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Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

A Conversation with Dean Martin Katz ~ By Barbara Mueller

Martin Katz will step down on June 30, 2016, after approximately seven years as dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The Docket recently met with Dean Katz to discuss the evolution of law school education at DU during his tenure.

Docket: Let’s start by talking about what initially drew you to wanting to be a dean?
Dean Katz: Nothing.

Docket: Nothing?
Dean Katz: No. This is not a job I thought I wanted, ever. It’s not that I didn’t want it; it just wasn’t on my radar. I left private practice [at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP] to be a professor. It was a strange set of events that led me to being dean. Our former dean was stepping down, and the chancellor was going to hire an interim dean. Someone suggested me, and that was probably the first time I ever thought about it. So, that was how the whole thing started, and I felt like I had license to start things moving. The first thing we did was this big strategic planning exercise where we went out in the legal community and really asked what you need in the next generation of law graduates.

Docket: So what did you find to be the most surprising thing about the job? What didn’t you know you were going to have to do going in?
Dean Katz: What I didn’t understand and what I think is really hard to understand before doing the job, is its scope. You realize that the connection with the alumni in the Denver legal community is not just an abstract concept. It’s actually essential, especially if you’re doing experiential education. It’s essential to the lifeblood of the school in terms of helping our students learn the art and science of becoming a lawyer and connecting with the community.

Docket: Let’s talk about DU’s experiential learning program. What was the process needed to get such a program adopted? How long did it take? What steps did you have to follow?
Dean Katz: I’ve actually realized that the experience we’ve had at DU is probably somewhat unique in that there is only a small set of schools that have been able to pivot into experiential learning as deeply and quickly as we have. The results that we’ve had were somewhat dependent on a particular set of circumstances that started largely with the strategic planning process in 2009. It wasn’t just a dean-driven process; our faculty was very involved. And the other thing was this sense of foreboding in legal education. I think in 2009 we were able to see that legal education didn’t have the option of just staying the same. We were going to be increasingly called upon to justify the value proposition. And I think that the third ingredient that we had that really congealed the whole thing was the sense of history about who we are at DU. Actually, our school’s clinic program was the first in the country.

Docket: I did a clinical program when I went here, so in 1977 there was a clinic program already running.
Dean Katz: 1904 was when DU’s clinic program started. [Laughing.] We were essentially the legal aid dispensary for Denver at the time. Before 2009, it was widely thought that you could either lean into that kind of experiential model of teaching, or you could aspire to rise within the U.S. News hierarchy, but you couldn’t do both. Again, that’s sort of the inflection point in 2009. I think we had this epiphany that said maybe it’s now time when you can do both of those things, and we made a bet that essentially we could — and I think the bet has paid off.

Docket: Where you are now is really the leading edge of experiential learning.
Dean Katz: We are thought of as among the nation’s leaders in experiential legal education. And U.S. News in their print magazine this year highlights five schools that “break the mold.” We are one of those schools.

Docket: I would’ve thought the hard sell for the program would be the faculty. It doesn’t sound like that was the case.
Dean Katz: You’re absolutely right when you talk about other schools. There are two forms of resistance that you will tend to see among faculty, and one is who is going to teach it. Our faculty realized how rewarding this type of teaching could be, and really rolled up their sleeves to be able to give this gift to their students.

Docket: Either, “I have never taught law that way, or I haven’t done anything like that for 20 years.”
Dean Katz: Yes, so it was a matter of providing support for them to get off the fence. There’s nothing that motivates us like the students saying, it changed my life.
Another place we’ll get faculty resistance sometimes is in terms of what I see as a false dichotomy between teaching and scholarship.

Docket: So, reputational damage of some sort?
Dean Katz: Exactly. But it really is a false dichotomy. Most of our best scholars are also our best teachers.

Docket: So, this has been a six-year process now. Are there things you’re looking at that could change going forward?
Dean Katz: Yes. In fact, just last year we revisited our strategic plan with an idea toward continued improvement in experiential learning. The thing that excites me most is starting to push it a little more into the first-year curriculum.

Docket: That’s your foundational period; you need to learn how to—
Dean Katz: Think like a lawyer first. I don’t see us wholesale changing the first-year curriculum, but I do see us starting to incorporate experiential components.

Docket: That’s interesting.
Dean Katz: Exactly. Team exercises, they’re great … The last piece of it is I would love to see the barriers breaking down between the law school and the other schools on campus.

Docket: Do you see the next big thing in law schools being something like that?
Dean Katz: Yes, and that goes back to what we hear clients and law firms say they want from the next generation of law grads.

Docket: So, why are you stopping now?
Dean Katz: There are a couple of reasons why I am stopping now. The things that were most important for me to do I feel like I’ve done. The other thing is that this job is best done as a 24/7 kind of job, and I’d rather spend seven years doing this all-in and stop before I burn out.

Docket: Thank you, Dean Katz. Is there anything else that you’re dying to tell somebody?
Dean Katz: I guess the only other thing I’d say is I felt like it was really important to me to hand the job over to a new person in a way where the basic foundation is very solid — and I mean that from a budgetary perspective, and I mean that from a strategic planning perspective. I felt like if I did, then two things are going to happen. One is we’ll be able to attract some really great talent to be our next dean; and second, that person will have a whole lot of room to continue pushing things up without having to worry about some of the things that have plagued us in the past. I think we’re at a point where I’m really excited to see what the next person does. D

As of July 1, 2016, Bruce Smith, J.P., Ph.D. will take over as Dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Barb smallBarbara Mueller is a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP, practicing in the firm’s Real Estate, Cleantech and Climate, and Healthcare groups. She graduated from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law a (really) long time ago.

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