Dean Limelight: Gonzaga University School of Law’s Jane Korn


04282011JaneKorn-1Jane Korn considers responsible innovation both her mission and her challenge at Gonzaga University School of Law.

“I have a talented, energetic faculty who generate very good ideas in an institution known for problem solving,” Korn, the school’s dean, said in an interview. “The question for me is how do we innovate while offering the doctrinal fundamentals of a high-quality law school education? How do we meet the needs of current and incoming students in a responsible way so that we continue to provide the excellent education for which we are known?”

She offered as an example the law school’s new two-year J.D. program. When Gonzaga’s enrollment started to decline with the 2012-2013 entering class, “we knew we had to do something innovative,” she said.

“We talked, we brainstormed,” Korn continued. “We focused on what students need and recognized that an accelerated degree program would appeal to many students. But we also recognized that you can’t simply lop off that third year.”

To begin with, the American Bar Association requires accredited J.D. programs to offer 83,000 minutes of academics. As important, the law school didn’t want to short-change students by either compressing too much into the existing academic calendar, or leaving out courses and experiences that are central to the kind and quality of legal education Gonzaga believes it provides.

The solution was to move to a regular calendar year with faculty members teaching during a summer term.  “Happily, there are faculty who want to teach during the summer here in Spokane,” Korn said.

The school expected 12 students to inaugurate the accelerated program. It got 24. “To try a new program you have to be a little bold, a little daring,” Korn said. “I don’t know if these students are more so than our regular first-years. I suspect they are. They are slightly older – with an average age of 30 as against 27. And they are incredibly energetic and bonding in ways I believe to be unique.”

Korn is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder Law School with an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University. She came to Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, from the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law in 2011.

“As would be the case with any external hire – a dean coming from outside the school – the faculty weren’t used to my style and I wasn’t used to and fully knowledgeable about this culture, which is different from Arizona’s,” she said in an interview. “Over time, we’ve learned and we’ve accommodated each other.”

She added: “We’re all passionate about students. That’s a wonderful place for any dialogue to start.”

LAWDRAGON: What drew you into legal academia? 

JANE KORN: I loved law school; it was the first time in my life that I really enjoyed school. I think it was because I loved the environment of law school – the ability to have dialogues with really smart students and teachers in class. Before graduating, around 1982-83, a faculty member actually asked if I had considered teaching. I hadn’t. But that professor planted the seed of an idea.

Immediately after law school I clerked for a federal judge in Denver, Colo. Then I spent a few years in practice at a large law firm in New York City. That’s when I moved to Arizona to teach at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, and confirmed that working with students was a better calling for me. You know as a teacher, you’re really challenged every moment. And when you have a struggling student – to see the light go on when they get it; well, there’s nothing better than knowing that you’ve just helped change the world one person at a time.

I think that’s why my one regret in becoming a dean is that I miss being in the classroom. I did teach here one semester, but my travel schedule is so demanding that it wouldn’t be fair to students. Gonzaga faculty members are very available to students. And I can’t be, as I’m on the road meeting with alums and fund-raising. I get a different kind of pleasure in that, since every one of the alums I meet has interesting stories to tell.

LD: How did your perspective change when you became a dean?

JK: When I was an associate dean in Arizona, someone else was ultimately responsible for whatever happened, whatever decisions were made. Now I’m in charge. That’s a wonderful challenge and an awesome responsibility.

Integral to both challenge and responsibility is the development of relationships and, through those relationships, the establishing of trust. I must make faculty members understand that it’s OK to come to me; that I’m almost always available to them (except when I’m driving or out of cell-phone range). I must also make sure they know that I trust them to do a good job and that I have their backs. That doesn’t mean we’ll never disagree. Most of the time, however, I try to say, “These are my thoughts. It’s your decision, however.”

That’s one advantage of being an internal choice: You know what the needs are because you come from that culture. I came from outside, from Arizona. I had some ideas early on. But I knew that I had to take a wait-and-see approach so that I could first learn the culture. I could do little or nothing in that first year. Whatever I did, I needed to proceed carefully – although in the end, I may be more objective. That’s one advantage of not being an internal choice.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

JK: Several qualities distinguish us from others. Gonzaga Law provides an experience-based academic program for students that focuses on cura personalis – care of the whole person. Every time I go to a graduation – and I’ve gone to many – I know that we are collectively concerned about whether our graduates are going to find satisfaction in their chosen careers. At Gonzaga, we ask: Did we provide them the tools to ensure that they have happy, productive lives? That’s hard to measure, but that is the measure of our success.

