Graduate Report: Spring / Summer 2013 - Q&A With Dean Timothy S. Fisher

On July 1, 2013, Timothy S. Fisher became the new dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law. A visionary and charismatic leader throughout his distinguished legal career, Fisher has practiced law in Connecticut — his home state — since 1978, the last ten years as a partner at McCarter & English LLP. He has achieved national recognition for his work and expertise in construction law, family wealth disputes, commercial law and alternative dispute resolution. Over the last fifteen-plus years he has taught ethics to practicing lawyers, and has also taught at UConn Law, Quinnipiac University School of Law and the University of Hartford Construction Institute. His scholarly publications include a treatise and numerous book chapters and articles on construction litigation, check fraud, alternative dispute resolution and other legal topics.

A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, Fisher has long been committed to public service. He has been appointed by two Connecticut governors to serve on commissions related to justice and the courts, and currently chairs the Commission on Judicial Compensation. Since 2010, he has served as president of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, the primary funding source for legal aid in Connecticut. A past officer of the Connecticut Bar Association, Fisher has headed up several CBA task forces, including those on the Future of the Legal Profession, Confidentiality in the Courts, and the Future of Connecticut’s Probate Court System. His commitment to public service also includes extensive pro bono work in such areas as marriage equality, prison conditions, non-profit governance and volunteer criminal defense. He also led McCarter & English’s sponsorship of the Connecticut Innocence Project.

Shortly after his appointment as dean, Tim Fisher discussed his vision for the Law School with the Graduate Report.

In the vision talk you gave at the Law School as part of the dean search process, you indicated that you have four primary goals for the Law School: 1) to preserve and build on the faculty’s superb record of scholarship; 2) to engage the Law School with all its communities within the profession; 3) to assure that the Law School is graduating professionals who are job-ready in today’s legal market; and 4) to ensure that UConn Law is an exciting, intellectual environment for the high level exchange of ideas. Let’s start by talking about the first goal — to preserve and build on the faculty’s superb record of scholarship. Discuss the importance of legal scholarship to the Law School and how you hope to support faculty scholarship.

The Law School has a dual mission: to develop new knowledge and to transmit it to the next generation. Both are essential for societies to advance, and universities are at the heart of that process. They are also tied together in a practical sense. To be a great teacher you must not just love your material, you must know it deeply. That means that every great teacher must in some way be a scholar in her field.

The Law School is also a crucible for the development of new ideas. Just as most important scientific discoveries are developed in research universities, most of the ideas that advance the role of law in society are conceived and nurtured in law schools. Some have immediate policy impact, while others may not be recognized for a generation. For example, the concept of a right to privacy was first articulated in a law review article, and seemed odd at the time; yet it has become part of our core understanding of the rights of individuals in society. Law schools are where such important new ideas are born. As society changes and our understanding of ourselves evolves, we need to support and encourage the high level of scholarship that can be found in law schools like ours. 

Given the emphasis you place on the research mission of the Law School, how do you plan to nurture and promote faculty research and scholarship?

The role of the dean is to help foster an environment that supports this scholarly work. I view myself as having front-line responsibility for the institutional infrastructure necessary for this crucial work to thrive, including financial support for research projects, research assistants and travel to conferences. We will continue to host symposia, workshops, and other events where leading scholars from around the world share and debate their ideas. The dean is also in a position to communicate both internally and externally the value of scholarship and our faculty’s successes. A good example is the recent “Year of the Book” celebration, which highlighted ten different books authored by our faculty, published by the Yale Press, Oxford Press, and other prestigious publishing houses. Scholarship at this level is hard work, and helps the Law School by cementing our position in the top tiers of American legal education. I will look for ways to reward this great work throughout my service as dean.

Now let’s move on to goal #2:  To engage the Law School with all its communities within the profession. To begin, share your thoughts on the importance of diversity in the Law School community and in the legal profession as a whole. Do you anticipate implementing any new diversity initiatives at the Law School? 

