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Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2017

UT Law dean quietly builds faculty strength

Wilson takes pride in commitment to strength throughout faculty roster

“When you have a 126-year legacy of success in training lawyers and leaders in your state, you tend to stand out with prospective students,” says Melanie D. Lawson, dean of the University of Tennesssee College of Law. She joined the school as dean in 2015, coming from the University of Kansas Law School. - Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

When asked about the faculty at the University of Tennessee’s College of Law, Dean Melanie Wilson could have remarked on its many outstanding senior members, stars of the profession.

But the dean, who has been in the job since 2015, took another approach, focusing on the school’s long-term future, financial health and goals.

“It is tough to single out individual faculty to highlight,’’ she says. “We are so fortunate to have an amazingly engaged and productive faculty with varied areas of expertise. But, because I’m limited [in the scope of the interview], I’ll talk about a couple of our junior faculty stars.

“While every law school has senior faculty of prominence, we have impressive faculty from top to bottom, and our junior faculty represent the bright future for UT Law.

“Brad Areheart, Joy Radice, and Zack Buck – all untenured or newly tenured – are representative of that bright future. Each has published research in some of the finest law review journals in the country.

“Areheart writes and teaches about employment discrimination and disability law. His well-written and influential articles have appeared in the Michigan Law Review, the University of Chicago Law Review, and many others.

“Joy Radice has not only placed her work – on reintegrating non-violent offenders into society after incarceration – in some outstanding law journals, such as the Georgetown Law Journal and the Emory Law Journal, but she also teaches in our Clinic and has won both praise and awards for her innovative and outstanding teaching. Radice’s teaching sometimes involves using acting students from across campus to play the role of witnesses and clients in simulated skills exercises.

“Finally, Zack Buck joined us in 2016. We lured him from another law school. In one year, Buck has already established strong ties in Knoxville and Nashville that are mutually beneficial for his health care law expertise.

“He has been a big hit with students, especially those seeking to practice health law upon graduation. He teaches a public health seminar, health care finance, health care regulation, and related courses.

“Buck has published more than six scholarly articles in the past two years alone, placing the work in journals such as the California Law Review, the Boston College Law Review, and the University of California, Davis, Law Review.

“His work evaluates how the enforcement of health care fraud and abuse laws impact quality of care issues.’’

‘Improve and innovate’

Dean has a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and also earned her law degree at the school, graduating in 1990.

Before coming to UT, Wilson was a professor of law, associate dean for academic affairs and director of diversity and inclusion at the University of Kansas Law School. Before that, she worked for six years as an assistant U.S. attorney and four years as an assistant attorney general for the state of Georgia.

The UT school that drew Wilson to Knoxville boasts a variety of accolades from national and professional sources:

• U.S. News and World Report ranks UT 57th among 205 accredited U.S. law schools and No. 31 among public schools.

• UT’s clinical program is No. 27 among all law schools and No. 10 among all public law schools by U.S. News.

• UT’s legal-writing program is now unranked, according to U.S. News.

• The National Law Journal and the Princeton Review rank the college among their top law schools in the country.

• The college has hosted lectures by three U.S. Supreme Court justices in the last five years.

“I was attracted to UT Law by its well-deserved, strong reputation – especially its talented faculty and students – and its potential to continue to improve and innovate,’’ Wilson explains.

“Our commitment to continuing to provide a great legal education at an affordable cost has helped UT Law stay healthy in a very competitive market.

“Compared to many other law schools across the country, regionally, and even within Tennessee, we are a tremendous bargain.’’

“After two years as dean, I could not be happier with my decision to move to Knoxville. UT Law is among the best law schools in the country, even if not everyone knows that yet.

“We boast an incredibly engaged and talented faculty, an extensive clinical program that allows students to practice real law and help real people under the guidance of full-time teaching faculty, a small, comfortable learning environment at an incredibly reasonable bargain. It is so easy to be the lead cheerleader when you have this type of story to tell.”

Leadership Tennessee

Wilson was recently named to the 2017-18 class for Leadership Tennessee, a 10-month program aiming to create a network of business, nonprofit and education and government leaders across the state.

She is one of 42 members of the Leadership Tennessee class, which will convene in August.

Among her classmates are such notables as Jeff Bivins, chief justice, Tennessee Supreme Court; Danielle Barnes, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Human Services; Janet Miller, CEO/market leader, Colliers International; Dr. Keith Gray, an associate professor and the chief of surgical oncology at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville; Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Scott Wilson, head of communications, Volkswagen Group of America.

The Ledger asked Dean Wilson to talk about the Leadership Tennessee program and about the UT School of Law.

As dean of UT Law, what benefits are you hoping to gain from participation in this year’s Leadership Tennessee class? Is it advantageous to have interaction and feedback from professionals in other disciplines outside law?

“I am honored to participate in Class V of Leadership Tennessee. The other members of the class are among the most accomplished professionals in Tennessee. They have achieved significant success in various fields – medicine, governance, business, and others. I am always interested in talking with – and learning from – people who have realized such distinction in their professional lives.

“I would bet that many of my classmates have reached their positions despite long odds, overcoming significant challenges. Especially because I’m interested in ensuring that we train our law students to become leaders in their communities, in law, and in other, complementary fields, I relish hearing about each of my classmates and their experiences. Law intersects with every profession.’’

