6:30 PM EDT, October 17, 2013
They compete by day and don't usually gather at night as a group, but late Wednesday some of the most prominent partners of Greater Hartford's 17 largest law firms united for a cause — joined by the governor, the state attorney general, the state treasurer and the UConn president.
Their purpose: Not to raise money for a charity, though there was such a pitch. They came to honor one of their own, Timothy Fisher, who just left his job as a partner at McCarter & English to become dean of the UConn law school — and to make the point that law schools in general, and UConn especially, must be tied ever more closely to the region's law firms as the profession fights through a siege.
Most law school deans come from the ranks of legal scholars and educators, so it was something of a surprise that UConn President Susan Herbst and the search committee plucked a partner in corporate practice.
"This is nothing short of remarkable that we're all here together," said Dan Papermaster, managing partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP, which held the reception at its office at One State Street, co-hosted by all 17 firms, including a vast majority of the managing partners. "We're here to speak with one voice to let the UConn community know that you made a great choice in selecting our colleague, Tim Fisher. He's going to lead this law school with distinction as we navigate a new normal in legal education."
There were plenty of lawyer jokes, of course, including one by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a lawyer, about the intense cluster of attorneys increasing the risk of a deadly lightning strike.
Jokes aside, their united voice was not just because they all like and admire Fisher, a 59-year-old graduate of Hartford High School, Yale University and Columbia law school. They have seen a pushback by big clients; layoffs at some of their own firms, recently Day Pitney; a market in which many recently minted lawyers are unemployed; and less demand for law school seats across the country.
And it won't all bounce back with a stronger economy, so they need a great flagship law school, and the law school needs them.
Fisher's response is not business as usual. His multi-pronged plan has UConn pushing students to think about specializing earlier than at most law schools, an idea that generated discussion among some of the partners in the room because it runs counter to the old way of thinking at law schools on top of the rankings, or hoping to get there.
Along with more specialization, the law school will raise its clinical practice requirements and create an intellectual property clinic for practical experience in that field, Fisher said.
Fisher is also unabashed about UConn competing on price, as a bargain at less than $25,000 a year for in-state students — again, a surprising notion in a profession that still prides itself on the wood-paneled veneer of opulence.
He talked about the law school helping students develop "professional character," an understanding of "what it means to be a responsible professional." And he said he would do more economic development outreach. "I'm meeting with the general counsels of the local insurance companies," he said by way of example.
The overall push — offering a practical, affordable law school education with direct links to the biggest local employers — reflects and represents needed change.
"Some law schools are going to close," said Fisher, who has been an adjunct professor at UConn, "but I am really lucky to have a job at a law school that is going to be a winner in this environment."
The idea of pushing specialization comes with risk.
"It's hard to know where the profession is going, and to have kids who don't have experience ... that's a hard thing to do," said William Bouton, head of the corporate and business law group at Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP. Especially, he added, "If you're not giving them a broad-based education."
"I actually would contest the either-or," Fisher said later, to me. "You can do both."
In fact, the model in which law schools downplay practical training in favor of scholarship and theoretical thinking is not the ideal in the new world.
"Law schools are not going to be judged on that stuff anymore," Fisher said. "They're going to be judged on how they serve the legal profession."
This year's U.S. News & World Report law school rankings placed the University of Connecticut at No. 58, tied with the University of Kentucky. The yearly price for in-state students, $23,244, was in line with or slightly lower than most state law schools, and much lower than private ones such as Yale, which is No. 1 and costs $53,600 a year.
Herbst, scanning the room full of influential barristers, said Fisher was the "hands down" choice.
"Tim, you'll need this support when the honeymoon is over," she said, after Malloy had quipped that he's trying to create jobs by leveraging assets such as UConn, while fixing the football program was her problem.
Herbst said hiring a partner from a private firm was not a given. "We knew we were going to shake things up but it was a matter of how and who," she said.
Naturally, she and others want this well-paid group to donate to the school where many of them studied law, but, said Papermaster, "The biggest thing we need to do is hire UConn graduates."
That depends on the continuing shakeout among firms. John Ritter, president of the UConn Law School Foundation, said he believes that in five years, all 17 of the firms represented at the reception will still be here, but he added, "some will merge." Ritter's brother Tom, former speaker of the state House, now at Brown Rudnick, said the Ritters have known Fisher — who now lives in West Hartford — since they were teens in Hartford's West End. "He hasn't changed much," Tom Ritter said.
Tom and John Ritter and many of their family members graduated from UConn's law school, and as for pushing up the rankings, Tom Ritter said that shouldn't happen at all costs. For example, having a significant night law school program could hurt the rankings because it attracts fewer elite students, but he added, "It makes a big difference in a lot of people's lives."
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