Dean Limelight: Martin J. Katz, University of Denver, Sturm Law

U DENVER KATZHow Martin J. Katz ended up as a legal academic is an amusing story and a cautionary tale for aspiring law students,. The lesson: Lots of people will tell you how to get on a certain career track. You don’t need to listen to them.

Katz is dean and professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. As he tells it, he grew up thinking that he wanted to be a lawyer largely because his heroes were lawyers. “It seemed like lawyers solved problems, and I liked that,” Katz said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to be a problem solver.”

He was told that to be a lawyer, he should major in political science. But while he liked political science, he was much more drawn to economics, which is why he chose that as his major at Harvard. Economics majors go to business school, he was advised, and on into the world of business and finance. But a visit to business school classes left him cold. His father had gone to law school with Guido Calebresi, then dean of Yale.

“Guido said that even if I wanted to become an entrepreneur, which I was considering, I should seriously consider law school because that would be the best training in – guess what – problem solving,” Katz recalled. “He suggested that I visit some law school classes. I did and loved it. And I stayed.”

Where he stayed offers another lesson for aspiring law students. “It wasn’t Harvard, even though I sat in on the law school classes and was an undergrad there,” Katz said. “My choice was very much based on impressions. It was Yale Law that felt like the right fit for me.”

“What appealed to me there was the excitement and rigor, the way people discussed, thought about and engaged with ideas,” Katz said. “Yale was also a much smaller environment; you could enjoy one-on-one attention from professors in and outside class, and form friendships with them that would last a lifetime.”

That’s one reason he introduced at Sturm a custom enjoyed at Yale – professors inviting students out to restaurants or to dinners in their homes. “Even now, I’ll pay for professors to host students at social gatherings,” he said. “We want to maintain a strong culture of engagement.”

It’s also why he tells potential law students that as they choose among schools, they should seriously consider two factors: “Each school’s culture and level of faculty-student engagement – they will be crucial to your success,” he said.

LD: What drew you into legal academia?

MK: As a young person, you often think you know what you want. Then in the middle of it, the light bulb goes on and you actually know what you want. I was an economics major who was supposed to go to business school, but went to law school to become a better problem solver.

By my second year, I totally fell in love with the law and with the legal academy. If I could have simply stayed in law school I would have. So I started asking, “How do you become a law professor?” Turns out you can go straight into academia, or get some experience and come back to academia. The first path felt a bit too theoretical for me. I’m an experiential learner and understand things best as an experiential learner. So I went out to get a job practicing law – and managed to give the worst interview response ever.

The question was, essentially, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I should have said something politic, such as I wanted to be a partner in this firm. Instead, I blurted out, “A law professor.”

I realize now that they should have said, “Hey fella, you’re interviewing in the wrong place.” They hired me anyway, telling me that they valued it when people from the firm go on to great and important things.

The typical window for getting back to academia is two-to-four years. But at the four-year mark I was learning a whole lot. I was taking on more responsibility for my own cases, clients and work. So I thought I’d spend a few more years in the firm – a total of eight. I made partner. Then around the seventh year, I was talking with a mentor at the firm about my goals. He reminded me that I had said I wanted to teach and suggested that I actually start – as an adjunct. If it proved to be as great as I thought it would be, then, he said, I should pull out the stops and go for a career in academia.

I began teaching as an adjunct at the University of Colorado, and because I did love it, I pulled out the stops to get a law teaching job. After a nation-wide search, I was lucky enough to get a job at theUniversity of Denver teaching constitutional law and employment law. It was everything I hoped it would be.

LD: Why then did you move from teaching to being an administrator?

MK: Craziness. I hadn’t thought of being dean at all. I was recently tenured. I loved teaching. I had finished my eighth year and was having a blast. Then in February 2009, José Roberto (Beto) Juárez Jr. stepped down as dean. The university said it would appoint an interim dean while conducting a national job search.

I actually remember this. I was a junior faculty member at the time. The faculty as a whole was very concerned about who would be the next dean. We got together at our house (my wife is also faculty member) and tried to think of who would be a good internal candidate. We came up with about four people, but none of the four wanted to do it.

I didn’t see myself doing the job for the long term, but I figured that I could contribute in the short term. It was very much a willingness to do the job – temporarily – as an act of service. Then as interim dean, I had this very clear realization that what the school most needed were two things: To create and implement a good strategic plan in which it stopped trying to be all things to all people; and to rebuild the relationship between the school and the Denver legal community.

We had suffered through a terrible bar-pass crisis, hitting a low of 55 percent in the mid-2000s. I think Denver lawyers found us embarrassing. I also think they believed that the faculty wasn’t bothered by the low bar-pass rate; that the professors here were more concerned with scholarship. That happens to be a wrong perception, but that’s how many in that community saw us.

