Skip to main content
Facebook Twitter Instagram

Law School Admissions Counselors

Prepared Remarks
WVU President E. Gordon Gee
Palm Springs, California
May 31, 2017

Good morning. It is exciting to be here in beautiful Palm Desert with so many senior law school admissions professionals. Choosing the right people to advance the legal profession for decades to come is an important job. 

And when I think of the difficulties facing you these days, I understand why a hot, barren landscape seemed appropriate for your conference.

It has been 36 years since I have been fully engaged in legal education, but I remain a law professor at heart. In every aspect of my work, my law degree remains the most important arrow in my quiver.

That said, you do not need me to act as a tour guide to today’s legal education landscape. 

You know all too well about the declining number of applicants, the lagging job prospects for graduates, the crippling student loan debt, the roiling debates about admissions standards.

Not long ago, a Washington Post essayist proclaimed that law schools are in a “death spiral.” 

But I believe reports of that death have been greatly exaggerated. 

As a philosopher, Kierkegaard is known as the father of “angst” and “existential despair.” So somehow this seems like a fitting time and place to quote him. Kierkegaard declared that man’s greatest fear is learning what he is truly capable of doing and becoming.

Law schools, like universities themselves, have to face that fear and reinterpret their founding principles for new generations.

As educators, we can succumb to complacency, hide our heads in the sand, and ignore the luminous possibilities of the future, or we can take this occasion to reconfigure, recalibrate, rethink and redefine what education will look like in years to come.

Modes of learning are evolving. Technology is revolutionizing our lives and integrating the global landscape. Today’s students are the most tech-savvy, global-minded collaborative students in history.

In this environment, we will either be architects of the future or victims of destiny.

And building a better future is a job for leaders. 

Law schools have long served as training grounds for society’s leaders. As evidence, just consider that more than half of U.S. presidents have been lawyers, and almost half of today’s congressional representatives are lawyers, too.

On the other hand, a legal background has never been a guarantee of wise leadership. Evidence for that? More than half of U.S. presidents have been lawyers, and almost half of today’s congressional representatives are lawyers, too.
Simply holding a law degree or working in a legal environment does little to prepare you for day-to-day leadership, especially today as many professionals like you are asked to go beyond traditional roles into tasks such as strategic planning and marketing.

After spending 30-plus years leading about half of the universities in the country, you would hope I might know a thing or two about higher leadership. And I do. 

But to define it, I can do no better than to quote Leonardo da Vinci, who said: "People of accomplishment rarely sit back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things." 

Of course, he said it in Italian,and it probably sounded more profound that way.

Today the word 'leadership' has become somewhat passé and diluted in a world where we assault one another with jargon like ‘synergy’ and ‘paradigm’ and ‘leverage.’

Often, you will come across a CEO giving a TED Talk or lecture on what it means to lead. 

And in the world of social media, you have those bots that fill up your Twitter feed with leadership advice and articles.
Everyone is a leader these days, it seems. 

But I believe real leadership involves a lot more doing and a lot less saying. 

I know you are part of both the legal and academic world, and this advice may strike you as anathema, but trust me: Simplicity is the best way to get a desired result.

So where does one find leadership?

I believe it is learned through living and making mistakes. 

The great German writer Goethe said: “By seeking and blundering, we learn.” 

It has taken me much seeking and some blundering to become confident in my leadership role. But, since the need in legal education is so acute, I would like to accelerate your own quest to confident leadership.

With that in mind, here are ten important lessons I have learned about being a leader.

1. Get comfortable with who you are and what you represent. 
I learned this most important lesson during my first tenure at West Virginia University, the institution that gave me my first chance to serve as a president when I was only 36. 

I do not know what they were thinking.

Early in my tenure, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.” 

When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.”

So I tried to change and become a little bit more stoic and standoffish, and what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing. So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I have remained a university president for a long time.

Express yourself authentically and look for prospective students who do the same, even if they do not fit your law school’s typical mold.

After all, we are operating in a whole new world. Which brings me to lesson number two:

2. Respect traditions but do not let them imprison you.
Leaders must look to liberate energies imprisoned by long-held habits, and habits of mind. “But we have always done things this way!” is not an acceptable rationale for anything. 

In too many aspects of our society, rules have replaced leadership. Regulations and outdated procedures have us handcuffed.

Harvard Law School made news this year by eliminating the requirement to submit LSAT scores and allowing prospective students to use GRE scores instead.

Now, such a move may not win applause from the group that administers the LSAT.

But it does show a laudable willingness to ask the question, “Why?” 

We must all ask that question if we hope to cut through the red tape that is holding us prisoner. 

At West Virginia University, we are trying new things, from offering in-state tuition to non-residents who graduated from state colleges and universities, to adopting pioneering curricula, such as the country’s first graduate law degree program in Forensic Justice. 

We are preparing the next generation of energy and environmental attorneys, through our Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, and emphasizing hands-on learningthat makes our graduates practice-ready from day one.
As home to our state’s only law school, we cannot fail to keep innovating. West Virginia depends on us to educate most of the people who protect citizens’ rights, make our laws, hand down justice, and help business and industry thrive.

