Garry Jenkins, the new dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, plans to spend his first year here listening to students, faculty, administration and alumni. His strategy now — having been in Minnesota all of approximately two weeks — is to build on the school’s strengths at a time when student applications are down and the class size intentionally has been reduced to keep results strong. At the same time, the school is offering classes for undergraduates, has added two new concentrations in immigration and family law and has begun a public interest residency program. Jenkins says, “I want anyone interested in law school to be considering this law school.”
Jenkins is a graduate of Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Harvard University. He has a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Recently, he served as associate dean for academic affairs at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Before entering academia, Jenkins was chief operating officer and general counsel of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. Before that, he was an attorney with the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
He met recently with Minnesota Lawyer Editor Barbara Jones. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have a varied background—Ivy League, Wall Street and now academia. It’s what we in Minnesota would call a hat trick.
A: I’m originally from New Jersey, about 35 minutes out of Manhattan. [At Harvard] I went for a joint degree in law and public policy. I’m interested in how the law impacts both law and nonprofit organizations. In my work at Simpson Thatcher I split my time between the corporate and exempt organizations group.
I was a political junkie growing up. I was interested in how our society could be shaped, who had opportunities and who didn’t have opportunities. Critical issues that affect people of color were always of deep concern to me.
Q: You come to the University of Minnesota at a time when everything about legal education seems to be on the table — law schools may be in trouble, lawyers can’t get work. Do you think legal education needs to change a lot, a little, not at all?
A: I’m still optimistic about legal education. I think lawyers are critically important to almost any issue. Law is everywhere, and that creates challenges and it creates opportunities. I’m hard-pressed to think of any serious challenge that we have in society where law doesn’t play a role in the solution. Law schools like this one may be smaller than we’ve been in the past but that doesn’t mean we can’t be stronger.
Q: Is it the law school’s job to make sure that graduates get jobs?
A: I do think that’s a critically important piece of what any professional school is providing. We’re about setting students up for their entire career. A law school like this, that attracts the best and the brightest, can think about how to prepare law students to be lawyer/leaders for the generation. I do think schools needed to right-size and make sure the market can give them the opportunities students expect and want.
Most of the best law schools are a little smaller than we all were 10 years ago. The applicant pool is down but we wanted to maintain the quality of student that we’ve had for 128 years. The legal community expects a certain quality from a Minnesota law graduate. I think it’s important that we maintain that set of expectations.
Q: The U of M dropped two places in the U.S. News rankings. Are the smaller class sizes about the job market or the U.S. News rankings, or both?
A: I don’t think it’s about U.S. News rankings. I don’t think law schools should make decisions based on rankings. I think it’s about making sure we can provide the kinds of opportunities for our graduates that they expect and provide for the market the quality of student that they expect as well.
Q: What do we do about providing better lawyering for those who can’t afford legal services?
A: We as a profession have to do a better job of making sure that legal services are available to those who can’t afford them. Law schools through our legal clinics play a role in that but I expect that the really critical role is creating the culture, instilling in law students a sense of responsibility to really contribute to justice. I don’t think there’s just one particular model that works.
Q: Do you plan to meet with law firms and are you concerned with diversity initiatives?
A: Definitely part of my strategy is to engage the legal community. That outreach has begun. There’s a thriving legal community here and an important role for the law school to play in that community. The corporate community that is here is growing and I think there are great opportunities for the law school to strengthen relations with that community as well.
Diversity is critical to being a great law school. You can’t be excellent without being diverse and it is something you have to continually work on. It’s deeply important to me and also important to faculty here. We’re constantly working on new things and experimenting.
We have a substantial LLM program that is largely international students. We also have a substantial number of international students in the JD program as well. It really enriches the intellectual environment.
Q: In the Tennessee Law Review you write about lawyers as leaders and about teaching leadership skills. You wrote, “The ultimate goal of [the process of educating lawyer leaders] is to help shape each student’s professional identity as a leader.” Are you saying that all lawyers are or should be leaders in their communities?
A: I’m saying we all have the capacity to be leaders and I would love to see the graduates of the state’s flagship law school be a critically important source of leadership in this country. I’m trying to inspire students to see that as part of their role. Leadership doesn’t mean you are at the top of the hierarchy. You can exercise leadership on a team.
Q: What does leadership mean?
A: I try not to give one definition. I think it is context-specific. [When teaching] I try to explore various settings and various frameworks that students can draw upon. For example, a case study about Rudy Giuliani on September 11 is about leadership in a crisis, not that I think every student is going to be the mayor of a major American city. The most successful leaders have the ability to flex, to change, based on circumstances.
You want to be prepared. You could become head of a practice group, head of an office or head of a firm. It could be that you move in-house or become attorney general, or it could be leadership in your community. There is a set of assumptions [about lawyers] that come that are about leadership as much as substantive knowledge of the law. It’s about understanding systems and how they work.
It’s a field that we have ceded to business schools and to me that never felt right. Law school is about preparing students for their whole career. I’d like students to start preparing for those opportunities so that they are ready.
Q: You write that everybody has a personal leadership story even if they don’t realize it. I’m certain that you know what your stories are.
A: Certainly as an academic, it starts with my family. Higher education was always critically important in my family. My mother was a high school teacher her entire career. My dad was a computer programmer but he taught at the local community college on the side. Higher education transformed the lives of my parents who were the first of their respective families to have the opportunity to go to college. That starts my love affair with academia and led me to come back to academia after practice. My nonprofit work has been largely centered around my alma mater Haverford College and the ACLU.
Q: You emphasize the importance of diversity. Do you have a leadership story about you personally that has anything to do with race?
A: As an African-American, every story [I have] has to deal with race. It’s a part of who I am, it’s a part of how I experience the world. The issues that motivate me, the goals and opportunities that I see are certainly influenced by race and by thinking about opportunities to advance all people who are historically disadvantaged.