That said, I felt that I might be a pretty good person to improve the bar-pass rate and our reputation in the professional community, having been in practice for many years in Colorado and a partner at a big local firm. In fact, our strategic plan focused on experiential learning coupled with ties to the legal community.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

MK: Who we are and what we do. We make Denver lawyers. We distinguish ourselves by finding innovative experiential ways of training students to be practice ready, and by helping them build bridges into the Denver legal community. We solved our bar-passage crisis and built bridges, so that we now have great relationships with our area alumni. If you’re from the University of Denver law school, you go out of your way to hire University of Denver law students.

Our most distinguishing features are:  (1) Our focus on and expertise in experiential teaching and learning, (2) Our strong ties to the Denver legal community, and (3) Our faculty’s commitment to being part of our students’ lives, including their curricular and career planning. On No. 1 and No. 3, I think that our focus and expertise on experiential learning, and our faculty’s commitment to openness and availability, are unique in this region and beyond. As for No. 2, while Colorado is lucky to have two strong schools in the state, being in Denver provides access and opportunities that are much more difficult if you are not in Denver.

Much of what distinguishes us from other law schools is crystalized in our strategic plan. I would add that the very fact that we have and implement a strategic plan that was created with faculty participation and overwhelmingly endorsed by our faculty is a distinction in itself.

LD: What are the goals of that plan?

MK: The new plan, which we just finished this spring, builds on the first one. Both were created with the full participation of the faculty. They felt a sense of ownership and adopted it overwhelmingly. Achieving that kind of alignment and buy-in was a triumph for all concerned, including the students – the ultimate beneficiaries.

Now, if you want to get something done, you need to be specific about your goals, timetable and who’s responsible. Because we produced a detailed implementation plan, we were able to accomplish everything we set out to do in our first plan. Given the same faculty support and our commitment to a clear path to implementation, I’m confident we’ll experience the same level of success with the new strategic plan.

One of our ongoing goals, which we call our Modern Learning Initiative, has involved combining experiential learning with an apprenticeship model. The initiative’s aim, an outgrowth of the 2007 Carnegie Report on educating lawyers, is to produce practice-ready lawyers by expanding student opportunities for experiential learning while integrating the teaching of doctrine, skills and professional identity throughout the curriculum. The apprenticeship model is based on the mentor-professor explaining and demonstrating something, the apprentice doing that thing, getting feedback and then doing it again.

There are three important characteristics to this model: 1) Mentors must explain and demonstrate. 2) The apprentice must do that thing. Teaching and learning need to be problem-based. Rather than thinking about ideas in the abstract, students have to take the doctrine and skills they’ve learned and apply them. 3) Students must receive feedback and try again.

Our first strategic plan significantly increased opportunities for and student participation in clinical programs; externships, in which students work in legal settings outside the classroom; and innovative classroom pedagogy that simulates real legal problems. These would be teaching methods that transform classroom education into experiences more readily transferrable to practice. One example would be having students form a labor union in their class as they strive to better understand contracts and labor law.

The new plan has three goals, which build very much on the first plan. First, we want to help our students build bridges to meaningful careers. The aim is to prepare students to have an immediate, positive effect on clients and communities from the day they graduate. Second, we want to be deeply integrated into our local legal community. Third, we want to produce high-impact faculty scholarship – ideas that change the world. (We have no shortage of ambition.)The plan commits us to a series of innovative initiatives to achieve these goals.

One of the most interesting of those initiatives is our Modern Learning Initiative. That was part of our first strategic plan, and it is also part of our new plan. In the first plan, this initiative was about building capacity in experiential learning. We set out to build sufficient capacity so that every student who wants can take 30 credits of experiential learning – the equivalent of a full year of their law school career. We achieved that, and call it our Experiential Advantage Curriculum. Now we want to continue building quality while containing costs.

A good example would be clinics. Clinics are an amazing form of experiential education. We have a terrific set of clinics, and are dedicated to the types of excellent teaching and learning that go on in those clinics. But in this era of contracting budgets, we can’t simply spend money to expand the number of clinics – as much as we might want to. Instead, we must ask what does the clinic experience provide that is great, and how can we provide other opportunities for our students to get those things at a lower cost?

For example, in a clinic you have a client. Under the Colorado student practice act, if you are a 3L and working for a public service organization you can represent clients. One alternative, then, is to build relationships with public service organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network (REMAIN). The resulting partnerships have the important hallmarks of a clinic, including faculty participation. But the partnership is between full-time law faculty and practitioners.

