Few areas of the academy are changing more quickly than the law school. To lead the school through changes that help it thrive, the school needs a dean with the skills, connections and ideas to innovate.

Traditionally, the law school dean came from the faculty and had a background in scholarship. But lately, hiring committees are asking for nontraditional candidates to be included in their pools, said Lucy Leske, managing partner of the education practice at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer; and Werner Boel, head of Witt/Kieffer’s legal services practice and a consultant. And, increasingly, those nontraditional candidates are getting the jobs.

Search committees know that change needs to happen, but they don’t necessarily know what it will look like, Boel said. “It’s about bringing vision and a strategic plan to articulate that vision,” he said.

“Change is really about providing better employment prospects and about better training lawyers,” Leske said.

If you’re likely to serve on a search committee for a law school dean in the near future, find out what skills help schools thrive. And if you aspire to be a dean, or already serve as one, consider what types of professional development could help you.

Unlike other schools at an institution that have department chairs, law schools don’t offer many opportunities for administrators to gain management experience, Leske said. Associate deans don’t necessarily supervise anyone. They might be responsible for the budget or scheduling.

But expectations from the legal community have changed, so law school leaders need the skills to find innovative ways to adjust the curriculum to meet employers’ expectations. Law firms don’t have the budgets or staffing to provide the training they once provided to new associates. So they want graduates with experiential learning.

Plus, many companies are building legal services in house to save money. They hire recent law school graduates who need different skills than those who follow the traditional path of starting at a law firm.

Declining enrollment is another challenge for law schools. The trend has been that law schools are downsizing, in part to maintain their admission rates and LSAT scores, Boel said. That means they need to make up the lost tuition revenue. That could mean creating programs besides the J.D. And it could mean greater fundraising responsibilities for the dean, who will need to engage alumni and find new ways to connect with potential donors.

Consider nontraditional candidates for dean positions

Some institutions have appointed assistant deans responsible for experiential learning or innovation. Those administrators deal directly with legal community and could be good candidates for dean positions, Boel said.

And a growing number of dean hires are lawyers from firms, Leske said. The candidates from law firms who are successful convince the committee that they are intellectually vibrant and very scholarly in how they think, Leske said. They need to be intellectually curious and have a great breadth and depth of knowledge.

They need to be academics at heart, Boel added.

And successful candidates have almost always had experience either as an adjunct or have shown a passion for legal education through bar association activities.

Gain skills to compete with outside candidates

Legal deans must develop new skills to help their schools thrive in the current environment. If you or a faculty member aspire to become a law school dean, Leske and Boel suggested these strategies for professional development:

  • Volunteer for committees broader than the law school. Institutional service can give you exposure to broader issues and help you develop the outward-facing viewpoint a dean needs. Search committees for senior leaders or strategic planning committees are good choices, Leske said.
  • Accept a staff position in the Provost’s Office. That job can give you experience managing people and budgets. You can also gain expertise in planning.
  • Expand your legal connections and expertise. Volunteer with your local bar association, the American Bar Association, or the American Association of Law Schools. You can also get involved with your law school’s board or serve as a liaison with alumni.
  • Connect with the practicing community. Collaborations are helpful for research and for gaining experience for yourself and students.
  • Be a better partner with the university community. Law schools are often isolated from the rest of the campus. They enroll only graduate students, and they are often located off campus near courts or other government facilities. But changes in the legal profession and in the funding model for institutions have driven a need for law schools to engage in interdisciplinary work.