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Paul Mahoney
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An Interview with Paul Mahoney

AS A SCHOLAR, Paul Mahoney has been published in leading journals of law, finance, accounting, and economics, demonstrating a range of output and intellectual interest that makes him one of the leading academics of his generation. And so he begins his deanship with the admiration of the faculty and the legal academy and an appreciation of the challenges that face Virginia. Competition for the finest students and professors is fierce and unabating. Mahoney sees Virginia as the ideal in legal education and intends to promote its hallmarks — serious scholarship, teaching excellence, and the quality of the student experience — to support that claim. Mahoney is committed to bridging what is unique about Virginia – its culture and humanity, the civility and public-mindedness of its graduates — with its proper place as a leader among law schools. The Virginia example, in Mahoney’s opinion, should influence legal education everywhere. He makes that case in the interview that follows.

UVAL: You first arrived here in 1990, and aside from a few visiting professorships and some work in the developing world, you’ve never left.

PM: That’s right. This has been my home for my entire academic career. The thing that most attracted me to Virginia was the sense of collegiality and common purpose among the faculty. This is not a place in which people feel that in order to disagree with someone, you must make an enemy of that person. People here can disagree quite passionately about things but still remain friends. I think that is an under-appreciated skill.

The other thing that attracted me was the immense sense of intellectual seriousness here. One easy way to measure that is to compare how often the faculty are here in the building talking to one another in comparison to a lot of other law schools.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that the students are happy, which is simply wonderful. Without naming names, I’ve been to law schools in which the students are told by their peers the day they arrive “you’re going to be miserable here and the objective is to survive it.” And, of course, they believe and react to that and it becomes self-fulfilling. Here incoming students hear from their peers “you’re going to love it here, you’re going to have a great time and you’ll be happy” — and they are.

UVAL: What do you think accounts for that?

PM: I don’t have a very good theory about that. One thing I do know from my academic work is that there are many things in life where if you’re in a particular equilibrium — whether good or bad — it’s relatively easy to stay there. What’s hard is to move from one to another, so I’m glad that we are in a very good place when it comes to the student experience.

UVAL: What can you do as dean to keep it going?

PM: The main thing I can do is always remind the faculty of what I love about this institution, which is that teaching and the student experience come first. We are very focused on quality teaching. After all, the students are here to get an education first and foremost. They really appreciate the fact that the faculty are trying hard to deliver the best educational experience. It’s easier to be happy when you think that the people who are running the Law School and the people who are teaching in the Law School have your best interests at heart.

UVAL: What are the “crown jewels” of the Law School?

PM: I think the Law School has several crown jewels: the student culture, the faculty culture, and the physical environment. This is a lovely place. We’re in a wonderful small town, one of the nicest places to live I’ve ever seen. We have an attractive building that still amazes those of us who remember the old Withers-Brown Hall. Our faculty is just magnificent. They’re very student-focused, but at the same time they’re exceptional researchers.

The faculty is also extremely analytical in its scholarship. They are really looking for the truth, if that doesn’t sound too trite, as opposed to just getting up on a soap box and preaching.

UVAL: The admissions process in every law school has become more systematic and, some might say, impersonal. Is that an issue for admitted students when deciding between Virginia and another top law school?

PM: Well, the good news is that because of the size of the investment that students make in their legal education — and I’m not, of course, just talking about tuition; I’m also talking about giving up three years of potential earnings while they attend law school — students take their decision very, very seriously. That means that most of them, once they’ve made an initial winnowing of their list, will try to spend some time at the different law schools. If we can get an applicant here to the Law Grounds, we’ve got a very good chance of convincing that student to come to Virginia because they immediately see all of the special things that I’ve just talked about. I think we show very well in comparison to most schools.

UVAL: You have cited faculty free-agency as the most important challenge to the Law School. How does that affect the legal academy and how does it affect students?

PM: Faculty movement makes it harder to maintain the special culture of your institution. I said just a moment ago that once you’re in an equilibrium, it’s easier to stay there than to move from one to another. That is in part a function of what in game theory we call “repeat play,” which is that you’ve got the same people interacting with one another time and again. When that premise is no longer true and you’ve got new people all the time interacting with one another, then it becomes much harder to maintain whatever it is that defines your institution. The higher your rate of turnover, the more effort the dean and other faculty leaders have to make to assure that all of the special aspects of our culture — the collegiality, the sense of intellectual seriousness and purpose, the rigor of the scholarly enterprise — all remain intact.