For our entire 101-year history, Gonzaga Law has always focused on finding innovative solutions. Gonzaga Law’s legal clinic was one of the first in the country in 1974. Our new curriculum highlighting experiential learning, which is so popular now, was launched in 2009. Our new two-year accelerated J.D. program, the first in the Northwest, began this summer. Stay tuned next summer as we offer international students a full J.D. by including them in our two-year accelerated program.

Gonzaga is unusual, too, in that legal writing is taught for four semesters by full-time faculty on long-term contracts. Not surprisingly, wherever I go I am complimented on the legal writing skills of our graduates. I don’t think many law schools can say that.

LD: Tell us about the accelerated program and the international J.D. How does that work?

JK: Once again, this is an innovation that emerged from an energetic, creative faculty and a culture concerned with educating the whole student. Here at Gonzaga, we were talking about how global the practice of law is and how most American law schools offer an LL.M. – a masters degree that is really an introduction to American law. Moreover, students usually get an LL.M. in a specialty, like tax or environmental law. We want to develop well-rounded students, so an LL.M. is not part of who we are.

A full J.D. for an international student, that is who we are. How could we accomplish this? Well, the American Bar Association says we can offer up to 30 credits – that’s the equivalent of one year of credit – for a foreign law degree. If we did that, and then put our international students in our two-year accelerated program, then they would be out with an American J.D. degree in 15 months.

We have relationships with law schools around the world, and we recognize why such countries would want their own lawyers qualified to practice here. So we’re recruiting in places such as Guatemala, Brazil and China. Chinese companies, for example, want to be represented in the U.S. by someone who intimately understands their own and their country’s culture, and who also knows the American legal system, its terminology, its processes – how it works.

LD: What are your biggest challenges as dean and how are you meeting them?

JK: At Gonzaga, I would say the biggest challenge has been working to balance the extraordinarily passionate group of faculty and students and their creative ideas for innovating legal education, while maintaining a strong focus on providing the best value and most well-rounded, practice-ready education for students that we can.

I have a lot of faculty who believe deeply in the mission of Gonzaga. They’ll come up with very good ideas. But the issue is how much can we add to the curriculum while continuing to deliver the basic doctrinal requirements of a legal education and staying true to who and what we are.

You know, the University of New Hampshire is known as an IP – intellectual property – law school. Lewis and Clark is known as an environmental law school. So when one of our faculty members says, “Why don’t we become known for fill-in-the-blank?” we need to balance the virtues of that suggestion with providing a well-rounded education, because we aren’t a specialty school.

Another challenge for me has been increasing the reputation of this law school. We don’t have a culture of bragging, of marketing our wonderful assets. I don’t want to do that – to make us better known – in a way that somehow changes the school culture or that isn’t consonant with that culture. So we’ve been doing it in small ways. I travel a lot more. We have better marketing materials that emphasize our legal writing instruction and the experiential learning, which we introduce even in the first year: We offer, for example, a litigation skills lab – a simulation – in conjunction with torts, and a transactional skills lab in conjunction with contracts. All this, again, in the first year.

More generally, I have the same challenges as every other law school dean right now.  Declining interest in law school is both a challenge and an opportunity for innovation, like the international J.D. program.

I also worry about the decreasing number of lawyers and who will provide legal services to those who cannot get them now, much less in a few years when there are even fewer practicing lawyers. The very large number of cases our low-income clinic takes on, and the wide variety of low- and moderate-income legal services our students help provide support for, are examples of this need.

That’s why I’m a proponent of the so-called moderate means program in Washington State. Partly funded by the bar and partly funded by law schools, it offers what some people call “low-bono” legal services to families whose income is too high to qualify them for legal aid free of charge, but who can’t afford a lawyer at full price.

Meeting these challenges has meant making a concentrated effort to keep lines of communication open with faculty, students, staff and the community.

LD: Are you seeing any trends in the jobs your students take?  

JK: One of the biggest trends is that more of our students are going into more nontraditional legal jobs including compliance, investigations and business opportunities. We’re also seeing the effects of the Uniform Bar Exam play out. Instead of taking a different bar exam for each state in which you want to practice, students take a single exam and can then practice in a number of states if they get the passing score required in the specific jurisdictions in which they’re interested. With 14 jurisdictions adopting the Uniform Bar Exam, and our students doing extraordinarily well on the exam, we are seeing a lot of graduates going into small-firm practice in more geographic regions.

LD: What do you do outside school when you’re not being dean? 

JK: When I am not working, I like to get together with friends, walk my dogs, and I am an avid reader.

Contact Margot Slade at (646) 7232-2623 or