Laura Rosenbury didn't plan to be a lawyer. After graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe College, she spent three months in London as a copy editor for a scientific publishing firm, then went to work in the national office of Planned Parenthood in New York City.
It was there that the Indiana-born, New York-raised Rosenbury realized that "a lot of people with law degrees were doing very interesting work that did not involve the traditional, courtroom-style lawyering.'' She went on to Harvard Law School, where she was primary editor of the Harvard Law Review, clerked for two federal judges, defended white-collar criminal cases and taught at several law schools including Washington University in St. Louis.
This year, the 45-year-old Rosenbury became dean of the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, the first female permanent dean in the school's 106-year-history. She recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times.
Many lawyers are struggling financially and many new law school graduates have trouble finding jobs. Do you agree with those who say there is a glut of lawyers?
I'm just learning about Florida's legal community so I'm hesitant to make a definitive claim on that point but I would say that there are so many different ways to use your law degree. Even though certain types of law jobs might be very hard to get in Florida because the market already is very tight, I'm confident there is a range of unmet legal needs in the state and nation, especially for lower-middle-class Americans.
What can be done about that?
Meeting those needs is one of my priorities, and I know it's a priority of the Florida Supreme Court and its "Access to Justice'' initiative. I think that being a public law school we are already more public service-minded, and many of our students want to be engaged in public service — whether that means working for government or being a public defender or going out and doing more traditional legal aid. I very much want to encourage those students and make it financially possible for them. Our tuition ($22,299 in-state) already is much lower than at private law schools, and I'm trying to raise more money for scholarships so students graduate with a lower debt load and have the financial ability to go into legal aid and other public service law.
In the past few decades, UF's law school has dropped dramatically in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and is now 47th. Why?
Our reputation ranking (among other lawyers and law school professors) is actually quite good, but we haven't done a good job of soliciting a broad range of applicants. FSU had 1,900 applicants last year, we only had 1,300. The small pool hurts us in two ways — one, our acceptance rate is higher, and two, there just aren't as many students with high credentials to choose from so our GPA and LSAT averages have gone down. That's unacceptable, so I'm trying to grow our applications. If we get our admissions up, we can move up in the rankings.
The American Bar Association requires law schools to report the number of students who find jobs within nine months of graduation. Last year, almost 30 percent of UF's law school grads were not working in jobs that required passing the Bar exam. Is that cause for concern?
If our students want to go into Bar passage-required jobs, that's what we want to help them achieve. But there are many students that prefer work that falls into "J.D. advantage" (law degree desirable but Bar passage not required) as the legal market is becoming increasingly fluid and the boundary between what is a legal issue and what is a business issue is becoming blurred. Many students find rewarding jobs in the area of compliance. I don't think non-Bar passage jobs are problematic, I think many of them are really important and valuable and also can be very high-paying so I have some quibble with how the ABA divides these groups.
About 58 percent of UF's current students are male and 42 percent female. Apart from the obvious exceptions, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, is it hard for women to rise to the top in the legal profession? Is there a gender pay gap?
Certainly if you look at partners at medium-to-large-size law firms, it's still not 50-50 (male-female). At many law firms it's less than 20 percent. I think that shows there are still additional hurdles that many women face rising in the ranks in the legal profession, particularly if they have children. It's interesting to note that neither Sonia Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan has children.
Men (lawyers) who are fathers tend to earn more than men who are not whereas for women, it's the opposite. Women with children earn less. I think a lot of it is because women slow down on the partnership track to care for children and it's often hard to get back on track. I don't think law is unique at all but to the extent that equality and anti-discrimination are at the core of our legal system, law schools have a special responsibility to look at these dynamics in legal practice.
African-Americans currently make up only about 9 percent of your total law school enrollment. Isn't that a problem, too?
My understanding is that about four years ago we had a remarkably low number of African-American students enrolled in the first-year class, and I think that served as a bit of a wake-up call to think about ways the law school can better reach out to recruit and ultimately enroll African-American students. We've done much better in the last two to three admission cycles in that we have various forms of outreach at the undergraduate (level). Then we have an amazing student recruitment team, many of whom are African-American.
The new Florida Bar president caused an uproar when he raised the idea of letting out-of-state lawyers practice in Florida without taking the Florida Bar exam. It was shot down, but do you think that's a good idea?
(Laughs). I've learned enough to know this is a very hot-button issue. But just as legal practice is becoming fluid with respect to what is a legal issue and what is a business issue, it's also fluid with respect to jurisdictions, state lines no longer contain legal problems in the way they used to. I'm committed to advocating for my students to make it easier for them to practice in multiple states. There are many ways to give that flexibility; one is what New York just did where it adopted the Uniform Bar Exam so students who pass that can also use the score to apply for the Bar in another state that recognizes it. Students would still have to go through character and fitness procedures in the other state. I think that would be great idea for Florida.
What are the biggest challenges facing the legal profession today?
Certainly technology is changing the nature of legal practice. A lot of work that junior lawyers used to do can now be automated or outsourced to non-lawyers. A lot of work I did as a young lawyer in 1998 to 2002, I wouldn't be doing any more if I started out today. That's changing the hiring needs of law firms, so that is a huge change now. LegalZoom (an online legal company) is enabling many small business to incorporate and otherwise obtain documents on their own without having to hire an outside lawyer.
What does that mean for how law schools teach these days?
We in legal education are going to have to be more responsive to the new legal practice and the new reality. There is a push for skills-based education, but we have to be careful not to teach just those skills that are more rote or routine. We need to prepare students for more sophisticated legal work.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727-893-8642.) Follow @susansakte