And this nation is depending on all of our law schools to prepare leaders for the 21st century.

Current problems facing legal education may cause headaches, but a crisis like this also empowers us to take risks, to innovate, to fail — and to get up and try again.

Of course, if you dare to risk failure, it is wise to adopt my third leadership principle.

3. Have thick skin and nerves like sewer pipes. 
Criticism is part and parcel of leadership. Surprisingly, that is even true for lawyers, members of America’s most beloved profession. 

It can be difficult to remain calm when carping voices around you rise to Dolby-surround-sound levels. 

I still remember the first time a student newspaper reporter criticized me. A certain amount of criticism has continued from institution to institution. 

Do not let the criticism that streams into your office stampede you into unwise decisions. 

You have more information than your critics, and if they had the same information, they would probably make the same decisions you are.

So when it comes to unconstructive criticism — ignore it.

Remember, though, that some criticism can be constructive. 

It can show you the way to move forward. So when you get valid criticism, adopt my fourth leadership lesson.

4. Put the skunk on the table.
Do not let problems fester. We are all adults, and one would hope that includes your dean and other colleagues.
Candor is the best relationship-builder, even when the topics are uncomfortable. Clear the air and move on. 

And while what you communicate is important, how you communicate matters, too. So remember my next lesson:

5. Excuses are for losers.
In my experience,excuses destroy organizations. I do not accept them from my staff, and I do not expect anyone to accept them from me.

To maintain a strong law school, make sure the administration suite is an excuse-free zone.

Instead of giving excuses, seek input from your colleagues and from your peers at other institutions about ways to improve. That is the rationale for my next lesson.

6. Some are smarter than some of us, but none are smarter than all of us.
Your position in academia and the legal community gives you access to wisdom from many different perspectives. 

Any large organization is like a prism that reveals unique aspects from every viewing angle. You have one vantage point, but many things escape your notice. 

For example, as a university president, I know that I do not have to deal with some bureaucratic encumbrances that students and employees face. That is why it is important to reach out. Treat everyone in an institution as a teacher, regardless of job duties.

And conferences like this one are a great resource for widening the circle of your conversations.

Traditional and social media also provide a great pipeline into what the general public is thinking about higher education and the legal profession.

These days, those thoughts can be disheartening, but avoiding bad news will not make it go away.

Instead, learn even from your critics—and act as an ambassador for your institution and our profession.

Above all, focus on the future. That is the message of my seventh lesson.

7. Never look through the rearview mirror.
Do not waste time pining for the way things used to be, or the way your old dean communicated, or the number of applications that rolled in back in aught-three.

For one thing, such reminiscing will make you sound like an old man yelling at kids to get off your lawn.

More importantly, too much peering in the rear-view mirror will only cause you to veer off-course.

If your current situation is keeping you a bit off-balance, that may be a good thing. A surfeit of comfort can foster complacency. 

And it does not pay to become complacent about anything in today’s rapidly changing world. Just think how you would have reacted a few years ago to someone predicting a Donald Trump presidency.

Which brings us to Lesson 8.

8. Cultivate a sense of humor.
Even though it has occasionally caused me difficulties, I still believe humor is one of a leader’s most important tools.

It reduces tension and helps with every aspect of a job.

Shared laughter bonds you to people in ways that lofty speeches and detailed memos never will.

But learn from my mistakes and make yourself the butt of your best jokes—and definitely do not bring the Little Sisters of the Poor into it.

It is all about taking your work seriously, without taking yourself too seriously.

That is why our next lesson is:

9. Have passion for your work.
As a university president, I have often thought about the belief of University of California President Clark Kerr that a leader should avoid becoming too involved with his or her university. 

That might have worked for him, but it would never work for me, and I doubt a lack of passion will work for you.

I urge you to have pride and faith in your profession and legal education generally, as frequently maligned as it may be.
But as passionate as you are about your work, it should not be your only focus.

So, my final piece of advice is:

10. Remember that work is not the highest value in a successful life.

Do not push yourself and your work so hard that you have insufficient time to think, to read, to create, and to share the joy of other human beings. Any achievement without personal growth and the joy of relationships is empty.

Recent studies have shown rising rates of anxiety and depression among today’s law students and recent law graduates.

As educators, we must set an example showing that hard work is an obligation, but so is smiling, laughing and having fun with friends and family.

As an admissions professional and as a person, always remember: Good people get things done. But truly extraordinary people bring something more to their work than the will to achieve. 

They bring their humanity. 

They bring humor, caring, humility and the courage to be one’s self.

I learned my leadership lessons the hard way. I hope you can put them into practice more quickly because — as I said earlier — the legal profession is counting on you. And so is our nation.

Legal education still has an unparalleled ability to produce leaders who think critically, argue logically, and communicate persuasively.

In order to maintain that relevance, we must step outside the comfort zone of the past.

We must challenge traditional assumptions, drive creativity, foster innovation and renew our personal commitments to the ideals that underpin our efforts.

We must move boldly forward, holding fast to the enduring principles of the past, the art of the possible and the shining promise of the future.

Thank you for your time and I will now gladly take any questions.