Indiana Tech Law School has reinforced its commitment to hands-on learning by appointing a new dean who wants to focus even more on a skills-based curriculum and making sure students are ready to practice when they graduate.
Charles Cercone, associate dean of faculty and professor at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, has been named dean of the law school at Indiana Tech. He brings with him 12 years of litigation experience, 18 years of academic work and a strong belief in experiential learning.
The incoming dean said he wants to hit the sweet spot in the curriculum between the theoretical or doctrinal subject matter and the practical skills. “You have to know the theoretical because the theoretical assists the practical and the practical makes the theoretical come alive,” he said. “You can’t have one without the other.”
He will begin his tenure as dean of the Fort Wayne law school on Jan. 5, 2015.
The top job at Indiana Tech Law School opened in May when the founding dean, Peter Alexander, unexpectedly resigned. Professor andré douglas pond cummings has been serving as interim dean and will remain on the faculty when Cercone takes over.
“Dean Cercone brings to our law school important skills and experience that will enable us to continue our strong momentum in building an exceptional experiential program,” cummings said. “Our goal to deliver legal education in a unique and impactful way will benefit from his knowledge and talents.”
Cercone said his top priorities coming in will be recruiting students and securing the school’s accreditation from the American Bar Association.
During the fall semester, Indiana Tech Law School submitted its self-evaluation and welcomed an ABA site team to campus as part of the accreditation process. The institution should learn in April whether it has been granted provisional accreditation.
Cercone praised the faculty and staff for the “great job” they have done in getting the law school to this point in the accreditation process.
With provisional accreditation, Indiana Tech graduates would be eligible to sit for the Indiana Bar Exam and the law school would be in a good position to get full accreditation. Without it, the institution would have to start the process over, and it could possibly see a decline in enrollment since many students would likely transfer to another law school.
The law school’s building on the Indiana Tech campus has room for 350 students. Prior to the start of classes in August 2013, school officials had touted the goal of enrolling 100 students per class. However, the first two classes at the school have been significantly less with both hovering around 30 students.
Cercone is echoing that ambition, saying he ultimately wants enrollment to reach 300-plus students. In addition, he wants those students to have a bar passage rate that is among the top in the country and a job placement rate that is equal to other law schools.
“Reputation is everything for a law school,” Cercone said. “If we don’t develop a reputation for producing lawyers, we are not doing our job.”
Cercone acknowledged that the law school he is coming from, Cooley, does not have a solid reputation and that creates an obstacle he will have to overcome at Indiana Tech. In fact, he was upfront about the situation when he interviewed in Fort Wayne, telling the search committee if they selected him the buzz would not be favorable.
Cooley is considered a 4th-tier law school. The class of 2013 had a median LSAT score of 145 and a median GPA of 2.96. U.S. News & World Report lists the school in its “Rank not Published” category.
Recently, the Michigan law school felt the pain of the tight legal job market. In July, the school announced it would be closing its campus in Ann Arbor and laying off faculty because of declining enrollment and revenues.
Moreover, the school has been charting sagging bar passage rates. Only 44 percent of the Cooley test takers passed the Michigan bar in both July 2013 and July 2012. However, in the years prior, July 2011, 2010 and 2009, the passage rate was substantially higher at 71 percent, 70 percent and 78 percent, respectively.
To attract students, Cercone said Indiana Tech will have to show them their J.D. will lead to a job. He believes the key to the school’s graduates getting positions in a law firm is the experiential learning emphasis of the coursework.
“I would like (Indiana Tech) to be known as the experiential learning law school in the country,” Cercone said.
The law school’s attention to incorporating skills- and practice-based activities into the classroom was started by Alexander. He developed the curriculum that integrated real-world experience with the traditional legal theory.
Cercone said he can build on his experience at Cooley – a place he described as a leader in practice-based learning – and make Indiana Tech’s experiential coursework more structured. Specifically, he wants to substantiate that the hands-on activities are actually occurring and to quantitatively measure the outcomes to ensure the students are benefiting.
“Dean Cercone brings a long and successful track record in strategic planning, curriculum development and support for student success to his role here at Indiana Tech Law School,” Indiana Tech president Dr. Arthur Snyder said. “His experience and skills will enable us to continue building on the strong foundation we’ve established for our law school.”
Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts, a supporter of the law school, said he was pleased a dean has been named. Although he noted Cercone is unknown to the Allen County legal community, having a leader will allow the school to move forward.
Cercone has practiced law along the east coast in New York at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and Dewey Ballantine LLP and in Boston at Bingham McCutchen LLP. His practice focused on commercial litigation with an emphasis on environmental litigation.
However, teaching was always his career goal. After he earned his bachelor’s degree from Williams College, he wanted to pursue a career in education but his father convinced him to go to law school. A little more than a decade in private practice, Cercone jumped to Cooley and, he said, has loved it ever since.
Cercone said he likes watching the students learn the language of law and graduate ready to practice. “Seeing that growth, being responsible for that growth is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
The opportunity to start a law school from almost the beginning is what Cercone said attracted him to the job at Indiana Tech. Rarely are academics given the chance to be part of a new venture, he said, describing the opportunity at Indiana Tech as “simply unique.”
“I am incredibly honored and very happy,” Cercone said of his appointment. “I am appreciative of the faith that Dr. Snyder and the university has shown in me.”•