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Stanford Law Dean Out To Make School Best In Nation

Publication Date: 
July 26, 2010
Source: 
San Jose Mercury News
Author: 
Eric Messinger

This story in the San Jose Mercury highlights Dean Larry Kramer's significant contributions to legal education reform at Stanford Law School. Eric Messinger reports:

Larry Kramer has introduced major changes to the Stanford Law School since becoming dean in 2004, from reforming the curriculum to integrating its activities with the wider university. His latest coup is luring a Yale Law School professor to the Farm, and he's announced his mission to attract more top scholars over the next two years.

The moves are all part of his quest to make Stanford Law School the best in the nation, even if the U.S. News and World Report won't cooperate.

Stanford currently stands third on its list of top law schools behind top-rated Yale and number two Harvard.

Flush with a commitment of up to $1.6 million from Stanford to offset the effects of the economic downturn, Kramer has set out on a mission to pull top faculty from competing institutions, especially the two higher-ranked schools, in order to raise the school's profile. And after a half-decade of internal reforms, he believes his school is ready to make a leap to the top of the pack.

"I think we're in a process of developing a program here that once we've put it all together and got it working, is just unmatchable anywhere else," Kramer said.

"What's happening here, what you can do here as a law student or as a law faculty member is just different from what you can do at other law schools," Kramer said. "That's where the quality is."

...

In fact, the model for Kramer is the Yale Law School itself. In the 1960s, Yale took the standard model of trade education and turned it on its head, adding a heavy theoretical focus: de-emphasized grading, a shortened first-year curriculum and a faculty known for broader intellectual vision. Kramer said the changes "catapulted" the school to its current standing.

One sobering lesson Kramer has taken is that, like college athletics, a key to elevating a school's reputation is recruiting.

Stanford's provost, John Etchemendy said this kind of "friendly competition" is a fact of life for top universities.

"Harvard is always delighted when they can recruit a Stanford faculty member, and vice versa," he said.

...

Kramer has already brought on what he calls a "monster hire" for the upcoming year — Yale's John Donohue, who works at the intersections of law and public policy. He has offers out to two Harvard faculty, Adriaan Lanni and George Triantis, and has his eyes on recruiting further from a host of scholars who have visited or plan to visit the campus.

...

Among the school's current faculty are Michael McConnell and Kathleen Sullivan, who have been considered for presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, and noted legal historian Lawrence Friedman. The school, which has annual operating expenses of $59 million, also boasts among its alumni former Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Using strategic hires to bring attention to the kinds of changes that have reshaped Stanford Law during his tenure, Kramer says, is necessary to work against perceptions rooted, above all else, in simple geography: the thousands of miles separating Stanford Law School's tiny campus from the centers of national power where its graduates often move on to.

"I think there's an East Coast-West Coast thing, which is more pronounced in law because of law's close connection to public policy," Kramer said. "So the cluster, the fact that all these top law schools are clustered close together on the East Coast, and are near Washington and New York, I think sometimes is a perceptual issue with people."

That problem has proved a frustration for Kramer, who arrived at Stanford Law as its new dean in 2004. Since that time, he has implemented a host of efforts to reform the law school. The most prominent is his attempt to integrate the school with the larger university — shifting the law school from semesters to quarters to match the rest of the campus, promoting collaboration with departments and schools working in other disciplines and reforming his school's curriculum to encourage making use of the surrounding campus and the resources of a school with an almost $13 billion endowment.

And Stanford's efforts are working, according to Kramer's newest hire.

"Clearly the sense that Stanford is a law school on the move is a factor that made going there very attractive," Donohue said.

As for whether Kramer can pull off a capstone to his years of hard work?

"I'm optimistic," he said, smiling.