Research has shown that diverse groups make better decisions. Our country’s history shows the risk in ventures that are conceived and pursued by leaders who listen only to people with the same backgrounds and values. Universities serve a crucial role in reducing these risks by bringing together people with different backgrounds and perspectives in settings that encourage the free exchange of ideas. In doing so we not only provide the best opportunity to build new knowledge, but also train the leaders of tomorrow to work in an ever more diverse country, and to function globally in an incredibly diverse world. 

There is another sense in which diversity is important for the Law School. We must train our students for the profession they are entering. Our graduates will be at a disadvantage if they are not adept at working with and for people who are quite different from themselves. The clients, the courts, the juries, and the lawyers both now and even more so in the future will be a rainbow of people from all ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. Our graduates who have learned how to listen and internalize the ideas and values of people from different backgrounds will be the lawyers who have the greatest success winning the hearts and minds of judges, juries, employers, and clients. 

My plans to enhance the diversity of the school start with recruiting. I will be working with our admissions team to look at our applicant and matriculating populations to find where we are already doing well and where we can do better. I will be calling on many members of the Law School community to help communicate to college students and their advisers what a great place our Law School is, and the ways in which their lives and careers will be enhanced by choosing UConn Law. 

I also want to make UConn Law School a great experience for our students from the moment they arrive. The first semester of law school can be a daunting experience. Few of our students have ever worked so hard, and law school requires a kind of learning that is different from what most of them have known before. I am working already with student groups, faculty and members of the staff to find ways both to ease the transition into law school and also to provide the guidance that most will need in navigating the challenges of this highly demanding experience.

Assuring that the Law School is graduating professionals who are job-ready in today’s legal market is another of the major goals you discussed in your vision talk. As you well know, legal education reform is a high priority at law schools throughout America, including at UConn Law, where the faculty recently adopted an upper class practice-based learning requirement recommended by the Curriculum Reform Committee. What are your thoughts about the new requirement and the need for curriculum reform as the Law School prepares students to succeed in a changing legal environment? 

This is a time of change in the legal academy, and we are seeing experiments and new initiatives in law schools throughout the country. I applaud this exploration, and look forward to UConn’s participation in these efforts. Last fall our faculty adopted the new practice-based learning requirement to which you refer, through which we will assure that every graduating student has at least one live client or live office learning opportunity in the form or a clinic, externship, or otherwise. I support this initiative, and will do my part to assure that it is implemented in a way that not only provides practical experience to our students but helps them understand the crucial role of their doctrinal learning in grasping and solving the problems that they will face in their jobs after graduation.

These experiential learning opportunities will also help our graduates in the changing job market. The changes we are seeing are structural as much as they are cyclical. I do not expect to see a return to the times when law firms would hire large numbers of new lawyers based on academic qualifications alone, and I do not expect clients again to be willing to pay high hourly rates for first- and second-year associates who are not able to provide comparable value to legal engagements.  This means that employers will be looking for new lawyers who already have the skills and knowledge to perform and take responsibility for meaningful client tasks. As law firms will no longer carry the cost of completing so much of the education of young lawyers, we must perform more of that role in law schools.

There is something even more important, however, than skills training. As someone who has been hiring young lawyers for the last quarter century, including many from the Law School, I have seen what causes some new lawyers to succeed where others fail to thrive. Most often the difference is not analytical skills, which are generally sorted adequately in the hiring process, or practice skills, which can be learned with appropriate effort. Rather, the greatest weakness I have seen in young lawyers has been in the development of their professional character. That entails a grasp of the responsibilities of a lawyer; an understanding of the role definition of the lawyer compared to the client; an appreciation of the ethical and other constraints on the lawyer; an ability to advocate for a client one does not like and for an outcome that one finds distasteful; and an ability to withstand the slings and arrows of an adversary system where opposing counsel may challenge your every step.

