JoAnne A. Epps: new dean of Temple University Beasley School of Law extended interview

As filed – without edits – for last Friday’s edition of the Philadelphia Business Journal. This is the extended interview.

Name: JoAnne A. Epps
Title: Dean, effective July 1
Company: Temple University Beasley School of Law
Education: Trinity College, bachelor’s degree, 1973; Yale University School of Law, 1976
Career History: associate dean of academic affairs, Temple Law (1989-present); professor, Temple Law (1985-2000); assistant U.S. attorney, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1980-85); deputy city attorney, City of Los Angeles (1976-80)

What do you see being the biggest pending change in legal education in the coming years?

I think one of the big changes in legal education is going to be to ensure legal education fully prepares our students to be practicing lawyers. We’ve had the same educational model for nearly a century. All legal educators will be asking themselves how we can improve on that model.”

Do you think law schools need to add more classes to prepare students for the business aspect of practicing law? Or does that take away from legal education?

I’m not entirely sure that law schools must include a course on the business of practicing law, althoiugh I do think it is important that students do acquire that education. I am not against it, but I don’t think that it’s urgent or mandatory. I am of the view that what’s needed is more introduction to practicing law, not introduction to the business of practicing law, including the handling of moral and ethical dilemmas, understanding how to take our place as leaders in the community, understanding collaborative problem solving. For all of that law schools are ideally suited. Part of my hesitation in thinking of the business of practiing law is that we can intellectualize that topic and we can seek to help our students, but the practicing part will be a better teacher than we can.

What effect does the high cost of law school education, specifically the prohibitive loans students are saddled with, have on students making choices about which school to attend and what career path to pursue afterwards?

I don’t think legal education, when compared to other education, is particularly expensive. I think education in general has gotten costly, but, with that said, it is really clear that to obtain a legal education, one will need to expend substantial expenses, which effects both those choosing a legal career and those who earn a law degree and have to choose what to do with it. One advantage Temple has is we’re a true bargain. That’s something about which we’re very pleased. I also think, in general, the legal profession offers a secure job. So while legal education may seem costly, I think law students have a much better chance of paying back their loans than some students with advanced liberal arts educations.

What has been the biggest positive change in legal education since you joined the Temple Law faculty?

About Temple I can say the credentials of our entering students have never been better. We are teaching really bright and engaging students. A change in legal education is the breadth of opportunities that our sudents are able to pursue. The world has gone global; we have gone global. Fifty years ago, a law student might enter a small professional association, would work that job for life. That’s a completely different paradigm in 2008. The career options are extremely broad.

How has Drexel University’s new law school changed the competitive landscape locally in terms of trying to attract students?

Actually, thre are plenty of bright law students to go around, so we wish Drexel well and expect they feel the same way about Temple. I dont think that they’re a rival means we have to compete because there are a lot of bright law students.

Temple Law is known nationally for its trial advocacy program but still has not improved its overall rankings in U.S. News & World Report in recent years. Why? And what does Temple Law need to do to take its reputation to the next level?

I would like to say, that our international law program was ranked 16th. To be in the Top 20 is really an achievement, and we’re really proud of that. But, I don’t believe a focus on rankings is the way to go. I think it makes you crazy, but I do think that everyone is mindful of their existence. We want to continue to achieve national prominence and hope that our increasing reputation catches up to our work. I am focused on those programs, not rankings.

What are a few other main objectives you would like to accomplish as dean?

I probably have a longer list than you ‘d like to hear or can fit in your newspaper. I want to continue to attact top faculty… I’m very interested in adding a focus on two or three areas, like business, maybe health law, things I’d really liike to pursue. …I’d really like to think of us putting some emphasis on being known for three or four things not just two.

Your predecessor Rob Reinstein had served for nearly 20 years, how do you hope to differentiate yourself from his tenure?

He achieved unbelievable accomplishments, achieved wonderful heights, so I don’t feel like there is anything about him that I need to differentiate from. But, I see the world from different eyes. You can look at us and see how different we are in background… So I’ll follow different directions, set different priorities, but not because I am seeking to differentiate myself.

Reinstein also served as senior vice president for international programs and grew up Temple’s law program in Beijing. Do you hope to expand on Temple law’s international presence?

He has really put Temple on the international map and for that the law school is extremely grateful. And yes, I do intend to not only continue our involvement but expand it. There is a limit to the number of full fledged programs any institution can absord, otherwise to best grow internationally, we’ll need partnerships, like what we have with a university in Ireland. There are two places I most want to expand: South America and Africa. …Given the profliferatin of Hispanic peoples in this world, it is our responsibility to provide more opportunities for our students to learn about these cultures and… to bring more Hispanic students to Temple. And we have a legacy in Africa. We had a program in Ghana before it was stopped because of some political instability there. But it seems to me, given our connection with that country and what that means as a developing nation and region, it provides our students that legacy, that type of experience. … If we could establish those and have programs in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa I would be very proud.

Do your professional successes take on more meaning because there are so few black women leading major law schools like yourself?

I think inevitably I do, although they are not front and center in my consciousness. I recognize the responsiblity that I have. I recognize that I have a relatively unique position I will be assuming, and I understand that others, and perhaps others more than me, will see not just a dean, not just the dean of the Temple Law schoool, but [Temple’s] first women dean and an African-American dean, so I bring all of that to any encournter. I understand it and accept it. I don’t walk into a room with that on my sleeve.

What can the city’s law firms do to improve recruitment and retention of minority law students?

Those are two different questions that require two different strategies. The recruitment strategy I think is not specifically where law firms are failing. I think they’re doing a good job recruiting. I think the work on the recruitng end needs to start in junor and senior year in high school. I don’t challenge them for recruiting an inadequate number of minority students because there are an inadequate number of law students of color. The retention is entirely in their ability to resolve. I do think there they have to decide how sincerely it matters to them. I don’t, in that comment, mean to imply a lack of sincereity on their part. If you want something that’s hard to get, you have to ask yourself how much you want it. I think law firms really do want law students of color, but they need to figure out just how important it is to them. Their assocaites are different, so their success strategies have to be different. Not the critieria, just strategies, and be willing to support those differences.

Your first job was as a cashier at Temple’s bookstore. What does that mean to you?

I think there’s a wonderful sense of being at home being here at Temple. But I also think what I would say about that full circle is that I started at a job of service. I really loved being a cashier, helping people from getting what they wanted and getting out the door. My mother was a secretary [at Temple], so she taught me that message… I think being a law school dean is a job of service, with a product of tremendous value. In many ways, it’s the same job, different place.

See similar profiles for the Philadelphia Business Journal here. See other examples of my reporting here.

I am currently traveling. This was forward-posted on May 6.