GULFPORT — Once almost the exclusive realm of white males, U.S. law schools have become increasingly diverse. So has their leadership.
Michèle Alexandre was recently named dean of Stetson University College of Law, the third African-American woman tapped this year to head a law school. Nationwide, about 35 percent of law schools now have women at the helm and about 10 percent are headed by minority women.
"I'm definitely part of a wave of women this year,'' said Alexandre, 43. "We're being reflective of society.''
Born in Haiti, Alexandre grew up in New York, was the first black valedictorian at Colgate University and earned her law degree from Harvard. She decided to go to law school, she said, because she viewed law as a field in which she could combine her passion for social justice with "my love of analytics and critical thinking.''
From Harvard, Alexandre went on to clerk for a federal judge, practice law and teach at several universities. Ebony magazine named her among the Top 100 Influential African Americans of 2013. Alexandre, who starts her new job June 17, comes to Stetson from the University of Mississippi, where she was a professor and associate dean for faculty development and intellectual life. She recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times. The interview has been edited for length.
What do you see as the overarching goal of a law school education?
Law is one of the fields that is constantly growing. We train our students in law to think differently and to remove all assumptions so that they can be problem solvers because our society changes all the time. If you stay stagnant, you can't be a good lawyer.
What is the biggest challenge facing Stetson and other law schools today?
It's a challenge for higher education in general. Our resources are more limited so we're generally operating on more limited financial budgets. Thus we have to work harder and make sure our funding for scholarships remains constant and yields a high rate of return so we can support our students and alleviate the debt they might undertake for their education. That's an issue that faces students all across the nation. (Stetson's) rate of support is in the 30s — 30 percent (of fees) are discounted generally. That is very consistent nationally. There needs to be increased fundraising and loan forgiveness programs on the back end.
In the wake of the Great Recession, many lawyers struggled financially and there was talk that the U.S. had too many law schools producing too many lawyers. Do you think there is still a glut?
We did have a glut undeniably and we learned a lot from the crash of '07-'08. Many law schools are now aiming to train practice-ready (lawyers) that have some concrete bread-and-butter experience so they can hit the ground running. Are there too many lawyers? A resounding no, but there are not enough lawyers in the right areas. You might have a congregation of lawyers seeking to go to big firms but when we think about all the options available for law graduates, those are everywhere.
What are some of those options?
One of my focuses is to continue JD Advantage (jobs that don't require Bar admission or a law license) so students know of the opportunities available with law degrees. You can be in the (legal) office of a company and eventually be lead counsel. Other jobs include heading nonprofit organizations. We should never forget the important role that practitioners in small towns play. One of the things law schools should be doing is arming students with the ability to start their own business. (Lawyers) also can play a big role in education by being counsel to school boards and informing these entities about how to provide equal education and obey the law. I do believe education is one of the premier sources of good citizens and changes in society.
Stetson ranks 104th of 201 law schools overall in the U.S. News & World report rankings. Does that ranking concern you?
Of course it concerns me. I want Stetson to be on top, that's a no-brainer. I really do think that our international law and practice-ready programs are first rate, and the fact Stetson is No. 1 in trial advocacy and No. 3 in legal writing is not happenstance. We were at the forefront of changing legal curriculum and providing training for students ahead of many of the top law schools. The rankings are very complex and I'm committed to moving them. One way we could do a better job is spreading the news so Stetson is on a national platform.
Only 58 percent of Stetson students who took the Florida Bar exam in February passed. Pass rates in general for Florida law schools have dropped. Why?
I think it is a combination of factors but because it's a national problem, we are looking at the multistate exam as to whether some changes need to be made. (Part of the overall exam in Florida and 48 other states, it tests knowledge of basic legal principles). Of course it is going to be the task of each law school to improve its Bar (passage) numbers. We are taking hard initiatives and studying data to monitor improvement but at the same time we are having a national conversation.
Less than 10 percent of Stetson law students are African American. The total share of minorities is about 25 percent. How do you increase that?
I talk about inclusion rather than diversity. For me, inclusion means the deliberate incorporation of diverse backgrounds and perspectives in all aspects of an institution. It requires understanding and valuing "difference." To that end, I am committed to taking concrete steps to engage meaningfully with communities, especially traditionally excluded populations. I want to communicate to them the excellent education and value that Stetson College of Law provides and forge long-lasting partnerships.
Only about a fourth of partners in U.S. law firms are women. Why such a small percentage?
This fits in the whole national discussion about how we eradicate bias and I don't mean individual bias — we all come with our own baggage. Structurally we have things in place that make it difficult for women. When you look at the data on partners, it mirrors the proportion of women (executives) in Fortune 500 companies and the people that head higher education. How do we make sure that we are inclusively training people from all backgrounds so they will be able to be tapped for leadership roles? I think we're on the right path with legal education now but for the law firms, some of the problem is we don't have a whole lot of opportunities for people to negotiate the balance of work, life and career. Law firms that offer parental leave for all make it far better for women to be partners.
Have you had to balance this?
I have a small child I co-parent from a different state. Many of us also are getting to the age where we are are taking care of elderly parents so children aren't the only things that require people to juggle a work-life balance. I know first-hand that it requires tremendous support and planning and comes with sacrifices but it is worth it.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.