Comment on the overall health of UT Law School. It seems to be one of the rising stars among the colleges at UT.

“Times are tough for law schools. Over the past 10 years, the number of applicants and applications to law schools have dropped precipitously while, simultaneously, more law schools have opened.

“But, for schools like ours, this is an opportunity. We enjoy great faculty and a number of outstanding programs – like our Institute for Professional Leadership, our Clayton Center for Entrepreneurial Law, our Pro Bono Program, our Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, and our Clinic, among so many others.

“When you have a 126-year legacy of success in training lawyers and leaders in your state, you tend to stand out with prospective students.

“We definitely benefit from our long line of incredibly successful and supportive alumni and because we serve a state that is financially sound and supportive.

“This legacy, along with our commitment to continuing to provide a great legal education at an affordable cost, has helped UT Law stay healthy in a very competitive market.’’

The triad of teaching, scholarship and service are stressed to the faculty at UT Law. Talk about the importance of having your faculty well versed in those disciplines.

“Some law schools enjoy a strong teaching faculty but are not particularly engaged with other experts across the country in their fields of expertise and take little interest in improving their communities or state. Other law schools boast strong researchers and scholars, but they have little interest in teaching.

“At UT Law, we enjoy the best of all worlds. Our faculty are national experts who publish their research in some of the premier publications. They engage with peers across the country and even across the world.

“And, they care deeply about teaching and the development of future lawyers and leaders. Our faculty also serve on committees and take part in service groups at the local, state and national level. Truly, the talent and engagement of our law faculty make UT Law unique. It’s a great place to work; it’s a great place to study law.’’

UT Law’s Legal Clinic is the longest running in the country and is celebrating its 70th year in 2017. Talk about the work that the Legal Clinic does, and do you find its reputation is one of the biggest recruiting tools for prospective UT Law students?

“The Clinic is a crown jewel of our college. That’s true. We definitely attract many students because of the real practice experience the Clinic offers them during law school. We are, of course, proud of that. We are equally proud that the Clinic provides so many deserving, low-income Tennesseans quality legal representation when they need it the most and when they would likely go without justice otherwise.

“And, while we think of the Clinic as a single law firm-style entity, it provides legal expertise in many different areas, such as: advocacy; appellate litigation; business and trademark law; community economic development; mediation; wills; and several other areas.’’

What does 2017 portend for UT Law? For example, the number of first-year law students, any noteworthy celebrations or events?

“We are on-track to enroll another talented and accomplished entering class this year. We expect about 120 first-year students to join us in August. The credentials of those students will remain comparable to the students enrolling during the previous five years.

“We will also celebrate the Clinic’s 70th birthday this year with a big party in November and some giving opportunities, and we will host a reunion celebration at the same time for our graduating classes from 1967, 1972, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012. And, of course, we often enjoy UT football games, along with every other Vol fan.

Moving forward, what are the biggest challenges facing UT Law, and law schools in general in the country? I imagine, as usual, trying to keep the cost of a legal education within reason is at, or near, the top of that list. What are the updated 2017 costs for UT Law students, both in-state and out-of-state, and how does it compare nationally?

“The biggest challenges include staying relevant in a changing environment. As a professional school, we must continue to offer meaningful training, education and support for the next generation of lawyers, especially as the profession and higher education changes.

“As part of this adaptation, we need to remain competitive in attracting talented students, flexible on how we approach curriculum and professional programs and aggressive in how we support our graduates in finding satisfying employment opportunities.

“And, yes, we have to remain mindful of budgets in making all of these changes. Last month, the Board of Trustees approved an historically-low tuition increase of 1.8 percent for in-state students and a 1 percent increase for out-of-state students. In addition to those very small increases for the coming year, the College of Law has held tuition flat for the prior three years – 2014, 2015, and 2016.

“During this period, we’ve been designated as a best value law school and ranked among the top 10 law schools that graduate students with the least amount of debt. So, we continue to offer a tremendous bargain. Our fees will be finalized in August, but tuition will remain less than $20,000/year for Tennessee residents and a little more than $38,000/year for out-of-state students. Compared to many other law schools across the country, regionally, and even within Tennessee, we are a tremendous bargain. Most law students pay much more for their professional education than our students pay.

Finally, soon after taking over at UT Law, you set up Dean Wilson’s Suggestion Box to receive input and feedback on what UT Law is doing right and how it can improve. How many responses have you received and what types of specific feedback have you received?

“Yes, I established two suggestion boxes shortly before my arrival. One is an electronic box. The second is a physical box inside the law school. I have lost track of the exact number I’ve received, but there have been a number of suggestions and comments, especially when I first arrived. I take each suggestion seriously. Sometimes the suggestions are terrific ideas, and we implement them. Other times, a suggestion recommends something that we are already doing. That always disappoints me a little, because it means that we need to communicate better. But I believe in feedback.

“You cannot improve something if you don’t know there is an issue to improve. The suggestions have led to new class offerings and to standing desks in the library, for example. Occasionally, someone writes with an affirmation of a change we’ve made. That feels good too.’’

Mike Blackerby is a freelance writer living in East Tennessee