In conversation with Mr. Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law and the Iwan Foundation Professor of Law. Mr. Amar appears to be the first person of the South Asian descent to have clerked at the US Supreme Court, and currently the only person of the South Asian descent serving as a dean of a major American law school.
Q: Our readers would be keen to know about your journey from securing a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley to serving as a dean of the University of Illinois College of Law. Could you tell us more about that?
A: I don’t think anyone starts out in college aiming to become a law school dean. When I began my college career at Berkeley, I didn’t even know for sure that I would want to go to law school afterwards. But, my experience with some law-related courses at Berkeley (especially in US history and economics), combined with some outside reading, convinced me that law school was indeed a good path. During my law school years at Yale, I decided I would try, at least, to become a professor, if I was lucky enough to get a coveted teaching job (my thought was that I could always go back to practice, if writing articles and teaching didn’t suit me), and so I went on in the teaching market and began my legal academic run about 5 years after I graduated from law school. My interest in academic administration didn’t really blossom until I had been teaching a dozen or more years. While I was at UC Davis School of Law, I served as the Associate Dean (essentially Vice Dean) for several years. And when the deaning opportunity at a great university and a great law school like the University of Illinois came along, my only hesitation involved leaving my home state of California. But, I’m glad I took the Illinois job; it is proving to be quite rewarding even with all the challenges that confront law schools and the legal profession today.
Q: Tell us about your appointment and experience of clerkship at the United States Supreme Court.
A: Getting a Supreme Court clerkship involves some luck, and also putting yourself in a position to be lucky. My grades in law school were strong, and I was fortunate to have several well-regarded faculty members who were willing to say nice things about me and my abilities. I was also fortunate to land a job with a Ninth Circuit Judge, Bill Norris (now retired), who was at that time developing a track record of sending clerks on to the Supreme Court the next year. When I interviewed with Justice Blackmun and his clerks, I thought the chemistry was very good, and I was super excited when he called me to offer me the job. During my year in DC, I worked closely and harmoniously with my three co-clerks (one of whom was someone I knew from Yale Law school and who is still one of my best friends in the world). I also really enjoyed getting to know and work with the clerks from the other eight chambers; I found it helpful I could give Justice Blackmun an accurate sense of what the thinking was in the other chambers on the cases on which I assisted him. The year at the Court involved a fair amount of work, but my reading, research, analytical, writing, and oral presentation skills all improved, and the experience was quite enjoyable to boot. I think most of us who were clerking at the Court appreciated at that time how special the opportunity was, and we tried to savour it. Walking into that magnificent building every morning for work – and having breakfast with Justice Blackmun and my co-clerks in the Supreme Court cafeteria – are among my fondest memories.
Q: You have also practised law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher from 1990-1993. Do you think that there exists a gap between academics and practical application of law? How can educational institutions and online legal education bridge this gap?
A: There is undeniably a wide gap between the academics and the profession today, than there was a generation or two ago. Lawyers and judges don’t read the work of law professors as much today as they once did, and law professors (some of whom never practised meaningfully) probably do not talk to people in the trenches as frequently too (except when professors are doing research that requires interviews or data collection). I think the problem is partly one of insularity; if law schools did a better job of explaining to lawyers and judges how legal academic work can be of tremendous relevance and help (which I think it can), perhaps the professional audience would return. I think law schools – even as they rightly work harder to become more integrated into the research universities of which they are a part – always need to remember that they are part of the legal profession, and that the lion’s share of their graduates will become practising lawyers or businesspersons or government officials who benefit from understanding the legal practice.
Q: What is the most exciting development happening at University of Illinois College of Law in the coming academic year?
A: It’s hard to single out one, so let me briefly mention two.
Externally, we are doing very well at helping our students launch their careers with good jobs after graduation. Part of that is maximizing bar passage, increasing real-world experiences during law school (like externships, clerkships in firms and in-house counsel departments), and building on our Chicago program platform (in which third-year students can be in residence in Chicago) and our connections in other cities and regions. And much of it is simply working one-on-one with students and prospective employers to facilitate good matches.
Internally, we are bringing a wide array of impressive thought leaders not just from other top law schools but also from journalism, business, the judiciary, etc., so that our students can profit from a broad set of perspectives and insights. (Examples of people we brought through in 2016 include Bob Woodward, George Will, Sonia Sotomayor, and Richard Durbin). These events complement the impactful scholarly work our faculty does year in and year out.
Q: What is your message for our readers, especially those who aspire to pursue a career in academics?
A: Law is, notwithstanding some inaccurate press, a great field to go into, if you can get into one of the country’s better law schools. Indeed, there has never been a better time in my memory to go to law school, with financial aid packages generous and the job outlook improving, especially since law schools have shrunk the size of their entering classes. And if you want to become a legal academic, the long-term future there also holds promise even though finances are tight at most law schools today, with a large number of faculty retirements likely in the coming years. Don’t pursue law school or the legal academics, if you don’t find law intellectually rewarding, but at the same time don’t shy away from law school or the legal academics if you do.