From the Magazine: Q&A with Law Dean Nora Demleitner
Nora V. Demleitner is the new dean of the Law School. She becomes the first woman to hold that position and is the 17th dean in the 145-year history of W&L’s law school. She also holds the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professorship in Law.
Where are you from? Where did you go to college and law school?
I was born and grew up in Bavaria, Germany. All my family is German, but thanks to amazing parents, who encouraged me to study abroad and had saved enough money to support my studies, I ended up attending Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Washington and Lee has brought back many fond memories of the fabulous three years I spent at Bates. After college I attended Yale Law School, and subsequently earned an LL.M. in international and comparative law from Georgetown Law Center.
What drew you to the legal profession?
My parents were avid readers, and early on I discovered some Perry Mason mysteries (in translation) in our house. My father and I early on spent many an evening and Sunday afternoon discussing the lines of argument in the mysteries, the identities of the offender and anything else that had to do with the law. He often re-read the books just to talk to me.
I am confident he would be happy to know that criminal law, sentencing and collateral sanctions have become my academic passions.
How did you become interested in your area of sentencing and collateral sentencing consequences?
Part of this interest goes back to my excitement about criminal law issues in general. The late Professor Dan Freed is to credit—or blame—for my interest in sentencing. At a time when the federal sentencing guidelines were only a few years old, I took a sentencing seminar with him, which riveted me. As part of the class, he secured a travel grant that allowed me twice to go to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to observe a state court judge and interview her about her sentencing practice. Inge Johnson, who is now a federal district court judge, was amazing. As a Danish LL.M. student at the University of Alabama Law School, she met her future husband, also a lawyer, and ended up staying. Ultimately she was elected to the state bench and appointed to the federal court. What a role model for a then 24-year-old immigrant from Germany.
Collateral sanctions came a few years later. To explain, collateral sanctions are all those sanctions that befall an offender upon conviction, often automatically, usually without being announced in court. Among them are felon disenfranchisement, deportation, denial of welfare benefits. I began to focus on these consequences when my husband, who is a practicing lawyer, was retained by a woman in nursing school who was trying to fight a very long exclusion from the Medicare program because she had pled guilty to a minor role in a fraud scheme years earlier in exchange for a probationary sentence. At the time, she had no idea that the guilty plea would prevent her from working as a nurse. It was particularly irksome, as the two major players in the alleged conspiracy had fought the charges and won—and consequently could continue to work in the medical field. If the nursing student had known at the time of the collateral consequences, she might have fought the charges as well.
The situation of this woman, who was devoted to becoming a nurse after having taken care of her very ill husband for years, struck me as inequitable and unfair, and it piqued my interest. As I learned quickly, the United States has one of the most exclusionary regimes of collateral sanctions imaginable, concealed from view, often racially discriminatory, and overall harsh. The panoply of collateral sanctions in any state has made it impossible to compile them all. And their overall impact on an offender often leads to greater exclusion and recidivism rather than provide assistance with reintegration.
One example may highlight the irony of this regime: Many prisons teach inmates the skills to qualify as barbers; in many of the states in which these prisons are located, convicted felons are ineligible for a barber license. While we may agree that someone who committed assault with a knife should perhaps not be licensed as a barber, it is far less understandable why a drug or fraud conviction should have this impact.
You clerked for the Hon. Sam Alito. What was that experience like?
It was a wonderful experience clerking for now Justice Alito, who at the time was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The justice is an excellent mentor and teacher. I could not have worked for someone who cherishes the law more and believes in and models integrity and hard work. On top of it, Justice Alito has a marvelous sense of dry humor.
The justice never once asked anything of his clerks that he would not do himself. While many judges give their clerks the pro se cases, which are hard to decipher, he dealt with all of them himself.
Let me give you a few examples of some of the events in chambers that surely shaped me. On integrity: Justice Alito kept a role of stamps in his desk to assure that no personal letter would go out charged to the government. On hard work and the value of family: Every night the justice left in time to have dinner with his family. Unfailingly, he took two heavy bags, filled with briefs, with him to read after dinner. Today I am trying to live up to his example—and will blame him for a bad back carrying those heavy bags home.
Did you think you’d ever move from teaching into academic administration?
I love being an academic—I enjoy teaching and scholarly pursuits. However, when the then dean at Hofstra Law School, Aaron Twerski, asked me to become his academic dean, I did not hesitate. It was a steep learning experience, but I was proud to be able to help shape the academic component of the law school and support the faculty in its creative endeavors.
Sometimes being in the right (or some would say, wrong) place at the time makes all the difference. I did not plan my career paths but have enjoyed every part of both my scholarly and my administrative career.
What a question! I firmly believe that there is no other law school in the United States that is as exciting and has as much potential as W&L. It is already a very fine law school with a great history, but its future strikes me as even brighter in light of its creative and innovative faculty, who are dedicated to their students and the institution, the support from the University and its board, and a large and strong group of supportive alumni.
The 3L curriculum is the most forward-looking and comprehensive curricular reform in any law school, and the first-year curriculum combines the traditional courses with those that prepare law students for practice in the 21st century.
Even during my initial visit, I was struck by the caliber and dedication of everyone and have gained additional admiration and respect for faculty, administrators and all University personnel with whom I have interacted. I do want to single out Mark Grunewald, the interim dean, for special recognition. I could not have wished for a more thoughtful and helpful predecessor than Mark. His judgment is unfailingly excellent, and I have truly enjoyed spending time with him. I am looking forward to continuing to work closely with him and all members of the faculty and administration in the years to come.
