Oct. 31, 2014 -- Leonard M. Baynes, new dean of the University of Houston Law Center, told students in his first "Discussion with the Dean" that his primary goal is to make sure that the school builds upon its already strong academic foundation and reputation.
"My vision is to keep the school very, very strong. It's an excellent institution. It has a powerhouse faculty. It has terrific students. The goal is to enhance that," Baynes said in the first of two talks with students on Oct. 29. Toward that end, Baynes said, the school is looking at building an entirely new facility to replace the aging one and creating opportunities for students to network with alumni across the country.
In the lunchtime talk, formally titled "The Power of a Legal Education," Baynes extolled the highest ideals of the legal profession.
"As lawyers, we are very influential; we have a lot of power. And we are able to provide a useful role to make changes in society, and do justice for our client," Baynes said, whether that client is a business firm involved in a merger or an immigrant seeking asylum. "That's what's the most noble about our profession. That's what we do that separates us from any other group,” he said.
Baynes said he and his associate deans are focused on enhancing faculty scholarship, hiring top-notch faculty members, and especially enhancing professional opportunities for students after they graduate. "All those things that we've done before, I want to make sure that we continue doing so that the institution continues to be a resource-rich institution that is globally and nationally recognized as a leader in legal education," he said.
Baynes, who has been on the job for two-and-a-half months, told the students that he and his associates have "been on the road" visiting influential alumni in Austin, Dallas, and New York. There are also plans to visit Los Angeles, Denver, and the Rio Grande Valley. "The goal is to make sure that we enhance the networks that we have. This is a very strong institution with a lot of great alums, but I want to make sure there are opportunities for you the students to network with those alums," he said.
Baynes joked that he sometimes "still gets lost" in the labyrinthine, Brutalist-style UHLC complex, whose construction began in 1969. "This building has some issues," he said to laughter. "There's been a lot of talk about a new building for quite some time."
Given the age of the existing complex and issues involved in environmental rehabilitation and accessibility requirements, Baynes said, it would cost about the same to construct an entirely new building. "We need a shiny new building that brings people together, that is ADA-accessible, that has adequate parking, that has opportunities for people to network with each other," he said.
Baynes said the university administration has hired a consulting firm to gauge alumni financial support for a capital campaign. "I think that's a good first step."
Baynes also noted the Law Center's recent community outreach projects, including a group of about 150 first-year students who assembled 11,000 meals for the needy in greater Harris County, and students who worked on deferred-action childhood arrival cases at the Leonel J. Castillo Community Center. "We want to do even more outreach next year," he said.
The dean said another key focus of his will be creating "a pipeline program for law students" to counteract a significant drop in recent years of law school applications across the country, including at UHLC. Baynes said the school will expand its pro bono initiatives. He cited a group of students who recently, traveled to Karnes County on their own initiative, to represent unaccompanied minor immigrants who are being detained there by federal authorities.
"Whatever we do, whether in business or whatever, we have to make sure that we take care of those that may be in less-advantaged positions than we are," he said.
Other "practice readiness" initiatives include two externships during the upcoming 2015 session of the Texas Legislature in the offices of Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin. Both externships will include room and board and stipends. "The legislature is a very good recommendation to have," he said.
Baynes said the school will focus on hiring outstanding faculty members. There is an open position for at least one entry-level faculty member in energy and environment law, commercial law, business law or international transaction law. At least six candidates are coming to visit the school in the next month, including two former U.S. Supreme Court law clerks, he said, encouraging the students to participate as much as possible in providing feedback.
Baynes said UHLC continues to work to improve its rankings, especially in relation to other law schools in the state. He noted that UHLC is ranked relatively high in the state in terms of the diversity of its student body. He echoed something often said by UH System Chancellor and UH President Renu Khator: "You can have diversity and quality at the same time."
Like law schools everywhere, Baynes said, UHLC faces a number of "21st Century challenges," not the least of which is declining applications and enrollment. Along with that, he said, is a declining respect among the population for lawyers and the legal profession in general.
He encouraged the students to reach out to their friends and others to encourage them to go to law school, particularly UHLC. "It's very important for us to realize that UH has great value, but it's important for us to recognize that many people don't realize that," he said.
Baynes noted the faculty has shown its own commitment to maintaining UHLC's high standards with its 100 percent participation in the school's most recent round of fundraising.
During a question-and-answer session that followed Baynes' formal presentation, a student asked how the school would provide opportunities for students to network with alumni. Baynes said the Alumni Association Board is planning a student mixer before its next regular meeting in the spring. And he announced that during a recent dinner with Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, a UHLC alumnus, the justice agreed to work toward having the state's highest civil appeals court hold oral arguments at Krost Hall, probably in 2016.
He said he hopes to reinstate a Jurist-in-Residence program, such as one that had previously been held by U.S. District Judge Gray Miller of the Southern District of Texas, also a UHLC alumnus.
Another student asked whether the school plans to publish an energy and environmental law journal, as had been done in the past. Associate Dean Lonny Hoffman explained that the previous effort had been done as an experiment, but was discontinued.
"I think energy is very important, so it is something that is on my radar," Baynes said, adding that the subject came up during his talk with Justice Brown and other alumni. "We need to make sure we're moving in that direction and so we're looking at many options. The good thing is that whatever may have happened in the past, it's a chance to reimagine it."
Another student asked Baynes, who before coming to UHLC had served as inaugural director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John’s School of Law in New York about that state's recent initiative in "reimagining" the law school curriculum by placing more emphasis on outside practical work during the third year.
Baynes said that his understanding is that the New York initiative is a limited one, largely because of the finite opportunities for students to serve in outside clinics. "I think it's important for us as academics and as a law center to make sure you're as practice-ready as possible," he said, adding that UHLC already does much of that through externships and clinics. "It's a question of making sure you're aware of those opportunities."
"I don't think we need radically to change the law school model that has worked for many, many years, he said. When those who are hiring in the legal profession are looking at candidates, he said, they want to see candidates who have been successful in the traditional model. "We maybe need to enhance that with more experiential learning," he said, such as bringing a criminal defense clinic into the school.
But, he added, clinics can be very expensive. It's important, he said, to make sure that UHLC finds opportunities "where we're distinguishable, where we're innovative, and where nobody else in the state is doing it."