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August 7, 2017 / 2017 Women to Watch Honorees

Women to Watch: Danielle M. Conway, University of Maine School of Law

Photo / Tim Greenway University of Maine School of Law Dean Danielle M. Conway in the Grumbine Gallery at the Portland Museum of Art, where she has been an active volunteer.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway On a recent visit to the Portland Museum of Art, Danielle M. Conway (center), chats with museum director Mark Bessire (far left); Bernard Osher (in yellow) and Peter Lunder.

Danielle Conway knew she wanted to go into law when at eight years old, she heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech for the first time. The youngest of four children raised by a single mom in North Philadelphia, she listened to a recording of the speech on a Fisher Price record player in her room.

“I associated that speech with lawyers,” she says, “and it was at that moment that I started communicating to my mother my desire to become a lawyer.” Inspired by her only daughter, Gwendolyn Conway went to Temple Law School at night in her 40s while working full-time as an accountant and tax manager for the city of Philadelphia. Every day, mother and daughter would compare notes about law school and high school, and Danielle remembers being “transfixed” by her mother's colorful stories about her professors.

“When she graduated, she was radiant, and I thought: She's who I want to be,” she says.

Conway became even more inspired after seeing her mother forced to leave her job and go on welfare to study for the bar exam, which she passed with flying colors. “I'd never been prouder of anyone,” she says. “That made my fire burn that much brighter.”

As her mother went on to open her own practice and become a judge in the Philadelphia Municipal Court, Conway pursued her own path that led her in 2015 to become the first African-American dean of the University of Maine School of Law. In just two years, the 49-year-old has made the school more student- and community-focused, strengthened and expanded the curriculum and boosted enrollment and diversity, winning the respect of her colleagues and others throughout the state. She also connects with students on a personal level, inviting them to “sympathy tea” in her colorful ground-floor office, decorated with a totem pole sculpted by the late Judge Frank M. Coffin and synthetic lilies (her favorite flower).

“She is a force of nature,” says Eliot Cutler, CEO of the Maine Center for Graduate Studies. “She is strong-willed, strong-voiced, strong ideas, forceful in her advocacy, but collaborative,” as with the planned graduate center for business, law and public policy that the two have worked on together since her arrival.

In just two years Conway has also emerged as a community force in Maine through her involvement in numerous organizations from the Portland Museum of Art, where she has served as a trustee and collections committee member, to the United Way of Greater Portland. Every chance she gets, and on social media, she talks about the law school and its Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, around since 1970 but little-known until Conway began getting the word out.

“From the moment she came to Maine Law, she recognized the special place the clinic is and has been for our students and she absolutely has wanted to raise the profile of it,” Deirdre Smith, the law professor who directs the clinic. “We feel very fortunate to have her at the helm of the law school.”

From student to educator

Though Conway would have preferred to go straight to law school from high school, she studied finance and international business at New York University on a U.S. Army Reserve officers training corps scholarship. She deferred her Army service to study at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., where her love of the law grew. She was particularly taken with government contracts because of a professor she admired, Warner Lawson Jr., for whom she worked as a research assistant for two years.

After graduating cum laude, Conway could have taken a job with a New York City law firm that would have paid off her military obligation. She chose to do that herself at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, where she wrote administrative decisions on behalf of business owners — women, veterans, immigrants — unfairly shut out of government contracts. “Therein was born my appreciation of how this regulatory scheme could be used for justice, for fairness, for equality and for economic development.” Eager to learn more, she went to George Washington University School of Law to get a master's in public procurement law and environmental law.

In 1996, she reached another crossroads: Accept a high-paying job with a Washington law firm or teach at Georgetown University Law Center.

She chose the latter, where she learned the ropes from Jill J. Ramsfield, then the school's director of legal research and writing. “She took it upon herself, to teach me in two years, how to be a teacher,” she says. “Not how to be a law professor, how to be a teacher, but how to find my own voice and at the same time connect with students. This woman has remained my North Star to this day.” Ramsfield, now consulting and working on a book, says she remembers Conway being “a little shy” when she first came to Georgetown but with an inner fire: “I could see her warmth and her strength and her brains and interest and her energy. She got it right away, and Danielle was launched.”

The two remain friends to this day and, in fact, worked together for many years at the University of Hawaii's William S. Richardson School of Law.

Change agent

In 2008 Conway spent three weeks at Maine Law as a visiting professor. Little did she know she would be back several years later to interview for the job of dean.

Professor Jeffrey Maine, who chaired the committee that selected her for the job following a nationwide search says, says, “We saw her as someone with the energy and entrepreneurial skill set and creativity to help us develop a vision,” at a time when many law schools were seeing a drop in enrollment. “There was strong support for her candidacy.”

Eager to get things rolling, Conway came on board before her official July 2015 start date to learn the culture and “capture the excitement” of the school's desire for change, starting with the One University Initiative for a new graduate center.

While the conversation had until then centered around merging schools, Conway shifted the focus to “interdisciplinarity that would support our students' needs and desires for a more robust curriculum.” She's also done that through the newly launched certificate program in regulatory compliance for non-lawyers, and a master's of law for non-lawyers being explored by the faculty that Maine predicts will be “a great thing” for the state.

She also hopes to get two pilot programs permanently endowed: the Pre-Law Scholars Program for undergraduates from racial and ethnic minority groups underrepresented in the legal profession, as well as those from rural communities or are the first in their family to go to college, and the rural lawyer program that got off the ground this summer.

Two years after Conway's arrival, Jeffrey Maine finds that she has “far exceeded our expectations,” to the point where he worries about another school trying to snatch her away. “I hope that we can keep her,” he says. “There's still a lot of good work to be done.”

While Conway feels the same way, she also dreams of becoming a forensic pathologist someday. “I love the TV show 'Quincy.' Jack Klugman is one of my heroes,” she confesses with her hearty laugh. “I would love to do that in my next life, and I have dreams of going to college with my son.”

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