To some extent, this is a matter of maturity. Law students who have worked after college or served in the military may have an advantage in understanding and assuming the responsibilities of a professional. We can assist all our students, however, to make that transition from student to professional by the end of their time at the Law School. We can, for example, accomplish this through the experiential learning process. Clinical work and role-playing simulations provide opportunities for law students to practice and learn how to comport themselves in the profession. Likewise, our externships place them in real world legal offices where they can watch and internalize the appropriate norms of behavior, communication, and decision-making.

You have noted the strength of UConn Law School’s multi-disciplinary approach to legal study. Can you explain the importance of that to you, and to students?

We have thought leaders among our faculty who are doing cutting edge work at the intersection of law with such fields as linguistics, history, economics, psychology, sociology and literature. Our understanding of the law grows deeper as we explore how it operates in these other fields of human endeavor, and as scholars of the law we contribute new understanding to these other fields.

There is also a different way in which we are exploring the application of law in certain fields of economic activity. For example, some of our most sought-after curricular programs entail application of legal analysis to particular areas of business or government regulation, such as intellectual property, tax, and insurance.

All of this benefits our students. If we are to succeed at differentiating our graduates from the many other young lawyers entering the job market, they need to be adept not just at legal analysis but also at applying it to the needs of their prospective employers. In many cases an employer will favor job applicants who have some familiarity with the field of thought, science, or industry in which that employer operates. We want to encourage law students who are attracted to careers in particular sectors to get a head start during their time with us. By doing so we help employers, help the economy, and especially help our graduates to get the jobs they desire. 

As dean, you will be working closely with Law School graduates. How do you plan to strengthen ties between the Law School and its graduates?

I have been overwhelmed by the positive response I have received from alumni and other friends of the Law School since my appointment. I sense a hunger for greater contact with the school on the part of our alumni. It is my job to make sure those doors are wide open, and to find ways that our loyal alumni body can remain involved. This includes supporting the work of the UConn Law School Alumni Association, and helping them in their programs, as well as supporting our growing alumni communities in Boston, New York, and elsewhere around the country and the globe. It also includes more work with our adjunct faculty, many of whom are alumni, to integrate them into the life of the school so that they can more fully participate in and enjoy the benefits of this intellectual community. 

Our alumni can also help our current students understand the changing nature of the profession and job market. Our graduates need to enter the market with skills and professional character already developed to the point that employers will trust them with important responsibilities, without costly on-the-job training before they can support their own salaries. Alumni can help us understand the directions of the legal market, as well as the professional attributes that young lawyers need to thrive in the work world.

Finally, each of us sometimes thinks back to our years in law school and remembers the thrill of a new idea or epiphany that lifted our understanding of the law to a higher level. We can offer our alumni a chance to return to campus to engage in continuous learning, perhaps on topics that are far removed from their day-to-day work, such as legal history, law and literature, and jurisprudence. At the same time, we host programs on issues of immediate concern, exploring how the law can address business or social problems. We will be looking for many ways to encourage alumni to return and participate in this wonderful intellectual community.

One critical need for any law school today is to create strong ties to the bench and bar on a local, regional and national level. Comment on the ways you plan to engage these groups in the life of the Law School.

It is in the interest of our bar and bench that our graduates are ready to meet the needs of clients, the courts, the community, and the profession as a whole. And this is of course a two-way street. We owe it to society to assure that our graduates are ready to assume the responsibilities of the profession. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this. We hope to expand our externship program that places students in the offices of lawyers and judges to test their classroom learning in real world settings. We will continue to invite lawyers and judges to participate in our educational program as adjunct instructors, panelists, moot court judges, externship hosts, and mentors, to name a few. We will work to broaden our interaction with the organized bar, while also building informal networks of relationships between students and alumni and others with common interests. Having a shared interest or affinity can be the starting point for mentoring and other relationships that guide the student while enriching the life of the lawyer or judge.

We also have a growing presence on both the national and international stage. I have already begun meeting with our alumni in other states, and will be working with them to help new graduates integrate into the profession in those locations. Moreover, we are blessed with a body of international alumni from both our J.D. and LL.M. programs. Connecticut’s economy has a powerful export base, and building networks with alumni in global markets will benefit both the school and our graduates.

