Jay Conison had been planning to step down as dean of the Valparaiso University Law School, but his decision to lead another law school was an unexpected opportunity and one that will keep him focused on changing legal education.
Conison has been named the dean of the Charlotte School of Law, a private school in Charlotte, N.C. His last day at Valparaiso will be March 15 and he will take the helm at Charlotte a month later on April 15.
His attraction to the Southern school was fueled by the emphasis the institution has put on giving students hands-on experience. He pointed to the school’s newest building on the edge of the downtown area that will house most of the law school’s legal clinics and be an incubator for recent graduates going into solo practice. Young alumni will be able to rent office space and have access to administrative services and a library as well as have a mentor available to call upon for assistance.
In addition, he noted, Charlotte is revamping its curriculum to adapt to how today’s students learn and has invested resources into helping students gain stronger skills in such areas as writing, studying and organization.
“It’s a very innovative school,” Conison said. “It has significant potential for real leadership in education.”
As dean at Valparaiso, Conison oversaw construction of a second building to accommodate the law school’s growing clinical and skills education. Participation in the clinics has been increasing with more than 120 third-year students applying for 90 positions this year.
The curriculum revision underway at Valparaiso will continue even when Conison is gone.
“I think the changes we’ve made are pretty much faculty-driven,” said David Vandercoy, professor of law and director of the Clinical & Skills Training Programs. “Faculty are changing the curriculum. Faculty took responsibility for it, and the faculty have overwhelmingly embraced more skills training as part of the curriculum.”
In the announcement of Conison’s new appointment, Valparaiso University President Mark Heckler noted the hallmarks of the dean’s years of service.
“Dean Conison created a learning environment benefiting the Valpo community,” Heckler stated. “He increased diversity of the faculty, staff and student body; oversaw construction of Heritage Hall, the Lawyering Skills Center for the Law School; and through his leadership ensured a high level of service to students, faculty, staff and alumni. We are grateful for his contributions and wish him success in his new leadership role.”
New program, new school
Prior to his even considering the Charlotte position, Conison said he had notified Heckler that he intended to step down in May 2014.
He said he was not actively seeking a new position but, in conversations with Charlotte officials, he found he shared a great deal of commonality with the school, especially in the area of how a law school could be run most effectively.
“What I enjoy doing most is helping to lead an organization to be more effective and successful in serving its constituents and helping people who are part of that organization gain satisfaction from what they do,” Conison said. “That’s why I enjoyed working at Valparaiso and why I stayed here so long.”
He said Charlotte provides more opportunity for doing that. It is a new program and new school. Consequently, the school does not have many entrenched practices. The faculty is receptive to experimentation and trying new ways of delivering legal education services.
The Charlotte School of Law opened in 2006 and received provisional approval by the American Bar Association two years later, then became accredited in June 2011. The school is a for-profit that is part of the InfiLaw System consortium of law schools. Other institutions in the system are Florida Coastal School of Law and Phoenix School of Law.
InfiLaw’s mission, according to its website, is focused on excellence in professional education. It does this, in part, by working to graduate students who are practice ready.
Conison’s quick departure from Valparaiso is being spurred by Charlotte’s impending relocation. The North Carolina school has announced plans to move downtown, occupying 243,000 square feet.
Once at Charlotte, Conison said the top of his agenda includes getting to know the faculty and staff and getting a sense of the students. Also, he wants to familiarize himself with the new initiatives.
Conison will not be cutting all ties with Indiana. He is the reporter on the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education which is being chaired by retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.
“Over the years, I made a lot of good friends, good professional colleagues in the Indiana bar,” Conison said. “I hope to stay in touch.”
With Conison’s exit, Valparaiso becomes the third law school in Indiana that is actively searching for a dean.
Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Indiana University Maurer School of Law are both interviewing candidates for the top position. Conison downplayed the significance of three law schools in one state having openings for deans.
He noted that with more than 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the country and with most deans serving an average of five years, leadership positions are always becoming available.
“I don’t see any unusual number being open at this time,” he said.
Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Dean Gary Roberts announced last summer that he would be retiring from the leadership role in June 2013. This move is in accordance with university policy that requires all deans to step down when they turn 65.
The search committee has brought “five outstanding candidates” to the Indianapolis campus for visits, according the I.U. McKinney School of Law Vice Dean Antony Page. Members of the committee expect to make a selection soon.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s top position became open when Lauren Robel left the dean’s office to become provost and executive vice president of I.U. in Bloomington. Hannah Buxbaum, then executive associate dean for academic affairs, was appointed as acting dean in December 2011.
The Bloomington school is still accepting applications and, to date, has hosted three candidates for campus visits, according to Patricia McDougall-Covin, professor in the I.U. Kelley School of Business and chair of the search committee. Members hope to finish the process in April.•