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New law dean sees similarities in football, law education

May 16th, 2007


Jim Chen

Perhaps it was appropriate that the new University of Louisville dean of law, Jim Chen, started his career at UofL at the 2007 Orange Bowl game. Chen brings to the Brandeis School of Law far-reaching legal expertise that includes law and technology, law and science, environmental law, agricultural law, telecommunications, regulatory law and policy, statutory interpretation and constitutional law. But the avid football fan also applies some of the strategy of his favorite sport to legal education.

Meet Jim Chen

Hometown: I was born in Taipei. Just in time for first grade, I arrived in Atlanta. Along the way, my family moved out to a suburb (Clarkston), which is the namesake of my high school alma mater. I consider Georgia my home state — much, much more so than Minnesota, even though my time in Minnesota (13 years) was close to my time in Georgia (15 years).

Educational background: Emory University (B.A. summa cum laude and M.A., 1987), University of Iceland (Fulbright Scholarship), Harvard Law School (J.D. magna cum laude, 1991). I spent time at Georgia Tech before attending Emory. I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa while at Emory.

Why did you come to UofL?
I came to the University of Louisville so that I might contribute to the university’s grander mission, as a premier metropolitan research university, to advance the higher training and useful education of its aspiring youth. Yes, those are the words of our statutory mission and of the inscription in our administration building, but I believe them most sincerely and embrace them as if they were my own statements.

The University of Louisville is at once an ambitious research university and a powerful force for good in its community and in the world at large. The law school has a vital role to play in both domains. I look forward to leading the law school to a place of prominence and leadership in American legal education. Through the existing public service program and what I hope will soon be a program in clinical legal education, the law school will serve the community that sustains it and be an engine of social justice. These goals, no less than the combination of academic excellence and public access to education, are mutually reinforcing.

Finally, at a strictly personal level, I am grateful to have the chance to come back to the region I consider home. Though opinions vary on this, I regard Louisville as a southern city. To be sure, there are indications to the contrary. Lewis and Clark gave this city a claim on being the first city in the west, and the only other part of the South that prefers basketball to football is North Carolina. Perhaps we can blame this one on tobacco cultivation. The bottom line is that I have a chance to give back to my home region, and I hope to serve the people of Louisville and Kentucky for a long time to come.

What is your vision for the law school?
We are proud to be a school with a past. We take even greater pride in our future — in the knowledge we produce and in the service that we deliver to our community and the world at large. I hope to extend the historic tradition of engagement and public service and make it a greater part of our daily lives at the law school.

I think that 10 years from now, the law school will be doing things that we haven’t paid as much attention to in the past. First, I would like to see the law school exposing law students to more international issues and diverse cultures to prepare them to serve an increasingly multicultural and multilingual society. Second, I want the law school to help its students learn the business of law practice. The school has excelled at teaching the underlying facts of law and the analytical process, as well as instilling a sense of social responsibility in our students, but it has not done enough to prepare students for the day-to-day business realities of running a practice, whether it is a large firm or a solo practice. Third, I want the law school to be more openly interdisciplinary. Law students need to learn from and be able to use certain tools in the practice of law, including quantitative analysis, behavioral psychology and classical economics. The average student should be able to walk away from law school confidently using statistics to calibrate answers to legal problems. By being able to express precise numbers, lawyers can better measure and understand claims brought before them.

I am a strong advocate of clinical learning. The law school is a pioneer in requiring public service as a component of our graduates’ experience, but it is one of the last schools to offer clinical education on a consistent basis. It is one thing to learn about an area of law, but another to work on actual claims or cases under an attorney who knows those cases or law. I am hopeful that we can take some of that energy that has helped us build a great public service program and leverage that experience and history into the future of a robust clinical program.

You also were educated in journalism. How did you become interested in law, and how has your journalistic training influenced your role as a law professor and dean?
As an undergraduate at Emory, I worked extensively on the student newspaper. It taught me how to write, how to argue, how to juggle deadlines. I learned how to communicate on paper and before a live audience. When I clerked in the federal judiciary, especially at the Supreme Court, I knew that working as a student journalist prepared me perfectly to handle the pressure of generating memoranda and draft opinions for Justice (Clarence) Thomas. I draw upon those experiences — from the “Emory Wheel” to the Supreme Court — every day as dean of the law school.

You are a proponent of technology and host your own law-related Web log (blog), “Jurisdynamics.” What role do you think technology should play at the law school?
I hope to lead the law school across the cutting edge of information technology. Interconnectedness defines everything we do now. The research and collaboration networks at the heart of legal academia are all online. Blogging with the “Jurisdynamics” Network has informed my plan for getting the entire law school community — especially the professors, but also the students, — into blogging as a way of disseminating ideas and inviting comment. I’m blessed to have a splendid information technology team and a leading law library. These tools will help the law school sharpen its online presence.

Anyone who knows you knows you are a big football fan. What role does that play in your life and in your career?
I love football. Football has the incredibly complexity of 22 players in motion simultaneously and some intractable choices. Play action, bootleg, draw play, slant or off tackle? Eight in the box, blitz or cover 2? People think baseball is a thinking person’s game, and SABRmetrics has indeed gotten more mathematically sophisticated. But football is the truly intellectual sport. I could — and do — follow it year-round.

I believe football and legal education have a lot in common. There are significant differences between structural, strategic and tactical innovations. The forward pass is foundational and structural; its emergence changes the sport. The choice between offensive game plans — say, an option offense versus the Fun ‘n’ Gun — enables a coach to plan at a highly abstract, strategic level. Innovative formations, individual plays and the shrewd use of audibles all belong to the tactical level of the game.

No single set of strategies and tactics works for every game, let alone every play. Defenses can be just as innovative as offenses. It similarly behooves a law school faculty to retain its options across a wide range of pedagogical and scholarly tools. Clinical education? Intense skills training? Empirical research? Externships? Joint degree opportunities? Sure. All of that and more should be found in every law school’s operational arsenal.

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