Former Associate Dean for Admissions and Placement Albert R. Turnbull ’62, who admitted and helped shape generations of lawyers at the University of Virginia School of Law, died Monday. He was 83.

When he retired in 2002 as professor emeritus, Turnbull was estimated to have admitted 80% of living alumni of the school — more than 13,000 students. During his 36-year career at UVA leading admissions and career placement efforts, as well as teaching professional ethics and responsibility courses, he also influenced law school admissions nationally through his various roles at the Law School Admission Council. In 1972, Turnbull worked on the three-person subcommittee that created the Law School Data Assembly Service, a tool that admissions offices at every American law school use to evaluate an applicant’s transcript, GPA, LSAT scores and other factors. Later, he was a member of LSAC’s Board of Trustees when the organization decided to break from Educational Testing Services and administer the LSAT alone.

“For thousands of applicants, Al Turnbull was the face of the Law School,” said Professor John C. Jeffries Jr. ’73, who was dean when Turnbull retired. “He was always humane and caring. He treated each and every applicant as an individual deserving of respect, and they repaid him with admiration and gratitude.”

A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and a graduate of Princeton University, Turnbull was a standout student at the Law School. He won the William Minor Lile Moot Court competition with his classmate and close friend, Charles Kidd ’62. After graduation, he clerked for Judge T.J. Michie ’21 of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, and then served as a trial and appellate attorney for two years in Norfolk, Virginia. (That work eventually led Turnbull to argue Warden v. Hayden at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The case established a “hot pursuit” exception for broad searches under the Fourth Amendment.)

Dean Hardy Cross Dillard then called him back to the Law School to both teach and lead the admissions and placement effort.

Initially assisted only by a cadre of faculty members, Turnbull oversaw a revolution in how admissions, career placement and financial aid worked. Turnbull’s own Class of 1962 only had 566 applicants. By 1966, his first year in admissions, the applicant pool expanded to 1,841, and kept growing. Employers took notice as well.

“We were getting more and more employers wanting to recruit here,” Turnbull said in a story on his retirement. “The logistics of handling that were exploding.”

During the 1970s, the school created two assistant dean roles, for career services and financial aid, and continued to hire more staff over the years.

Turnbull said in the same interview that there was no ideal candidate to attend the Law School “because we’re looking for a whole range of different backgrounds and perspectives. We want smart people. We want hard-working people.”

One of the candidates Turnbull often said he was proud to admit was Jim Ryan ’92, now president of UVA. Ryan had already been accepted to Yale and Harvard when Turnbull called to ask him to consider attending Virginia, with help from a full-tuition Hardy Cross Dillard Scholarship (now the Karsh-Dillard Scholarship), a program Turnbull spearheaded to help recruit elite prospects with financial support from Anthony Pilaro ’60, who also founded the Ron Brown Scholar Program. After Ryan visited Virginia, Turnbull sealed the deal. Ryan went on to teach and serve as vice dean of the Law School before leading Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and then the University.

Albert Turnbull and Jim Ryan
Turnbull greets UVA President Jim Ryan at the Law School soon after Ryan took the helm at the University. Photo by Matt Weber

“I owe much of my professional and personal life to Dean Turnbull, as attending UVA introduced me not just to the study and eventual teaching of the law, but also to lifelong friends and my wife, Katie, a UVA classmate,” Ryan said. “Dean Turnbull was as kind as he was smart, and I will miss him dearly, as I know so many others will as well.”

Turnbull’s longtime friend Professor Alex Johnson said the dean was “ecstatic” to have played a role in recruiting Ryan.

“Al basically helped shape the history of the institution, and was very happy to see both Jim as president and Liz Magill [’95] as provost,” Johnson said.

Johnson met Turnbull soon after joining the faculty in 1984. He sought someone to go fishing with — and everyone pointed to Turnbull.

“At the time, I thought he was this gruff, hard-exterior, take-no-prisoners type of guy,” Johnson said. But they found common ground as former Princeton students, and soon they were making regular trips out on the James River. They fished together for 35 years, and only stopped last spring when Turnbull became ill with cancer.

“He loved hunting and fishing and being outdoors,” Johnson said.

Turnbull also encouraged Johnson to join LSAC committees, and Johnson eventually became chair of the LSAC board of trustees. “He believed [LSAC] democratized legal education and actually opened the door for more people to go to law school.”

Johnson called Turnbull the “founding father of modern-day admissions.”

“People looked at him and the way he ran admissions as a model – a meticulous way to do it, to do it fairly, do it efficiently, do it with the right thoughts in mind and with the right ideals, including diversifying the legal profession. He had the utmost integrity and the utmost faith in LSAC and the admissions process.”

Johnson recalled Turnbull’s mutual pride when S. Bernard Goodwyn ’86, a student he enrolled and Johnson taught, became a justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. “He had that love for his students and their accomplishments.”

Johnson said Turnbull knew the responsibility he wielded as the school’s gatekeeper.

“And he knew that he was shaping not only the school’s legacy, but he was also affecting the bar and affecting the bench,” Johnson said.

Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, who also was recruited as a Dillard Scholar, said Turnbull was the only admissions dean to call her personally.

“He must have had thousands of conversations like that over the years, but he made you feel like this was as exciting for him as it was for you,” Kendrick said. “I was interested in Virginia, but more focused on some other places before he called. Because of him, I came to visit and saw that this was a place full of good people like him. That call changed my life.” 

Upon hearing of Turnbull’s death, Tom Murphy ’71 wrote to Dean Risa Goluboff about his gratitude for how Turnbull helped him.

“He believed in the notion that maybe some veterans of the Vietnam War, including a Navy officer like me, might have the right stuff and do some things in the world to try and make it a better place,” Murphy wrote.

In his second year of law school, money was tight for Murphy.

“I needed a helping hand. Badly,” Murphy wrote. Turnbull was able to find funds. “It is his generosity and understanding that made me want to help others as I moved up the ladder.”

Turnbull’s integrity was also readily apparent to his staff, including Senior Financial Aid Assistant Sandy Harris, who worked with Turnbull from 1977 until his retirement.

“Mr. Turnbull always had the time to talk with me, work-related or not, and his door was always open to his staff and to our students,” she said. “I know he will be missed by many at the law school, and he will be missed by me.”

At their 40th reunion in 2002, on the eve of Turnbull’s retirement, the Class of 1962 honored Turnbull by renaming its class scholarship The Class of 1962 Albert R. Turnbull Scholarship.

Turnbull’s son, Albert W. Turnbull ’88, now associate general counsel and partner at Hogan Lovells, joined his father as a graduate of the school, as did Turnbull’s niece, Janet Turnbull ’04, now a Justice Department attorney.

“He had the ability to look past the LSAT scores and grades and see the whole person in the admissions file,” Janet Turnbull said.

Though Turnbull’s treatment for cancer seemed effective, Albert W. Turnbull said, his father’s health deteriorated in the past few weeks after a series of strokes.

“He loved the school so much, and people were so good to him when he retired and when news of his illness came out,” his son said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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