You have taught as an adjunct at UConn Law, in the Continuing and Professional Education Program at the University of Hartford, and have served as a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Quinnipiac Law School. Discuss the importance of high-quality teaching — the classroom experience — with regard to the fourth goal you outlined in your vision talk: fostering an exciting, intellectual environment for the high-level exchange of ideas.

I mentioned earlier that a core mission of a law school is the transmission of knowledge to the next generation. A high level of classroom discussion provides the disciplined focus that is necessary for high-level learning. 

But we do not have a “one size fits all” approach to the classroom. Whether through seminar discussion, lecture, student presentations, simulations, Socratic Method, or distance learning techniques, different professors find different ways to engage students and challenge them toward a deeper understanding. 

Through it all, the role of the Law School is to provide the setting for the conversation that is at the center of the law. The success of our legal system lies in large part in its ability to grow; as society changes and our understanding of life’s complexity increases, we need the law to evolve in turn and to be translated into new applications. We can accomplish that through a dialog between differing ideas, between differing perspectives and interests, and between generations. This is the most exciting thing that happens in a law school.

The Law School has long been recognized as a leader in clinical education. Share your thoughts about enhancing clinics and other experiential learning opportunities for students.

Our Law School’s clinics have a well-deserved reputation as excellent training grounds and have contributed to the development of important new laws and precedents. We must preserve and support this crucial element of our educational program. At the same time, clinics are some of the most costly parts of our curriculum, giving students the benefit of close and time-intensive work with professors. So we will need to find ways to enhance our clinical program within the constraints of our ability to fund them with grants and taxpayer and tuition support. I will be working with our faculty to explore ways both to expand our clinical offerings and to deepen the educational benefit they provide to our students.

At the same time there are many other ways to structure experiential learning. Our first-year Lawyering Process program incorporates simulations to introduce students to some of the fundamental skills that they will need to practice law. Our externship program also provides students with a wide variety of opportunities for experiential learning. Over the next year we will work with our partner employers who host externship students so we can learn where we are doing well and where we can improve. 

You have commented that our curriculum can help our graduates “differentiate themselves” in the legal market, thereby gaining advantages in the competition for jobs. How can the Law School help students accomplish that?

The young lawyers who will be best positioned for jobs in the future will be those who not only show legal ability, but also the knowledge and skill to apply it in the fields in which their employers and clients operate. I will encourage students to begin thinking earlier in their law school careers about what kind of work they wish to pursue, and to begin structuring their courses to obtain the knowledge that will make them attractive in their chosen area. This will enable a student, rather than competing with the mass of all recent law school graduates, to focus his or her job search on the employers for whom the student is particularly qualified. If successful, it will put the student in a much smaller category of competing applicants, while presenting her to the employer as someone who will provide valuable services much sooner than the average applicant. 

You have provided a myriad of pro bono services during your career. Discuss the importance of pro bono work to the legal profession in general and, in particular, as part of the mission of a state-chartered university.

Like many lawyers, when I look back on my career it is often the pro bono matters that represent my most satisfying and memorable accomplishments. Sometimes those have been working on teams that brought about institutional or social change, while others have been as basic as helping an individual in crisis. These experiences remind me what is greatest about our profession: that the rule of law can hold its promise only if it is available to the weak and unpopular just as it serves to protect powerful interests.

Pro bono is also a key part of a law student’s education. We encourage pro bono work by all of our students through the pro bono pledge program. Our students participate in a number of pro bono opportunities, which provide valuable legal assistance to persons of limited means.

While public service such as pro bono work is an obligation of every lawyer, it is particularly relevant to the mission of a public law school. We are the law school of the State of Connecticut, and can repay the State’s support for us and our University in part through our dedication to public service. Pro bono work not only assures the proper functioning of our legal system, it also helps improve and reform the institutions of our state. Our students have a rich and long tradition of contributing to profound changes in Connecticut’s public policy and government institutions. Many of the advances in Connecticut’s approach to child welfare, prison conditions, health care for the indigent, and school desegregation can be traced back to the work of UConn Law students and graduates. 

