Mahoney Taps Ryan '92 to Lead Public Interest Law Program: Course structure to be modeled after successful Law & Business Program
IN ONE OF his first strategic moves as the Law School’s new dean, Paul Mahoney has charged academic associate dean Jim Ryan ’92 with creating a new program in public interest law. Mahoney envisions a program with a curricular structure like the Law & Business Program, which takes students all the way from foundational classes in finance and accounting to high-level seminars in M&A and private equity. “Jim comes to this with tremendous credibility,” said Mahoney, “because he is not only passionately committed to public interest, but he’s a first-rate legal scholar and teacher who will have immediate credibility with our students. He also has very good contacts with people in the public interest world. I see him doing some of what I did at the very outset of the Law & Business Program.”
Ryan, who once clerked for the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, is the William L. Matheson & Robert M. Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law and Joseph C. Carter, Jr. Research Professor. He joined the faculty in 1998 and has earned a national reputation for his scholarship on public education finance, desegregation, and school choice, and has developed a course that extends his research into the classroom titled, “Schools, Race, and Money.” Before joining the faculty, Ryan spent two years in a public interest fellowship at a law firm in New Jersey, working solely on pro bono cases.
When Ryan was a student at the Law School in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was relatively little support for those interested in pursuing careers in public service. “It was a hard go for people who were interested in that line of work,” he recalls. “It was much easier to get a job at a law .rm.” Nevertheless, in the ensuing years, demand in the Law School for a greater public interest footprint grew.
The Law School established in 1996 the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, which became the focal point for public service programming and outreach. Since then, the center has become a vital part of the Law School, especially with the encouragement of former dean John Jeffries ’73. Jeffries supported a robust pro bono program (which now includes partnerships with Hunton & Williams and McGuireWoods) and expanded the clinical faculty. Perhaps more importantly, Jeffries made the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program more generous and created the Powell Fellowships, which provide funding to students who, after graduation, work with public interest organizations.
Mahoney and Ryan see the program in public interest law as the natural next step for the Law School to take. Scheduled to launch in the fall semester of 2009, Ryan is assembling an advisory committee of alumni (to be chaired by Mortimer Caplin ’40) representative of the diversity of public interest careers. They will help shape the program in public interest law, which Ryan hopes to build around three core principles: curriculum, community, and commitment.
Curriculum — Community — Commitment
Students pursuing careers in public interest face unique educational and career challenges not common to students pursuing more private sector career paths. Mahoney and Ryan believe these students will benefit from core public interest curricular offerings and from a strong, supportive community of students and faculty committed to their public interest career goals.
The main challenge is to tease out the fundamentals that all those careers share and create at least one or two core courses that teach them to all students interested in public service, whatever their ultimate career choice. These courses would tie together the expanded curriculum into a cohesive structure, and enhance the community of public interest students by providing a common academic experience. The program will also be introducing new short courses to supplement the already wide selection of substantive courses and clinics the Law School offers on criminal law and procedure, civil rights law, public international and human rights law, poverty and housing law, child advocacy, family law, and elder law. As Ryan explained, “We plan to bring to the Law School prominent practitioners in the broad field of public interest law who will share their knowledge, experience, and passion with students and offer them a classroom experience typically unavailable in a traditional course.”
Students also face basic obstacles when seeking permanent public interest employment, not the least of which is considerable financial sacrifice. In addition, most public interest organizations don’t have the budget to travel to the Law School to interview interested students. “The more the Law School can do to support that community and provide its own affirmation of public interest career choices, the better,” says Ryan.
Mahoney’s goal is to develop a program that ensures the Law School is fully supporting the public interest community, and providing guidance to students pursuing permanent careers in the public interest arena. The community will include faculty who serve as advisors and mentors, and alumni who can help students overcome the barriers to a public interest career. “It is very difficult to get an entry-level job in a public interest organization right out of law school,” says Ryan. “Public interest organizations tend to hire experienced lawyers. In addition, many students graduate with financial burdens, so they have to go into private practice with the hope of then switching to a public interest organization. The program could help students manage that transition by extending some career assistance beyond the three years that they’re here.”
Finally, Mahoney has asked Ryan to increase the Law School’s overall commitment to public service. The existing pro bono program has worked well. It challenges the many law students who participate to perform 25 hours of pro bono work a year and then recognizes those who have met that goal. Still, “we should continue to emphasize that even young lawyers in firms can and ought to do public service work, whether it’s through the law firm’s pro bono program or outside of it,” says Ryan. “Over 90 percent of our graduates end up in private practice, at least initially. Reaching that audience is crucial. The program can be relevant to all law students, as it brings them in to the world of public service and educates them about the diverse array of opportunities they’ll have to serve the public in one way or another, regardless of their career paths.”
Ryan’s interest in public service began at an early age. He followed the lead of his parents who always emphasized, and demonstrated by example, the importance of giving back to the community. Ryan felt that, for him, the law was the best vehicle to do that. And he was right. When Ryan did his pro bono work in New Jersey, he “loved every minute of it.”
Ryan recognizes that it can be difficult for students to find a public interest job and to handle the financial sacrifice that comes with those jobs. But he encourages students who are interested in public service to persevere. “In my experience,” Ryan says, “the students who stick it out end up very glad that they did. They may not get paid all that much, but they get tremendous satisfaction from their jobs.”
Ryan has high hopes for the program. He thinks the Law School is underrated at the moment when it comes to public interest law, which he believes is a holdover from a decade ago. He would like to change that impression. “I would like Virginia to be a place law students attend not despite their interest in public service but because of it,” Ryan says. “Simply put, Dean Mahoney and I would like the Law School to become the best place in the country to attend if you are interested in preparing for a career in public service. It’s a challenging goal, for sure, but one we aim to meet.”