Q&A with new Law Dean Davison M. Douglas

  • Davison M. DouglasAs Dean, Douglas is leading the nation's oldest law school. The William & Mary Law School was founded Dec. 4, 1779.

    Stephen Salpukas

    Davison M. Douglas

Davison Douglas, a member of the William & Mary Law School faculty since 1990, became dean on July 1.  I recently asked him about his background, his thoughts about becoming dean, and the challenges facing legal education. - Ed.


Q. You’ve likened the opportunity to become dean to finally having the chance to play point guard on a basketball team. Please explain.

A. I've played a lot of basketball in my life and those who follow the game know that it’s essential to have a great point guard whose primary job is to make sure that all of the other players get the ball at the spot on the floor where they have the best chance to score.  Now, in all my years of playing basketball, I never got the chance to play point guard.  I’m six feet, seven inches tall, and my coaches always thought I was too tall to play that position.  I was always one of the players whose primary job was to stay near the basket and try to score. 

Well, to some extent, my job for 25 years has been to score -- as a lawyer for my clients, as a teacher, and as a scholar.  Now, at age 52, as dean, I finally get to play point guard.  My primary job now is to help everyone else in the Law School – students, faculty, administrators -- get the ball so they can fulfill their dreams and goals.  If someone in the Law School succeeds, then I succeed.  It's a wonderful transition for me, and I love what I'm doing.

Q. What are your plans for the coming year?

A. We have a number of plans for the coming year.  First, we will be engaging in a major reassessment of how we teach the full array of practical skills every lawyer needs.  Our greatest strength is the superb job we do educating new lawyers.  Our Legal Skills program, now two decades old, has been recognized and emulated by law schools around the country.  We want to make sure that we continue this tradition of excellence.

Second, we know we need to expand our faculty in order to fulfill our aspirations as a law school.  We’ll be trying to secure the necessary support so that we can make multiple new hires during the next few years.

Third, we will be making special efforts in the coming year to help our students succeed in what is a particularly difficult job market.  To that end, our Office of Career Services is redoubling its efforts to work one-on-one with students in their job searches and to market our law school to employers.  We will also be making efforts to secure additional funding for our program of post-graduate public service fellowships.

Q. You’ve said that growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, had a profound impact on your adult life. Why?

A. Over the course of my academic career, my primary scholarly interest has been American constitutional history.  I have had a particular interest in the development of constitutional law as it pertains to issues of race.  Most of my books and articles have dealt in some way with this issue.

My interest in racial issues and constitutional law emerged out of my childhood.  I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s in Charlotte, North Carolina, at a time when the South was undergoing a profound transformation around issues of race and racial desegregation.  When I was in eighth grade, the public schools in Charlotte began what would become the most extensive school desegregation plan in the country.  I became deeply involved in my high school student government and wound up working with local school officials on implementation issues.  As a result of those experiences, I became interested in the legal and social issues related to race in American society.  I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation and first book on the school desegregation process in Charlotte and have continued to teach and write in this area.  A considerable amount of my own scholarship has in some sense been an effort to understand my own past and an important part of our nation's past.

Q. What do you think are the Law School’s greatest strengths?

A. I’m often asked this question by students who are considering William and Mary for law school.  Two particular strengths always come to mind.

First is our faculty’s extraordinary devotion to the educational process.  Our faculty is comprised of gifted teachers who understand that teaching is a central focus of our work – both in the classroom and one-on-one.  We set high expectations, but we are prepared to help students do what it takes to achieve their goals.

The second thing that comes to mind is the marvelous sense of community here at the Law School among students, faculty, staff and administrators.  We're not scattered over a large metropolitan area where students come in, go to class, and then go home, or where faculty come in, teach their classes, and go home.  From the first day that students step foot in the Law School, they gain a sense that this is a special community in which to learn.

Q. What do you think are the greatest challenges facing law schools today?

A. In 2009, perhaps the most difficult challenge facing law schools is the legal market after graduation.  We're in the most difficult legal job market I’ve seen in my lifetime.  A very high priority for us in the upcoming academic year is to do everything we can to help our students find work that will enable them to fulfill their professional goals.

Another challenge for law schools, generally, and for William & Mary as well, is to continue to think about what is the best way to train students in the basket of essential skills that they need to be effective lawyers.  This will be an important focus for us in the upcoming year.

Finally, a challenge common to all law schools is the escalating cost of legal education.  We will need to continue to ensure that there's enough financial aid available to enable students to pursue their professional goals in law and to ensure that large debt loads do not compromise their career choices.

Q. What can alumni do to support the Law School?

A. There are many ways that alumni can be involved with the Law School.  We have a co-counsel program through which alumni can mentor law students.  We have a mock interview program where alumni help our students prepare for the job market.  Alumni can also offer their input on the teaching of legal skills.  As I mentioned earlier, we're taking a close look at how we teach basic lawyering skills, so I’m eager to get the ideas and input of alumni.  And in these tough economic times with reductions in state support for the Law School, we will continue to need the financial support of our alumni.

In the coming year, I hope to have a chance to meet and talk with as many alumni as possible.  Our graduates’ financial support and friendship are the foundation for the Law School’s continued success.