Academics and Research

Law school’s strategic plan targets the student experience

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the summer/fall 2015 issue of Denver Law magazine.


The adage is if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

Maybe Martin Katz is your man.

As both the dean and a professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Katz is certainly busy, and he is an incredible asset to the law school. The National Jurist named him the fourth most influential person in legal education in 2014. And he is getting a lot done.

What’s his secret? One that he is willing to share is pretty simple: It’s called planning.

“When I became interim dean in 2009, I thought it would be good if everyone was on the same page. And if that page was heavily informed by high-quality data and feedback from our stakeholders, all the better,” Katz says. “A lot of people at that time talked about the importance of a dean’s vision. But to me, it seemed silly to talk about a vision if that vision wasn’t in line with the goals and aspirations of the key stakeholders — particularly the faculty, who are the people who get things done at a law school.”

He thought it equally silly if a vision wasn’t tied to facts — the school’s strengths, its challenges and its opportunities.

“So it seemed obvious to me that the thing to do was to invite the faculty to join me in a strategic-planning exercise. We had a lot of fun doing it, and both the process and the outcome proved incredibly valuable.”

Katz has clearly proven he is good at planning. Not long after taking the dean’s reins, he started what would become the 2009 Strategic Plan — a five-year road map to improve Denver Law through more experiential and specialized educational opportunities. Mission accomplished. Earlier this year Katz and the Denver Law’s Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) shared a bevy of feats spawned directly from that plan.

Many are praising the results from that plan. José Juárez Jr., a professor of law who served on the FEC, says Katz has used planning to do a “superb job” of seeing that changes actually occur. “He’s been dean while the school has gone through some real challenges, and he has been terrific about thinking quickly and getting us to respond to realities,” Juárez says.

Now Katz and the FEC are at it again. This past summer they unveiled the 2015 Strategic Plan, and Katz believes it will thrust Denver Law further into the upper echelons of U.S. legal education. The new plan differs from the typical sit-on-the-shelf-type plan in three ways:

  • Participation and buy-in from stakeholders — “We collected information and ideas from stakeholders, with a particular emphasis on employers,” Katz says. “We asked abut what we’re doing well and where we could do better along with how they see their world changing in the next five, 10 and 20 years. We took that information and developed a plan designed to produce the type of graduates that the market is hungry for. Our faculty voted to adopt this plan by a margin of almost 90 percent. This means that we’re all committed to making this plan a reality.”
  • Responsiveness to the needs of the legal community, students and potential students — “Responsiveness is imperative if we are going to survive and thrive,” he says. “There’s no ambiguity in our mission here, which helps focus us on implementing this plan.”
  • Specificity of implementation — “The plan includes specific tasks, with timetables and people responsible for those tasks,” Katz says. “We’ll do annual report-backs to the faculty and trustees on those tasks. That commitment to implementation, with clear metrics and lines of responsibility, transformed the 2009 plan from a set of great ideas into a clear road map for success. We’ll do the same thing with this new plan to make sure that it becomes a reality and not just a stack of paper that sits on a shelf.”

Katz does see similarities between the 2015 and 2009 plans.

“The 2009 plan called for an emphasis on practical legal education (our Modern Learning Initiative) and a focus on doing a few things very well rather than trying to be all things to all people (our Specialization Initiative). Those two initiatives have been very successful for us, and they’re featured prominently in our new plan,” he says.

But the new plan helps put those two initiatives in context, Katz says.

“At their core, those initiatives were about three things: 1) creating graduates who are practice-ready and ready to pursue and navigate meaningful careers; 2) partnering with our community to help educate our students and enrich our legal community; and 3) producing ideas and scholarship that have an impact on our legal system and our profession. Our new plan focuses on these three big goals and adopts a series of initiatives — including Modern Learning and Specialization as well as a handful of new initiatives — that will help us achieve those three big goals.”

Katz believes the new plan is also more nimble than the 2009 plan.

“We’ll evaluate market conditions and areas of demand for lawyers that overlap with areas where we can develop expertise. That will let us offer opportunities for students to specialize in areas where there is significant job growth. I think a good example is our new certificate in intellectual property law, a hot area of growth.”

Christopher Lasch, an associate professor who served on the FEC, says he believes the plan’s linchpin is the stakeholders’ input.

“The extensive work that went into gathering data and viewpoints makes the plan a truly collaborative product that reflects all the relevant voices,” Lasch says.

To ensure thoroughness, Lasch says, the FEC worked with two consulting firms.

“The plan represents an enormous undertaking that took into account not only our own strengths as a law school but also the changing environment,” he says. “This plan ensures students get the education that prospective employers want. While Denver Law was already ahead of the curve in terms of responding to the changing legal market, this plan ensures Denver Law will continue to be at the forefront of schools providing a top-notch legal education aimed at producing practice-ready graduates.”

Juárez agrees. “The key phrase in the 2015 Plan for me was ‘creating bridges to meaningful careers.’ That’s about getting students who are motivated to do great things in the world, and this plan is about helping them make that happen,” he says. “Being student-centered has been a part of our culture at the law school and it fits well with DU, too.”

That’s something Eric Bono, assistant dean for Career Development and Opportunities, also likes about the plan. He says this plan will take the student experience to the next level.

“We’ll embed career and professional development training into the experience of every student, not just those who take advantage of our existing services,” Bono says. “And by building bridges between career and academic advising, we’ll empower our students to get the most out of their time in law school, in the classroom and beyond.”

Suzanna Moran, associate professor of the practice and new chair of the FEC, also appreciates the student focus.

“The hope is that each student will tell us ‘here’s who I am and what I’m about,’ and then we’ll help them turn those personal identities into professional identities and help them navigate the academic and career paths that will best position them to achieve unique goals consistent with their unique identities,” she says.

According to Moran, Denver Law does basically three things: teaches legal doctrine, teaches students how to be excellent lawyers and fights to improve the world by addressing important social and legal issues.

“As we all compete for resources, it can start to feel like we don’t all care about all the aspects of what we do,” she says. “During this process it became clear that that was wrong. Nobody on our faculty or staff felt that our law school could be successful without being excellent at all of these things. Obviously we must perform the most basic task of legal instruction.

“But today’s law school must also create professionals who can enter the practice of law with strong skills, ethics and connections. And no institution of higher learning can neglect its obligation to shine a light on society’s problems and propose solutions for its betterment. I think we came out of this process with a greater sense of shared purpose, which was a really wonderful antidote to the harder times and resource competition law schools have been facing over the last five or so years.”

University of Denver Chancellor Rebecca Chopp also praises the 2015 plan and says it supports an education that is flexible and experiential, and that educates graduates to be practice-ready.

“These are themes that have become very important to the University plan as well,” Chopp says. “The law school has been a model for us to understand one expression of these themes as we have worked on the broader Imagine DU project.”


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