Does Case Western Dean Really See Himself as a Dictator?

, The Am Law Daily

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Steven Harper

Some people think law professors are boring. A law school dean in Cleveland is proving those people wrong.

A year ago, Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell burst onto the national scene with a New York Times op-ed in which he promoted a law degree as a great deal.

Shortly thereafter, Mitchell gave a Bloomberg Law interview in which he continued to press his case. For his efforts, Mitchell took center stage in my article, “The Law School Story of the Year—Deans in Denial.”

Well, he-e-e-e-e’s b-a-a-a-a-c-k! Mitchell is now the leading man in what is shaping up as a tragedy for his school.

The Principal Antagonists

By way of background, the latest episode began late last month, when Raymond S.R. Ku—who became a tenured professor at Case Law in 2003, the codirector of the school's Center for Law, Technology & the Arts in 2006, and the school's associate dean for academic affairs in 2010—filed a lawsuit against Mitchell and the university.

On Oct. 31, 2013, Ku filed an amended complaint that added details to his original suit. He accused Mitchell—who became the law school's dean in 2011—and the university of retaliation because Ku opposed “Dean Mitchell’s unlawful discriminatory practice of sexually harassing females in the law school community.” In his complaint, Ku claims that Mitchell arrived at Case Western from George Washington University Law School with personal baggage that included several marriages—one of them to a student—that had culminated in divorces. His past notwithstanding, if the allegations concerning Mitchell's behavior once he became Case's dean are true, his personal conduct was both stupid and reprehensible.

Hubris Revealed?

Buried beneath the salacious claims at the heart of Ku's suit that have generated much media buzz is a less salacious one that, if true, raises troubling questions about how Mitchell does his job. Specifically, paragraph 86 of the amended complaint alleges: “In relation to the performance of his duties as dean of the Case Law School, Dean Mitchell stated vehemently, ‘I am a dictator.’”

Allegations aren’t evidence. Maybe Mitchell never said that. But what if he did? Maybe he was joking. Or maybe he believed it. Or, worst of all, maybe it was true.

In many respects—from framing a school’s mission to creating annual budgets to doling out office assignments—deans do wield enormous power. But the best deans aren’t dictators; they’re consensus builders. They have direct-line accountability to university provosts, presidents and trustees. At the same time, they must deal effectively with students, alumni and faculty. Any dean who likens his role to that of a dictator will eventually become a problem for his institution.

Dollars Behind the Drama?

As the controversy swirls around Mitchell, a very good law school is suffering. Case awarded 223 J.D. degrees in 2010. The school's entering class of 2013 includes fewer than half that number—100. And those first-year students enrolled before Ku filed his complaint. Apparently, Mitchell’s year-end sales pitch landed on deaf ears.

In his Bloomberg Law interview in January, Mitchell said, “Of course, we’re running a business at the end of the day.” From that perspective, perhaps Case University’s central administration doesn’t view things as badly as Case’s 1L numbers might suggest.

Some lawyers return to law school for a year to get an LL.M. Such programs offer specialized training, typically in particular subject areas. This year, Case has 85 entering students in its LL.M. program. For a school with only 100 first-year J.D. students, that’s a lot. (By comparison, the University of Chicago's law school has 196 entering J.D. students and 70 LL.M. students.)

In contrast to the more generous financial aid available for students pursuing a J.D., those seeking an LL.M. at Case are eligible only for “a limited number of merit scholarships … in the form of a partial reduction for tuition.” Simply put, there's gold in the LL.M. student market.

What Lies Ahead?

Perhaps Mitchell’s business plan is to follow the money by focusing on those lucrative LL.M. recruits. Maybe he has that vision for the school as a profit-maximizing venture. Maybe that’s precisely the direction that his bosses want him to take. Maybe Case’s central administration has given Mitchell so much latitude to wield power that he feels comfortable boasting about it. Or maybe, as I suggested at the beginning, there’s no substance to any of the claims against him.

If it turns out that Mitchell’s superiors are in fact rewarding what they regard as short-term “business success” by allowing him to run the school as a dictator, they have forgotten an important truth. Sometimes dictators get deposed—especially if they’re defendants in lawsuits.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013) and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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