California - Law Schools Stanford Law School: An Enormous Untapped Potential

Sunday, January 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Dean Larry Kramer, Stanford Law School.

Editor: Dean Kramer, would you tell our readers how you came to choose a career in academic law?

Kramer: I grew up outside Chicago and went to a public high school in an area where there was not an emphasis on academic values. I was admitted to Brown University and was the first person in the history of my high school to go to an Ivy League university. I was taken with the academic world and gradually developed the idea of staying in it. It was then a question of finding the right subject. In law school - at the University of Chicago - I decided that the law was a subject worthy of spending one's life on.

Editor: How did you come to Stanford Law School? What were the things that attracted you?

Kramer: Having been an academic for 20 years, I had reached a point in my career at which I had satisfied many of the goals I had set for myself as a scholar. The opportunity to be a dean and to really help shape an institution was very attractive. Stanford was, and is, one of the three law schools that can claim to be the best in the country and at the same time an institution with enormous potential. The opportunity to be dean was irresistible.

Editor: During the brief period you have been at Stanford have there been any particular highlights?

Kramer: I came to Stanford with the sense that there was an enormous untapped potential, only to discover that I had underestimated how much. My first 18 months here has been an exercise in getting things - new ideas, new programs - in motion. Much of this activity relates to the fact that the law school exists within one of the great universities of the world. We are in the process of integrating the law school into the university - and its multitude of world-class departments and professional schools - in a way that will leverage its resources to the benefit of our students and faculty.

Editor: How about challenges?

Kramer: The challenges derive from the long-standing separation between the law school and the university. Stanford Law School has gone its own way since the mid-1960s, and dealing with an institutional mind set that believes in autonomy - and one that has been in place for such a long time - is a difficult challenge.

Editor: You have spoken about the ways in which the practice of law has changed in recent years. Would you share with us your thoughts on the impact of globalization, the new economy, and the information revolution on our profession?

Kramer: The practice of law has changed in a variety of ways. Certainly globalization has transformed the work of lawyers in a very fundamental way. When I graduated from law school a generation ago, an international practice was unique. Only a handful of firms Coudert Brothers and Baker & McKenzie come to mind - engaged in it. Today, all of the graduates of Stanford Law School are going to be handling cross-border transactions, international business deals or simply dealing with lawyers from foreign jurisdictions during the course of their careers. The international program that we offer, accordingly, is an extremely important part of the curriculum.

Another major change is the demand for specialization. The days when a recent law graduate would move through different departments during his or her early years at a law firm are long gone. New lawyers are expected to gravitate to a specialty much earlier than in the past. They are also expected to be able to understand their clients, and that includes an expectation that they be able to evaluate risks from the client's perspective. All of this means that a law school curriculum must incorporate additional dimensions. If the law school itself provides the core legal curriculum, it is the rest of the university - which represents the students' future clients - that provides access to the thought processes and substantive knowledge that are essential to a career in the new century.

Editor: What are the implications of these changes for Stanford Law School?

Kramer: We are looking to develop a new interdisciplinary educational model. Interdisciplinary education initially meant that lawyers were to receive an introduction to other disciplines within the university. The new model involves an integration between the traditional law curriculum and other areas directly relevant to the student's prospective career. Clearly, a joint JD/MBA is a stronger foundation for a career in business law than a JD only, but someone intending to practice as an environmental or healthcare lawyer is going to need a different set of skills to function well in those arenas. What we are attempting to do is establish a multidimensional platform which includes the core legal education and access to a variety of substantive areas where lawyers pursue their careers today.

Editor: How do you go about recruiting, and then retaining, a world-class faculty for such an ambitious undertaking?

Kramer: Every law school - and Stanford is no exception - faces difficult issues which include housing and the cost of living. Beyond that, however, the way to recruit a world-class faculty is attract them to a world-class institution. A law school that provides its faculty with an opportunity to grow, to develop and implement new ideas, is going to be able to attract people who care about quality. I believe we have sufficient momentum to continue to attract the caliber of scholar who helps us maintain our eminence.

Editor: Obviously, Stanford Law School is in the enviable position of attracting a superb student body. Nevertheless, it must compete with a number of other institutions for the very best applicants. What are the things you emphasize in recruiting your student body?

Kramer: The competition for students is very intense. I do not believe in the need to limit our students to just those with the highest LSAT scores, however. We try to attract the students we want by emphasizing the high intellectual quality of the institution, by its friendly atmosphere and sociability and by the opportunity to attain a legal education that is both broader and deeper than what is available elsewhere. We emphasize who we are.

Editor: One of the themes of our publication concerns the commitment of the profession to pro bono activities and community service. How does Stanford Law School go about inculcating this culture in its students?

Kramer: We have a number of initiatives that attempt to implant the culture of pro bono and community service in our students. At most law schools the traditional public interest program is focused on creating resources for those who wish to dedicate their lives to public interest lawyering. We attempt to convince all of our students that the legal profession has an obligation to engage in activities that will benefit the public. There are many ways in which this obligation can be met, but the important thing is that the obligation be acknowledged, and an early introduction to it, I think, is the way to encourage a lifelong commitment. We are in the process of creating a public service center which is designed, among other things, to encourage this commitment through mentoring programs, awards and other forms of recognition.

Editor: Today the cost of law school - and particularly the celebrated private schools that compete for the very best students - is very high. Students from minority communities are most affected. What is the answer here?

Kramer: There is no question but that those who start off poorer have less capacity to attend law school than those who begin higher up the ladder. I understand this dilemma very well, having come to my first job with educational debt in approximately the same amount as my entire first-year salary. It is interesting to me that that ratio - debt to initial year salary - has remained approximately the same over the past 40 years with respect to law graduates going into private practice. The real problem lies with those who do not wish to go into private practice. Years ago, the initial pay for public interest lawyering was about the same as what was available in private practice. That has changed dramatically in recent years. Private sector salaries have risen at a much faster rate than public interest salaries. As a consequence, Stanford Law School has established a loan forgiveness program for those who choose to take a public sector position with limited compensation. If one of our students takes one of these jobs for a 10-year period, for example, the entirety of his or her loans is forgiven. Of course, that forgiveness stops if the person goes into private practice.

Editor: Please tell us about your vision for Stanford Law School. Where would you like it to be in, say, ten years?

Kramer: I would like Stanford Law School to be recognized as the finest place to obtain a professional legal education suited for the next generation. By that I mean a law school in which students spend their first year learning what it is that constitutes a great lawyer and their second and third years as university students focused on the law in a discussion that goes beyond the specific cases, rulings and statutes that set the framework for the classroom.

Speaking more specifically, I think we are going to pay close attention to the joint degree in the coming years. Most law schools offer such programs. A joint JD/Ph.D. is intended for people who wish to pursue academic careers. The JD/MBA is particularly important, and these graduates often do well whether they go into business or law. Earth science programs are very well suited for those headed for careers in environmental law, and a variety of engineering disciplines provide an excellent foundation for IP lawyers. Lawyers with an interest in health care law are going to be interested in biomedical ethics and other subjects taught by the medical faculty. Education law lawyers will gravitate to the education school. Over the next few years I think we will see a number of new joint degree programs emerging, and one of the challenges will be to get the correct balance between or among the different disciplines. And since joint degree programs are not for everyone, we are going to have to structure concentrations in a variety of areas for those who will enter the professional world with just the JD degree. I am sure that Stanford Law School will be among the leaders in these developments.

Please email the interviewee at with questions about this interview.