In your talks at the Law School you have mentioned the idea of an incubator program that would create “a law firm-type setting” for recent graduates. Can you explain what you envision?

While many of our graduates will be seeking high-value jobs in the corporate sector, others will find fulfilling careers representing individuals and families. It is one of the greatest ironies of the legal market in America that, while many new lawyers cannot find jobs, the majority of Americans cannot afford a lawyer. I want to help our students and graduates structure the solution to this market failure. Whoever builds a business model that provides quality legal services at a reasonable cost for low- and middle-income Americans will have a great advantage in the years ahead.

I think our Law School can make a difference. One step I would like to take is to create an office space to be shared by a number of recent graduates, each of whom works in a solo practice providing legal services to individuals of limited means. We would enable them to work with minimal overhead and have the benefit of faculty and alumni mentors to assist them. I envision young alumni experimenting to define the practice niche where they can excel, and execute a marketing plan that matches that niche, while benefiting from the guidance of experienced lawyers who can help them avoid costly pitfalls. 

You have long been committed to public service, having served on several commissions related to justice and the courts and as the current chair of the Commission on Judicial Compensation. You also were a long-time member of the board of Greater Hartford Legal Aid and recently served as president of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, the primary funding source for legal aid in the state. Talk about the importance of public service to you.

I chose a life as a lawyer in part because it fit my belief in public service as one of the highest goals an individual can pursue. The private practice of law has been a wonderful platform from which to work on projects and organizations such as the ones you mention; it afforded the independence and flexibility that allowed me to hold meaningful roles in many different organizations. And my private practice and public service were mutually reinforcing. The training in advocacy, leadership and organizational skills of private practice enabled me to assume leadership roles in public service. Those opportunities in turn helped me develop as a professional, gave me exposure, provided a network of colleagues, and helped me to develop a deeper understanding of government and society in ways that made me a better advocate and counselor for my clients. 

The UConn Law campus is known for its beauty and top-notch facilities. What do you see as the Law School’s most pressing physical plant needs with regard to creating spaces for the exciting exchange of ideas you referred to in your vision talk?

Our campus needs a space where students and faculty naturally congregate and encounter each other. The formal conversations of the classroom and the structured settings of events or office hours are all important. But we also need to encourage the informal discussions that arise when people find themselves in the same space at the same time. When we get to know each other as individuals, we share ideas in a different way, and sometimes learn more deeply, or at least on different dimensions, than in formal settings. So while our West End campus is a beautiful place, and epitomizes what one would want a law school setting to look like, I would like to see us find space on our campus that brings together the members of the Law School community.

Fundraising is among the most visible and important activities of any law school dean. Share some of the ideas you have about increasing the Law School’s endowment and Annual Fund. What do you believe are the most significant challenges associated with raising private funds for a publicly-funded institution?

Some of the best law schools in our country are state institutions. Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia, for example, are on anyone’s short list of the best of the best. In each case their success reflects a combination of taxpayer support supplemented by private philanthropy and, in particular, alumni support. There is no reason UConn Law cannot work toward that august status. Our alumni are loyal and successful. Every one of them received a subsidized legal education, thanks to Connecticut’s taxpayers. I will be asking our alumni to consider repaying that favor. After all, the return on investment in lifetime earnings that each of them recovered on his or her law school tuition is astonishing — probably the best investment any of them ever made in their lives. I am excited at the prospect of enhancing the name value of a UConn Law degree, and am looking forward to spending time with as many of our alumni as possible to hear their ideas about the school and its future.

Before we move on to a few questions of a more personal nature, tell us what attracted you about the dean’s position at UConn Law?

I have been blessed throughout my career with wonderful colleagues and opportunities. But the deanship at the University of Connecticut School of Law is the pinnacle of my career. No other opportunity — no other job I have ever known or known of — comes close to combining all the things I hold most dear about my career while providing a chance to apply my experiences and resources to the best possible effect. I am tremendously grateful to the Law School and the University for entrusting me with this responsibility.