It is an honor to serve Washington and Lee’s Law School as a dean and to be able to build on the impressive foundation those preceding me have built.
What are your plans for the Law School’s future?
Initially, I have to listen and learn so much more about the Law School and the University with its incredible people, resources and programs that might provide exciting synergies with the Law School. Whenever I mention to anybody—and I truly mean anyone—that I am the incoming dean at W&L Law, I find out about another project, another exciting initiative, another conference that is in the planning stages. I want to support innovation, initiative and creativity, and that means first learning about all the initiatives and then hopefully bringing them together in a meaningful way so that we can tell the W&L story more loudly within the legal academy, to potential applicants and to potential employers.
In terms of priorities, one of my first goals will be to focus on student and graduate employment. As a professional school, our preeminent emphasis has to be on helping our students gain meaningful employment upon graduation, which allows them to build a successful career. As I learned in my clerkship, it is important to have an employer who presents a strong professional role model and who is invested in the professional development and learning of the young lawyers working with him or her. I hope and wish that each of our graduates will be in a position to have that experience, in a clerkship, private practice, a not-for-profit setting or in government service.
To help create these opportunities, I plan on meeting with alumni around the country and non-alumni employers who might be interested in hiring our students. I hope you will all join me in this effort! Ultimately, the test of the third-year curriculum will be in the success of our graduates in the marketplace.
As part of these employment efforts, we will also consider other strategic opportunities in the Washington market, as well as around the country. We will explore more public service positions for our graduates. The employment efforts may have to be matched by an attempt to expand our public service opportunities within the Law School and the need to expand our loan forgiveness program.
We also have to be able to adjust to some of the coming changes that will impact the legal profession and our country. One of our goals will be to increase overall diversity in the Law School. In conjunction with this effort, we will continue building programs that are focused outside the borders of the United States, as the practice of law will likely be increasingly across international borders.
Those opportunities are part of the ongoing efforts to improve our curriculum. We will continue to hone the third year and then will start taking a close look at the second year, to which admittedly no other school is paying much attention at this point. We will also respond to the teaching challenges brought by enhanced technology. In light of increasing open-source access to information and even great teaching, it becomes crucial for us to enhance our students’ learning in novel ways. As part of this effort, I expect us to explore the use of online education as well, perhaps with the goal of turning the classroom experience into collaborative team-based learning and teaching tutorials.
What are the greatest challenges facing legal education today?
The value proposition of law school: tuition and employment prospects. All of higher education has to learn how to control tuition increases going forward. This will be challenging and may require substantial structural changes. A number of members of our faculty have already given serious thought to the tuition and cost structure, and I expect that institutionally we will take a lead in that area as well.
On the employment front, I hope to create new opportunities for our students, inside and outside the law. For that reason, we will begin strategic conversations with other institutions about possible joint degree programs and other career-enhancing initiatives.
W&L’s Third-Year Program is well underway. What’s next for the program?
I am excited about attending some of our third-year simulation classes and the immersions. My goal is to be better able to convey the incredible richness of the third-year curriculum to various audiences. We will likely bring industry leaders to the Law School to give them a real feel for our innovations and to expose our students to the most advanced thinking in the profession.
Of course, the academic dean, together with Dean Mary Natkin, will keep an eye on the quality of courses offered and placements. We will try to add cutting-edge simulation courses that respond to market changes and bring together our first-rate faculty with leading practitioners. It will be an exciting undertaking, and I am thrilled to find myself in the company of deep thinkers who are also able to bring true change to an institution.
What book(s) would you hope every incoming law student would have read?
Good literature is most important. Read well-written, thoughtful and interesting books. One may give some thought to the classics: Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and, of course, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; not high literature but surely spellbinding is John Grisham’s very first book, “A Time to Kill”; throw in some Shakespeare and mix it all up with some of Martin Luther King’s great speeches and “The Federalist Papers.”
There are so many great books out that I am always loath to recommend some over others. Here are a few of my recent favorites. Nancy Gertner’s “In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate” is an inspiring account of lawyering and an inspirational read for those who believe law should be about justice. Tom Morgan’s “The Vanishing American Lawyer” provides an insightful account into the changes in the legal profession.
Scott Turrow’s “One L” has become a classic. It should go on the must-read list—not because it reflects reality in today’s law school but because it has become part of the shared lingo of lawyers today—for the same reason, one should read (or watch) “The Paper Chase.”
How do you like to spend your downtime?
Other than reading, which is largely a solitary activity, anything I can do with my family: traveling, enjoying good food, hiking, skiing, swimming.
My two children, Cordell, 11, and Venetia, 8, make me laugh, challenge me, keep me humble and “fix” iPhones, iPads and any other technical gadgets. My husband, Michael, is a fabulous father and a great supporter of my work—and he makes sure that I never lose sight of what he considers the most important constituency: students. My mother, who lives with us, is my worst critic—no others needed—and makes sure I make time for our family. Together they are quite a combination, and I try to spend every free minute with them.
We are looking forward to exploring the Lexington area and all of Virginia and surrounding states. All of us are already excited about fall hikes and winter skiing in our new neighborhood. And, of course, I will make sure we also get to travel abroad regularly—one of my passions.