LOS ANGELES – Susan Westerberg Prager has vivid memories of the high school counselor who explained, before she graduated in 1960, the limited career paths available to her.
“You’re a good student, but because you’re a woman,” said the counselor, a woman herself, “there are really only two professions that you can go into: nursing or teaching.”
Prager, who grew up outside Sacramento, Calif., ruled out the first choice because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Teaching, at the time, meant elementary or high school. That was less appealing, she said, just because she’d been told it was her only other choice.
What Prager eventually decided on, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at Stanford University – where an adviser warned that women generally didn’t get jobs in history departments – was the law.
It’s a field where she’s built a career doing things no woman had done before: In the 1980s she was the first female dean at the University of California-Los Angeles law school, her alma mater; most recently, she became by the first woman to serve as dean and chief executive officer of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.
“I had no idea what I was going to do with it when I went to law school,” Prager said during an interview in mid-September at the school’s art-deco campus on Wilshire Boulevard. “The accepted cultural norm was that women would have children and that would mean you couldn’t have a career. I thought of going to law school as, well, I could do some things on the side. What’s curious to me is that my whole life has been very different from that.”
LAWDRAGON: Tell us what drew you into legal academia.
SUSAN WESTERBERG PRAGER: By the time I came to law school at UCLA, people everywhere were worried that the law classrooms were going to be empty because it was the first year that men were being drafted out of graduate programs and sent to Vietnam. The person admitting at UCLA told me that he was admitting every qualified woman he could find, and he found 33 of us in a class of 330, which today sounds really small, but then was a lot.
We were so different from one another that it made a point that there was no stereotype of what it meant to be a female who went to law school.
My interest in becoming a law professor came out of the following experience: At the time, no one there really wanted to teach family law, so it would get assigned to people who were junior on the faculty. In my second year of law school I was working on a column for the law review on the then brand new California no-fault divorce law. The person who was assigned to teach the course asked if I would like to teach an hour of his class on the new law.
By this time, I think I had this paper in its fourth draft and I thought I knew a lot about it. But it was so exciting to be in this interactive classroom where people were asking questions and raising points that I hadn’t even thought about yet about this topic that I’d spent a huge amount of time working on. And I just thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’
Then the next year, the even more junior faculty member who was assigned the course that year asked me to come in and do the same thing. And it was totally different from the previous year. But it was again this very rich experience that was affecting my thinking, and I was learning from it, and it was just fun.
LD: So legal education wasn’t necessarily what you originally planned to do with your law degree?
SWP: I’m not sure exactly where my interest in being a lawyer came from. I was very interested in politics and public policy and had this opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., as an undergrad. My dad had always been a voracious reader and read a lot of current and relatively recent political history books about the presidency. I knew it wasn’t realistic that I could work in politics and government, because that would be a demanding job and the frame of reference was that you couldn’t really have that and be married and have a family.
When I was younger, I was accepting of, well, that’s the way it is. Fortunately, I came along at a time when that was changing. I have to say that I think all of us who did things that were unusual, we were definitely aware that we were part of a change. I think deep down there was some pride in that. There was also frustration because you would run into these things where people would be exercising their stereotypes and we were bumping up against those stereotypes.
LD: Did you perceive while this was happening that you were part of a societal change, a shift in the status quo?
SWP: I think we did, because while the Civil Rights Movement started before the women’s movement, they were very much overlapping and they’re in the same period of time. I think we were aware that things were changing.
My father, who was a great mentor to me, was also an iconoclastic person. I didn’t feel that I had to do anything that was running against the grain of the thinking of the person whom I respected the most, who was my principal mentor.
He had always encouraged me to be independent and to think through problems myself and make judgments myself and not be influenced by what other people thought.
LD: After getting your law degree at UCLA, and practicing law in North Carolina, you came back to UCLA as a professor and then as its first female law dean – the first one in the University of California system.
SWP: At the time I became dean, there were only two female deans in the, at that point, 160-some ABA-approved schools. That was really a feature of the fact that in those days, deans tended to come from their faculties; sometimes from another faculty, but most often from their own faculties. So until you had women being appointed to those faculties, it wasn’t happening.
In my case, if my predecessor hadn’t made me associate dean, which was then the No. 2 academic administration job … He taught me so much; he took me to meetings he didn’t have to take me to so people began to think of me in a way that they wouldn’t have if he hadn’t done that.
LD: How has legal education changed since you were dean at UCLA?
SWP: One thing I feel is probably something that you’ve always felt in your profession: The way communication has changed has meant that people expect very quick reactions to things, compared with when you had to send a letter that you would write by hand or type to communicate, or make a phone call, which was not even as common then.