There are other possible clinic alternatives: faculty involving students in their pro bono work, or using real clients and their real problems as subjects of a research and writing class. They all represent experiential pedagogy that costs no more to implement than a traditionally taught course.

Our next task is measuring the effectiveness of different kinds of experiential learning by surveying students and their employers several years out.

Another exciting initiative in our plan is the Interdisciplinary Initiative. This is based on clients wanting lawyers to work on teams with people from other disciplines. We are very lucky to be on a campus with strong graduate schools in psychology, social work, business and international studies. We’ve already joined with psychology and social work students in the Center for Separating and Divorcing Families. The idea is that together, these students can help families resolve their issues so the judge can finalize an agreement hammered out by the parties with the students. The value to our students is learning to think about problems from non-legal, as well as legal, perspectives.

The Career Development Initiative involves producing curricular and career maps that chart each student’s path to achieving his or her employment goal during and after law school. For example, which externship do you want and when should you take it? If you really want to be a public defender here in Colorado, we’ve learned that you need to do two things well: Participate in a criminal defense clinic and take an externship in a public defender’s office.

LD: What are your challenges and how you are meeting them

MK: Given our evening school enrollment, a significant chunk of our students end up by their own choice in J.D.-advantage jobs when they graduate, where the J.D. gives them an edge in the selection process. That’s because they are staying in their existing businesses or industries. They want to end up in the C Suite, not the legal department, and believe that a J.D. will help them get there.

I can say this with confidence because from 2005 to 2007, legal boom times when people were far scarcer than jobs, about a third of our graduates went into J.D. advantage jobs.

Now of last year’s graduates, some 85.6 percent are in bar-required or J.D.-advantage jobs. Where I’d like to improve, and where we are focusing, is the percentage of graduates who are not full-time, long-term in those jobs. Some of our graduates take what I call stepping-stone jobs that they believe will lead them to full-time, long-term work in their careers. At this point, we find that it sometimes takes up to 18 months to take the next step into a full-time, long-term position. I want to accelerate the process so that by 9 to 10 months after graduation, they are more settled in their career paths.

LD: How do you plan to do that?

MK: We have taken the first step, which involves a highly engaged and active Career Development and Opportunities Office. The next step is to create a coordinated and integrated system to empower our students as they navigate curricular and career options. As part of this Career Development Initiative, I would anticipate at least three changes.  First, we will coordinate the various resources for student advising – career services, student affairs, faculty advising, externship advising and our Professional Mentoring Program – to make sure that students are getting the best guidance possible. Second, we will likely embed career development into our curriculum, so that students think about and get guidance on their careers as part of their professional development from early in their law school careers. Third, we will adopt the “it takes a village” approach to job searches, coordinating with faculty members and mentors to help our students achieve their career goals.

LD: Have you any initiatives focused on reducing the cost of a legal education or student debt?

MK: Let me address this on three levels. We are focused on providing excellent legal education, and for better or worse, that is not inexpensive.  To focus on experiential learning, and to have the student-faculty ratio we do (less than 10:1) – not to mention the type of facility and student services we have – is costly.  As with most schools, the tuition does not actually cover the full cost of these operations.  (We receive a large chunk of our annual budget from endowment and from the university of which we are a part.) While we understand that we are not always the least expensive option for students (or, the most subsidized by tax revenue or endowment), we are committed to being the highest-quality option.

That said, we are working to keep costs down, while maintaining the type of excellent teaching and student experience we believe is essential. Developing alternatives to clinics is a good example. Finally, we are working to raise our endowment and the number of scholarships we offer, which we believe is the best way to ultimately control the cost of high-quality legal education.  Over the past eight years, we have raised more than $45 million in endowment and launched more than 70 new scholarships. Some other useful scholarship stats:

  • Between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2014, we raised the total scholarship per student three-fold ($3,243 to $9,602).
  • The average award amount for the last entering class was $21,000.
  • Some 48% of last year’s entering class had a scholarship.

LD: How are you building into the curriculum the fostering of professional identity? 

MK: We do this by putting the student in the shoes of a lawyer in real or simulated client problems. Problem-based learning, along with guided reflection with the professor, gives students the opportunity to contemplate (and act upon) the characteristics of the lawyer they want to be. The Career Development Initiative will also involve embedded professional development.  Our students will begin in their first year to map career goals and strategies for attaining those goals, which will include elements of professional identity.

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

MK: I fly airplanes, including as part of the civil air patrol. I hike. I never seem to have enough time to read – and I enjoy reading. Here in Colorado, there is never a shortage of fun things to do. I’m probably one of the very few deans, for example, whose development responsibilities include skiing with alumni.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or