ethic and deep sense of caring about the school and how it operates. That’s why he asked me to step into the role of associate dean for academic affairs right after I was awarded tenure. It’s supposed to be a part-time job that leaves you plenty of time to teach. In reality, it’s a full-time post that allows half-time teaching. I served as associate or vice dean for three deans in succession, and loved it.

I had never planned on becoming the dean. But then our dean chose to move on to another law school, and as vice dean, I was asked to step into the interim role. I said yes because I loved my law school and figured that I was best situated to be interim. The plan was to go outside in choosing the next dean because we had just had an internal dean. It was during that period that I discovered that I was ready to be the dean of a law school.

I’ve always been a relational person, and much of what a dean does is relational: Working with faculty, staff, students, alumni – that’s about relationships. Fundraising is about relationships. A colleague at a presentation I was making, said, “You must be loving this because you’re glowing.” I realized that my colleague was right, that, as I said, I was ready.

Well, we had a successful dean search and found a terrific person. I went off to become dean at Saint Louis. In the end, that wasn’t a good fit.

I was so happy that I could come home and resume my teaching here. Then several things happened: The new dean decided that he and his family wanted to return to D.C. The law school decided not to engage in a search. I had gone on the dean market and had an offer from another school when Seattle Law asked me to stay here as dean.

I have to say how impressed I was with both law schools wanting me at that time. Those university administrators were willing to talk with me about my experience at Saint Louis in honest dialogue to see whether I might be the right fit for them.

I chose Seattle because being dean would allow me to give back to the place that gave so much to me. I knew, too, that at Seattle the answer to whether this would be a good fit was an enthusiastic yes.

LD: Has anything surprised you thus far?

AC: Yes, one thing – a particular challenge for inside deans and especially for me, because I’ve been here so long: Faculty members who have known me for a time make assumptions regarding how I perceive things – what I think, how I’ll decide an issue and act – on the basis of what I thought and did as a faculty member. Then I surprise them by perceiving, thinking, deciding and acting differently. I’m trying to explain that as dean I’m responsible to so many more constituencies than I was before. I’m still me, but you can’t assume that what I would have done as a faculty member is an unerring indicator of what I’ll do as dean.

The flip side to all this concerns the newer faculty who came when I wasn’t here and don’t know me well at all. I have to remind myself of that. They need to know how I operate. I need to do more with them, work with them so that they come to know who I am, my style of decision making, my expectations of them and more.

LD: What distinguishes your law school from the many others?

AC: The Jesuit value of educating the whole student. The Jesuit ethos animates our culture and has done so since we joined Seattle University in the 1990s. So does a commitment to the understanding that every student who passes through here is different. We’re always striving to ensure that our faculty and staff help students discern what their paths looks like and help them create a pathway to their careers and their dreams.

That means continuing to bring in diverse students from all different backgrounds and continuing to develop opportunities and ways to learn inside our classrooms and outside our law school building. It means faculty advising students and maintaining open-door policies. It also translates into more than 500 externship sites across the country, with a few available internationally. It means that the people staffing our career services office meet with every single student here. It’s labor intensive and very personal – and I want every single student here to experience and benefit from it.

Our writing program is distinctive. The three faculty members who lead the program here literally started the discipline of legal writing nationally.

It’s a one-and-a-half year writing curriculum, well thought out and integrated. It’s been ranked No. 1 for the last six years in a row. But the real test is the reality of our graduates in the job market. I talk with employers who have our graduates on their staff and they universally report that Seattle Law students are better and more sophisticated writers than almost all others.

Prospective students don’t always understand coming in – and they certainly don’t glean from the media – the importance of those writing skills. We in the profession know that they’ll spend more time writing than anything else when they’re working as lawyers.

Building on the success of our legal writing program, we’ve created a number of innovative experiential opportunities for our students: a new Introduction to Practice course in the first year that allows 1Ls to start doing the work of lawyers in a simulated context; an intensive, week-long immersion course in entrepreneurship for upper-division students that introduces them to the role of lawyers in corporations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, and our Incarcerated Parents Advocacy Clinic, recently recognized as one of the most innovative clinics in the U.S. Through the work of our faculty and students, this clinic serves domestic violence survivors and parents with a history of drug or substance abuse. Its goals are to preserve incarcerated parents’ relationships with their children, reunite families when the parents are released from prison and keep families together.

Another distinction is that we recently received acquiescence from the American Bar Association to launch a satellite campus in Anchorage, Alaska. This will be a third-year program comprising electives only – specific subjects relevant to practice in Alaska. It will be held on the Alaska Pacific University campus and the 3Ls will be embedded in the legal community there.

I’m also very proud of our “low bono” incubator program. This is for recent Seattle Law graduates who are committed to serving a moderate means population, consistent with our social justice mission. We just welcomed another four lawyers who will help us develop a practice paradigm for working with this underserved community of people who can’t afford expensive legal services

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

AC: Certainly containing the costs of a legal education – how to bring it down or at least manage it so that students are better able to afford law school without amassing such heavy debt. At the same time, we need to maintain and continue maintaining our high standards for our students and program of legal education. Containing costs, maintaining standards and helping to ensure students’ success in the job market should be the concerns of every law school dean.

In that regard, we have also affirmatively been getting smaller because the job market can’t absorb the numbers of lawyers we had been graduating. We now total about 800 students, of whom 200 to 250 are first-years (including students in our flexible, part-time program), down from entering classes of 335 to 340 several years ago.

My concern is with the larger narrative: the value of lawyers. I’m distressed that there is a perception that we don’t need high-quality, competent lawyers. Yet the last time I checked, the world isn’t becoming less complex. We need to get the word out about the importance of lawyers – that they are vital to the functioning of a civil and just society – even to lawyers who disparage and discourage their own kids from going to law school.

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

AC: This is pretty much a 24-hour-a-day job. But when I do have down time, I like quiet pursuits. I love to read, especially fiction; that’s my retreat. I love working in my yard. Better still is spending time with my amazing adult sons: My older son is graduating from UC-Berkeley School of Law, and my younger son is a mechanical engineer here in Seattle.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or