UALR SERIES: Checking in on Dean Michael Schwartz

November 10-16, 2014

By Becca Bona

This is the fifth piece in a series of profiles on the deanship positions at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. As the University has recently restructured its colleges, and hired a few new deans to fill the positions, this series will act as an introduction and a glimpse into the future of UALR’s redefined vision. Today’s subject is Dr. Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law. The following profiles will be presented in alphabetical order, by last name.

    

Michael Hunter Schwartz took the post of dean of the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law on July 1, 2013. A full year later Schwartz is making changes in the field of legal education. This profile originally appeared in The Daily Record on Aug. 9, 2013, however, changes have been added to reflect the part of his vision he has begun to actualize.

California dreams led to teaching

Growing up in Southern California, Schwartz has always led his life with a sense of enthusiasm for learning. He admitted, “My mom tells me that I told her I was going to be a teacher when I was 12.”

After attending college and law school in the San Francisco Bay area, he began practicing law. Teaching was his true passion, as he said, “I knew I wanted to be a law teacher during my first month of law school.”

He broke into the field of legal education, thanks to his wife. He remembers, “I originally found out about the job because my wife basically shoved an ad in my face, and my career has basically been built on listening to my wife’s advice, because every time I do, good things happen.”

Raising a family of two daughters along with growing careers meant tight schedules for all. The two took turns juggling schedules, and he remembers, “it was a very stressful intense lifestyle.”

Nevertheless, the family made it work. Around the same time period, Schwartz was to discover his niche in legal education. Once again he credits his wife.

With a PhD in Educational Psychology he regards his wife as “one of the smartest people” he knows. Therefore, when she sat in on one of his classes in the back of the room “scribbling notes furiously,” he was, to say the least, nervous of her report.

It turns out her words would stick with him: “[S]he said something that I’ve never been able to forget. She said, you don’t know when it works, why it works, and when it fails, why it fails. She was speaking the truth, which is that law professors receive no training in learning theory, structural design, [and] teaching methods.”

In response to his wife’s report, Schwartz took a class at the local community college where she worked as dean. The class, an entire online course in learning theory and instructional design, became his newfound passion. “Since then I’ve basically not been able to keep up writing as much as I have wanted about teaching and learning in law school.”

He has, however, managed to implement his theories, which would eventually lead him to Bowen School of Law.

Journey to Bowen

Due to the incredibly high cost of living in California, Schwartz moved with his family to Charleston, South Carolina for a year before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where they have lived for the past seven years. At Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, he has been able to write as well as perfect his own teaching style.

His journey to Bowen began before he even knew there was an opening for the deanship. He remembers his visit quite clearly: “About a year and a half before the announcement came out about the Bowen opening, I was invited by Bowen to do a day-long workshop on teaching and learning. I came out here and I had a great experience. I’ve been to places where one-fifth of the faculty showed up, and as far as I could tell everyone from the Bowen staff showed up.”

On top of that, Schwartz was looking for an innovative, practice-based program. Bowen met these requirements, by harboring a top 20 legal writing program and one of the 20 most innovative law practice skills courses.

Furthermore, Bowen is the perfect environment for Schwartz to implement ideas for change in legal education. His work with his latest book, which came out in July of 2013, titled “What the Best Law Teachers Do” proves his passion for progressing legal education.

Schwartz has many scholarly works including nine other books, however, he himself said that the process in relation to his latest book as a whole, “is the best thing I’ve ever done.” He studied the 26 best law teachers in the country, conducted interviews with them as well as their students, in order to create the finished product.

“It was the most inspiring thing that I have done. It had transformative effects on my teaching,” he said.

Recognized for his innovative teaching style in his contracts course by the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Project, Schwartz truly exemplifies his love for teaching.

Bowen’s progress, one year later

Schwartz’s enthusiasm for legal education, from implementation to how well it translates to the workforce, runs the gamut.

Since coming to Bowen, he has put focus into strengthening the already-existing programs, as well as stressing teamwork and mentorship.

By surveying the local legal workforce, he and his staff were able to pinpoint where new lawyers and legal professionals fall short.

“What we heard from our alum’s and other folks in the Arkansas community is that new lawyers don’t know how to work very effectively on a team.”

Last year, Schwartz initiated First Week, a week that acts as orientation for new students. The students are responsible for writing an oath of professionalism, and, thus, the incoming class will have their very own oath.

“They’re going to stand, raise their hands, and swear to this oath. The reason that we’re not just proposing an oath, is because we want them to write themselves into it, rather than just repeat the words that someone else speaks,” he said.

Schwartz continues to focus on mentoring, in doing so providing a way for students to further narrow down their interests in the law.

In this mentor match-up, each student pairs with either a judge or lawyer, and the student is responsible for completing shadowing hours. This gives students exposure to day-to-day experiences of legal professionals, such as attending dispositions, drafting contract, and the like.

Like the practice-based clinics, the dean feels this gives students yet another way to be prepared, to translate theory into action. His advice to incoming students reflects this as he said, “It’s incredibly crucial that you take our clinical program or our externship program so that you actually get to do what lawyers do before you graduate.”

These changes are but a few examples of many progressive ideas and changes that Schwartz aims to put in place at Bowen. Keep up with further changes by reading his guest columns in The Daily Record’s bi-monthly “Making the Grade” feature.

When not working, Schwartz enjoys spending time with his labrodoodle Gracie, as they explore the river trails in Little Rock. His enthusiasm for teaching and learning in law school is matched only by his love for his family, and he enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.