It changes the urgency that you feel about things, and it sometimes impairs careful deliberation about how to address a problem. During the time of my deanship (at UCLA), e-mail was beginning, but it wasn’t so clear how that was going to change. The other thing that’s done is that people who are literally on the same corridor will send someone an e-mail instead of getting up and walking to the other person’s office and having an interactive conversation. So there’s a lot more potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Another difference is really one shaped by the changing role of the U.S. in the world, and perceptions of it, and the changed economic conditions. At an earlier time, students and others were much more inherently optimistic about what opportunities the next generation would have. The worries now are much greater. There’s much more focus on, ‘What am I going to do when I leave law school?’ than other generations have had, because people correctly assumed that they were going to go out and make their way in the world and everything was going to be OK. It wasn’t for everyone, but pretty much.
I left the dean’s office in 1998; we went through a serious recession before that. But I think this last event is the first time I recall people feeling unsure about whether there would be a recovery. That’s what’s different. That makes it much more important for us in law schools to be focused on what we can do to help students think about how they’re going to build their skills and get that first job .
Another thing that’s changed that has an effect is that there are generational differences about privacy. These have implications that I’m not sure we’ve really carefully explored. In the past, embarrassing moments were contained by your group of friends or whomever happened to be physically there. Now, anyone can pick up a phone and take a picture. I think about it a lot because integrity is extremely important in this profession and there are assumptions some of today’s students make that certain conduct is just OK. It’s challenging to figure out how to reach them about how the professional role should change that.
All of this communication has lots of pluses but it also has negatives. That makes it more challenging for us to help students in a meaningful way internalize what this new professional role means.
It means in some ways that you can’t just operate because you’re an individual and you ought to be able to do what you as an individual want to do. It limits you if you want people to trust you. The idea that your reputation matters is sort of a general idea that people grasp but they don’t necessarily connect it to some of the conduct that has become more “normal” in this society.
LD: What are the biggest challenges facing law school deans?
SWP: One, of course, is the dramatic decline in interest in attending law schools. Law schools, many of them, are going through a major economic adjustment to figure out how to operate smaller, which by definition in private schools means with less income. Even in the public schools, many of them, their budgets are driven by formulas that have to do with enrollment, or partially so.
We also need to try to provide more support for students or figure out how to at least stop the price increases. That’s very challenging because some of our costs are ones that are driven by energy and other labor markets, not our own.
Also, as a part of the media focus on whether law school is a good idea, one of the themes is that the education isn’t worthwhile unless you can practice law. I just don’t believe that. So many people in journalism and other media have used their legal education to be very fact-based and to know the importance of asking questions and probing and not accepting things at face value and doing investigation, and all of that’s really another underpinning to our democracy. Journalism has been a key feature of preserving democracy as has law.
When you’re a dean, you end up in a lot of one-on-one conversations with alums. One of the things that I realized is that so many people in the business community will say they benefited from their legal education and how they believe it helped them become leaders in their business entity. Some of them will say, “I think this is a much more valuable foundation for what I’ve done than going to business school.”
LD: What Southwestern programs would you like to highlight?
SWP: We have a night program, and we have the oldest compressed two-year program in the country – this is our 40th year. We also have a long-standing day program that was aimed at people who had childcare responsibilities or, increasingly in the modern area, elder-care responsibilities. For this cohort, we guarantee that they will be done by mid-day. That helps them manage what assistance they need. If they have children in school, they know they can be done to pick their children up or be at home when their children get home.
All three of these cohorts are people who I feel in awe of.
The typical evening student works during the day and then comes to school at night. These students do that year-round for four years. It’s really a lot to be feeling like in all of your waking hours, you’re either at work or you’re preparing for school or you’re at school.
In terms of practice areas, Southwestern has a very rich entertainment law program. People come to it because they’re interested in the entertainment industry, not that they’re necessarily aiming to be a lawyer in the industry, but it’s a great way to learn about the industry and get connected to it.
Some of those people will be lawyers in law firms that do work for entertainment businesses and individuals who work in entertainment. Others will be working in what many people might refer to as the business side or doing some of both, because they’re not really disconnected in the way people might think.
The other area where we’re particular strong is criminal law. We supply a lot of people to the District Attorney’s Office, to the state Attorney General’s Office and to the Public Defender’s Office.
It’s pretty special to feel that the school is again and again and again, over a long period of time, contributing to this great city.
LD: After UCLA, you worked as provost at Dartmouth College and later as executive director and CEO of the Association of American Law Schools. What’s it like to be a dean again?
SWP: It is so exciting to see that today’s students are people who really wanted to come to law school because they’ve had to disregard all of this advice in the media and all of the concern that perhaps family members have when the dominant tone is, ‘You shouldn’t go to law school.’
What I was thinking about this year, as I was thinking about a new class and meeting them, is that they’re really quite special; they have a quality of independence that will serve them well because they’re saying, ‘I want to do this.’ And that makes this period one of great opportunities for us.
The other thing that’s quite interesting about Southwestern is how much our alumni care about helping current students. We see that in their willingness to mentor students, to keep an eye out for opportunities for them. Southwestern was historically a place where people had to go out and make their way in the world, and I think the alumni understand that that’s true for current students, too.
Contact James Langford at (646) 722-2624 or firstname.lastname@example.org.