This job brings into one place everything that I most cherish about my career: public service; mentoring young people; organizational transformation; new knowledge through scholarship; and the excitement of an intellectual environment that encourages the exchange of ideas. I now believe that everything I’ve done in my career was preparation for this moment, though I didn’t see that at the time.

On to a few personal questions: Who are some of the people who have inspired you both in and outside of the legal arena?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was my professor at Columbia Law School, where among other things, she taught the Law of Sex Discrimination. This was in the 1970’s, which was a time of incredible change in the law and its application to human rights. I heard first hand from her about the courage, perseverance, and strategic thinking that can lead to fundamental social change.

Hugh Macgill will always be my model for what a dean should be. I’ll never match him, but I often draw upon his example when I think about how to lead a community of scholars.

My father, Clyde Fisher, was my foremost model of personal and professional character. He was a lawyer but never in private practice, working instead mostly as a civil servant in land use controls in Connecticut, San Francisco and Puerto Rico (where I attended junior high school). It was from watching him that I developed my ideas of public service, ethics, mentoring, and professionalism.

Your wife, Dina, is a 1994 graduate of UConn Law. Tell us a bit about her and the other members of your family. Also, when you are not on the job and involved in public service and pro bono work, what outside interests and activities keep you busy? 

Dina is a partner at Robinson & Cole, where she works part-time as a trial lawyer, balancing that with her career as an artist. We have four children between us — all of whom attended Conard High School — but who now are between the ages of 31 and 34. They are (oldest to youngest): Timothy V. Fisher, a patent attorney at Finnegan Henderson in Boston, who with his wife, Amber, are the parents of a one-year-old daughter, Sylvia Meredith Fisher; Benjamin P. Fisher, a computer consultant in the New York area, who with his wife, Susan, are the parents of boys, Garren, age 6, and Nathan, age 2; Avital Wenger, who is senior adviser to the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and founder and operator of an indoor cycling studio on the side; and Etan Wenger, who is a toy designer at Hasbro and is on the team that recently reintroduced the Easy-Bake Oven.

As empty nesters, Dina and I have the luxury of freedom in planning our vacations. Most of our trips in the last ten years have been bicycling in countries such as Turkey, Vietnam, Italy and France. Locally I entertain myself with cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, and enthusiastic support of the UConn Husky basketball teams. Two years ago I took a five-week trekking vacation in Nepal, where I hiked the “Annapurna Circuit” around the north side of the mountain of that name in the Himalayas, reaching an elevation of 17,750 feet. It was a fabulous experience, and one I’ll never forget. But for now, I’ll content myself with the wonderful experience of working with the faculty, students, staff, and alumni of the UConn Law School as we enter a promising new phase of the life of this great school. 

Feature: Q&A With Dean Timothy S. Fisher
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Around Campus
Curricular Reform
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Giving Back: PILG 20th Anniversary
Class Notes
Remembering: Francis X. Hennessy '61 and Ethel Sorokin '53

Promotions:

  • Andrew J. McDonald '91, Connecticut Supreme Court
  • Christine E. Keller '77, Connecticut Appellate Court
  • Jonathan Kline '94, partner, Smith, Campbell, & Russell LLP
  • Alfred R. Cassella '96, partner, Murtha Cullina LLP
  • Tracy L. Montalbano '03, partner, Halloran & Sage LLP
  • Peter M. Bryniczka '04, partner, Schoonmaker, Geroge & Blomberg P.C.
  • Jonathan I. Sirois '04, partner, Holland & Knight LLP
  • Jason A. Buchsbaum '05, principal, Cohen and Wolf, P.C
  • Thomas O. Farrish '05, partner, Day Pitney LLP
  • Joaquin L. Madry '05, partner, LeClairRyan
  • Joel A. DeFelice '06, partner, Marder & DeFelice Law Offices, LLC
  • Christopher G. Barnes LL.M. '10, partner, Reardon, Scanlon Vodola LLP