From a financial standpoint, schools try to attract other schools’ professors by offering them more money just the way any other business would. I don’t think that makes us different from any other part of the economy. That’s just the way you compete to get the people you want. That certainly used to be less true but all law schools have to adapt to it and we’re certainly adapting to it as well.

UVAL: How about the students?

PM: I think it has less impact on students. They’re here for only three years at a time, so they don’t see as much of the turnover over the long run as we do. It is important to realize that we’re constantly bringing in fantastic teachers. The new people that we hire are really wonderful teachers themselves and so we’ve been able to maintain our student-focused culture in the face of increased turnover. That means the turnover has less of an impact on the students.

Now, having said that, in modern law school life there are blogs and other online resources that pay tremendous attention to all of these moves. That can create some anxiety among the students, not because it has a direct impact on their education but because they fear it’s going to affect the long-run reputation of the school. Fortunately, I think that we’ve been able to get the message out to them that we’re not the only people affected by this constant moving around of professors. It’s happening all over the country. We’re constantly bringing in first-rate people so it’s not something that concerns us nor is it something the students need to be concerned about.

UVAL: How do we identify new talent?

PM: We are constantly on the lookout for new scholarship that looks interesting and exciting. We pay a lot of attention to what our peers at other schools are doing in their scholarly work. And, of course, we make sure before we hire someone that they are going to embrace the fact that excellent teaching and collegiality matter a lot here.

On the entry level, I’ll just repeat a boast that I often make: we are the best talent spotters in the business. We work incredibly hard during the entry-level hiring season to identify young people who have the potential to be first-rate scholars and effective teachers. We bring them in to give a job talk. We have them meet with our students and take seriously the student reaction. We are willing to take a certain amount of risk with people who might have slightly less gaudy resumes but in talking to them and reading their scholarship we can say, “Hey, this person seems pretty interesting.”

UVAL: Do we stress these entry-level hires more than other top law schools?

PM: If you look at the very top law schools, they tend to rely a little bit more on lateral hiring versus entry-level hiring. We tend to get more of our faculty on the entry level, so we put a lot of effort into the entry-level hiring process.

UVAL: Can you tell us a little bit about our new Harrison Professor, Fred Schauer, who was formerly the Academic Dean and Acting Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government?

PM: Fred Schauer is one of the most impressive scholars I’ve ever met. His work both on free expression and jurisprudence have been absolutely path breaking and have made him one of the nation’s most influential legal theorists, so I am extremely excited that we were able to recruit him. That’s particularly true because he’s a wonderful colleague. He’s very engaged. He likes to talk about his work. He likes to talk about other people’s work. He likes to talk about ideas, so he just fits perfectly with this faculty.

UVAL: Let’s change gears and talk about the effect of financial self-sufficiency. It has been a boon to the Law School, but it has also elevated tuition. Can you explain the reason for the rise?

PM: I think the best explanation is that we are responding to what our customers want. If you try to compete in the top tier of legal education by offering for less money a lower quality product — a less impressive faculty, a smaller selection of courses, lower quality courses — you’re going to lose out every single time to schools that offer a higher standard of service for more money. We have to be careful, of course, because preferences can always change and if they do, we’ll react to that. But if you are providing a service, ultimately, you have to take your cue from the buyers about what service they want and what they’re willing to pay for it. What you discover is that the type of student we want to attract is more sensitive to the quality of what they’re getting than they are to the price.

UVAL: And we try to ease the cost by offering after-the­fact loan forgiveness and before-the-fact scholarship money.

PM: Exactly so. I have one overriding goal, which is that no one ever calls us up and says “I want to go to Virginia, but I just can’t afford it.” For now, we have solved that problem. I don’t think we’re losing people because we can’t provide enough financial aid for them to be able to afford to come.

The next step is to put yourself in a position where a student choosing between us and another law school is choosing based on where they want to go rather than who is offering them more financial aid. That’s a more complicated problem to solve.

