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April 20, 2015
A new dean in town

Maine Law’s new dean comes into a university system undergoing change

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Danielle Conway, who will become dean of the University of Maine School of Law on July 1, comes to the Portland institution from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s William H. Richardson School of Law.

Danielle Conway isn't one to hide behind a desk. Upon greeting me when I arrived for a scheduled tape-recorded interview at her fifth-floor office at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, she immediately got up and walked over to sit in the chair next to me. She laughed easily when asked if our exceptionally cold and snowy winter had given her any second thoughts about leaving the University of Hawaii's public law school, where she taught for 14 years as the Michael J. Marks Distinguished Professor of Business Law and served as director of the Hawaii Procurement Institute.

Her quick answer: No, she's happy to be in Maine and is eager to begin her new assignment as the next dean of the Maine School of Law.

In a 45-minute conversation, Conway spoke about her 23-year legal career since graduating cum laude from the Howard University School of Law, which overlaps more than 20 years of active and reserve duty in the U.S. Army, currently as a lieutenant colonel. In Hawaii, she earned a reputation as an expert in public procurement law, entrepreneurship and as an advocate for minorities and indigenous peoples. References to the "common good" filtered throughout the conversation, with Conway observing that sometimes we fail "to link the realities of business to the impact on community, to the intellectual and economic growth that communities must have to continue to thrive."

When she steps into her new job on July 1, she will become the seventh dean and the first African-American to lead Maine's public law school, which was founded in 1962. She replaces Peter R. Pitegoff, dean since 2005. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Mainebiz: What are your thoughts about the April 1 announcement that former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has been hired to guide the creation of a Portland-based center that would align graduate-level business programs at the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine with the Maine School of Law?

Danielle Conway: I do think we have to be very careful about how we describe the business schools, in and of themselves, and the law school, before defining any new relationship between the three schools. But my reaction is that any innovation in higher education that would make graduate studies accessible, available and current to students is a fabulous step in the right direction.

What we have to be careful about — and what is getting some concern and some negative reaction — is the mixing of identities. Using words like 'merger' and 'alignment' can really obscure or skew the purpose of a graduate professional center. I would be much less inclined to use those words and emphasize instead the opportunities for dynamic, innovative approaches in delivering graduate programs that are effective for the new millennia.

So, I would see this as a positive development. It's an opportunity to build a consortium of interests, in a really well-defined relationship. We're trying to identify the strengths of each of the graduate programs, with the goal of making those strengths more accessible to our graduate students in the context of dynamic educational experiences.

MB: In what ways might the law school assist in that initiative?

DC: I think the law school can help in at least three ways: One, by being willing to engage the other graduate programs in an inter-disciplinary way. Two, by expanding our programming in innovative areas — for example, incubator laboratories for businesses. Three, by offering our expertise in dealing with the bench and the bar and to use our leadership among that constituency to offer opportunities, expanded opportunities, for graduates.

MB: Have you met Eliot Cutler yet?

DC: Yes, I have. Eliot Cutler is so excited about the prospect of the center that he has been reaching out to me and others at the law school, to learn more about what we do. And I know he wants to reach out to the business schools and learn more about their capacities as well, so that he becomes well-versed about each program's strengths. This is a new venture; it's going to constantly evolve. And we have to, at every turn, be ready to make sure it's addressing the needs of our students. That's the most important thing.

MB: What caused you to apply for the job of dean of the Maine School of Law?

DC: I felt I had done the work I needed to do in Hawaii, and that I could leave knowing I had left the place better than when I had arrived. There was no more work for me to do there that couldn't already be done by the students I had the pleasure to teach.

I'm dedicated to public education and Maine Law seemed like a natural extension of what I'd been doing in Hawaii. The two states are similar in population size: I think Hawaii has about 1.2 million and Maine has about 1.3 million people. Hawaii has a significant rural population, and so does Maine. Both are the only public law school in the state. So in coming to Maine I thought I could be a leader, a change agent, in a community that seemed familiar enough to me.

The final reason is that I grew up in Philadelphia. I'd spent a long time away from my roots, from where I come from. I've taught around the globe, I've lived in other countries, and something started calling me back to the East Coast. … Maine is not quite 'home' but it's definitely 'Northeast corridor.'

MB: Now that you've settled in a bit, what are some of your first impressions?

DC: We have a stellar faculty. We have people here on the cutting edge of their fields, no matter what age the faculty member is, no matter what discipline. Everyone in this building is in the conversation.

Another component is an entrepreneurial staff: This is a staff of people who regularly roll up their sleeves and say, 'What can we do? What can we do differently?' These folks can change on a dime! That's unheard of in a public institution [laughing], so that is really fabulous. This is a faculty and a staff who are hungry to meet the challenges. And that's why I call it an 'opportunity.' These are people who are hungry and entrepreneurial. You couldn't ask for anything better.

And then you get to what makes any law school exceptional: the students. The students I've met here are stellar, sophisticated and self-directed. So we have here all of the components for a successful law school. And it's my responsibility, as administrator, to do the creative mosaicking of all of those components to achieve that goal.

MB: How would you define a successful law school?

DC: A successful law school takes seriously its responsibility to make sure its program of legal education is current. It prepares students not only to practice law but to be part of a team and to be a value-added resource to an enterprise. It empowers its students to think entrepreneurially about their career paths, their professional endeavors. And it teaches students how to do that sustainably, by balancing professional responsibilities with personal interests. Finally, I would define a successful law school as one that is highly integrated, highly networked with all constituents in the community, especially when it's the only law school — and a public school, as we are — in the state.

What I've found upon being here and speaking with the faculty, staff and students, the constituents and the friends of the law school, is that they all believe Maine Law serves that important role of being the steward of the conscience of the legal community. That comports very well with my value system.

MB: Is there anything the law school can or should be doing to address the problem of succession in some of the state's small towns where there's a single law practice run by one or more lawyers who are ready to retire?

DC: Yes. It's that 'Northern Exposure' question: How do encourage young people to consider locating in areas some might consider to be remote?

One of the ways you respond to it is that you create loan forgiveness opportunities — or loan underwriting, if you will. Part of the succession planning would involve helping law students reduce their debt load, and be able to go out to these places and perform those needed services.

Another way of tackling that debt forgiveness model is to create a rotating fellows program, post-graduation, where law school graduates would serve three to six months in federal, state and local agencies; and then, three to six months in local law firms; and then, three to six months with a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, or even a startup. In this fellows program, which I'm projecting needs to be a paid program, the money is there to be used to underwrite this debt-forgiveness model.

Then we have to pitch this to Maine industry leaders and tell them, "If you support this, this is going to benefit all Mainers." It's that public good notion again — because, ultimately, it's their employees and middle managers, it's their suppliers, who are going to need legal representation, from one of our graduates.

This 'enrollment-to-employment' initiative is meant to respond to the need for succession planning throughout the greater Maine legal community. If we can underwrite those rotational educational experiences for our graduates — and at the same time help them reduce the debt they've incurred by being in law school — we could actually entice them to go out beyond Portland, to service the greater Maine community.

MB: What are some of the other initiatives you might be pursuing?

DC: Another initiative is to seek out prospective law students very early. And that means creating partnerships with our public schools, so that we begin to mentor high school age students and become partners in their career development and planning well before they enter undergraduate school.

We're also working on an initiative with the Muskie Institute. We are reviving our master's in public health and J.D. program. My new associate dean for academic affairs, Jennifer Wriggins, is going to be offering health law as a precursor to that.

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