But I think it’s important to recognize that because of the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program, students who go into public service or into private practice in the underserved areas of the Commonwealth are able to have a significant amount of their educational debt forgiven. Of course, for the students who end up in private practice in big city law firms, the burden of that student indebtedness is quite bearable.

UVAL: The top private law schools have had decades to build their endowments. We got started later and are playing catch-up. Until we do, how do we compete — you have used the term “punch above our weight — as we grow our endowment base?

PM: We punch above our weight by taking maximum advantage of our competitive strengths — particularly the student culture and the fact that our graduates are in very high demand. We can tell students that if you come to Virginia, your job opportunities are every bit as good as they would be at any other law school and you’re going to enjoy the experience on top of it. That’s a pretty attractive package right there.

Our graduates are in incredibly high demand in the marketplace because we produce, and always have produced, a different kind of lawyer — a lawyer who is able to work in teams and represent clients effectively yet remain civil and not succumb to the temptation to use scorched-earth tactics. Our graduates come out not just with legal skills but with interpersonal and leadership skills that make them able to punch above their weight in their careers. Add the fact that they’re actually going to enjoy themselves here and that means that we’re able to attract students even in competition with schools that are better funded than we are.

On the faculty side, our competitive success turns on two important factors: one is simply our ability to spot talent. If we’re the only people who figure out that a particular person is going to be really great, then we’re going to get that person. The other advantage is that this is a wonderful place for faculty. People tend to thrive here—it’s amazing to think of all the highly influential scholarship that’s been produced in this building during the time I’ve been here. And that takes place in a very pleasant atmosphere. The professors are happy. The students are happy. For a lot of people, that’s hugely attractive.

We are able to sustain that scholarly influence because of the sense of intellectual purpose that I spoke about earlier. People are excited about their research here. They’re talking to one another about their research. There’s a real synergy that we’ve built up in scholarship on the faculty that makes each of us more effective than we would be if we were just off on our own somewhere.

UVAL: It’s almost a flywheel effect: a place known for collegiality and intellectual excellence attracting that type of student and faculty.

PM: There’s a definite self-selection here. I think it is pretty well understood out there in the world that if you value collegiality, civility, balance between work and family and friends, that this is a much better place to be a law student or professor than most other law schools.

UVAL: You plan to replicate the contextual approach used by the Law & Business Program in a new program devoted to public interest law.

PM: Yes. Three things really define our Law & Business Program. First, we give the students a lot of information about context — how do business problems arise in the real world, what’s the vocabulary in which they’re expressed, and what is the lawyer’s role in helping to solve those problems. Second, we try to provide students with a sense of progression after the first year, instead of the typical free-for-all when students just take courses that interest them. Instead, we’re trying to give them a sense of sequencing and progression from one course to another. And, third, we expose them to people who have been in business, who’ve been out in the real world and who can help make that context very real for them.

I think those three things are transferable to other areas of the curriculum. Public service seems to me one in which we can more carefully integrate all of the pieces because we have a lot of wonderful things going on at the Law School. They are perhaps a bit more diffuse and we can better integrate them and try to give the students a better sense of context, a better sense of sequencing, and expose them even more to the people who make a difference in the real world.

UVAL: By what criteria will you measure the success of your first term?

PM: I would measure it by the quality of the students that we’re attracting, the quality of the faculty that we’re attracting, and the influence and productivity of our faculty on the scholarly side. We care a lot about placement success. We care a lot about student quality. We care a lot about what employers think about our students. We care about what our peers think about the quality of the scholarship our faculty produces. Now, you can argue and many have, so I don’t need to rehash it, that the way U.S. News measures those things doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s different from saying that those are irrelevant things. Those things matter and I want to make sure that we’re doing well in all of those areas.

UVAL: Financial self-sufficiency is something you continue to talk about. Even though John Jeffries did it for a number of years, it still needs to be restated from time to time.

PM: One of the things that surprised me in my first month and a half as dean is that I can run into alumni, talk to them about the Law School, and discover that financial self-sufficiency is still news to them. It’s quite clear that that’s something that I’ll be talking about during my deanship, just as John spoke about it during his. In some sense, that’s not surprising. The notion that we are a public law school that receives no state support is non-intuitive, but it’s very real. I’ll keep talking about it everywhere I go because it’s an important part of our story and our future.