Dean Limelight: Harold J. Krent, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law


CHIC KENT Dean KRENTHe’s the dean who’s excited by what turns students off.

“It’s a valuable lesson for them – discovering what they don’t want to do as lawyers,” said Harold J. Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Litigating appeals for all manner of indigent prisoners, for example. “Some students can’t separate advocacy for a client from the nature of the client’s crime,” said Krent, who has enlisted student assistants on appeals litigation throughout his legal academic career. “I respect people who learn that valuable lesson now, in law school, and decide not to pursue that area of practice.”

Learning what students don’t like or devalue, Krent said in an interview, “can be a valuable lesson for me, since I discover what isn’t working for students on campus.”

Career Services, for example. “Most students thought of it as a bunch of counselors whom they had to go see,” Krent said. “We’ve retooled the department, turning passive counselors into proactive coaches. We expect them to know everything there is about the students they coach and to partner with them on everything from area of interest, to the externships and summer internships they should seek, to resume building, to job interviews.” Each student, he added, should have the same coach for all three years.

Krent himself knew that legal academia “was always a possibility,” starting during the ferment of the late 1960s, when as a teenager amid the civil rights and environmental movements he understood that law was “foundational for reforming society – it seemed so central to so many critical issues.” Krent, a graduate of Princeton University, started his professional career as a history teacher; he didn’t want to be a history teacher for long.

After earning his J.D. from New York University School of Law, he clerked for Judge William H. Timbers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then worked for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. “It was a fantastic experience,” he said. “But I realized that as an academic, I’d not only be able to teach, but I’d also have time to think about the normative aspects of the law; I’d be able to put my mark on and influence the practice of law.”

LAWDRAGON: What drew you to teaching at all?

HAROLD J. KRENT: The experience of teaching history in high school planted the seeds for teaching law down the road. I enjoyed the challenge of opening new worlds to students and imparting life skills.

LD: You joined the IIT Chicago-Kent faculty in 1994; became associate dean in 1997 and interim dean in 2002 before becoming dean the next year. What are some fundamental differences between being a professor and being dean?

HJK: The demands on my time as dean are incredibly variegated. I really can’t afford to spend too much time on any one issue. The good thing about being dean is that you have many more constituencies than you do as a faculty member and you’re constantly learning from them – the academy, the university, other deans throughout the university, students, faculty, staff, alumni, the local community. I think I had to become comfortable with doing OK in interactions with all of them and not being pitch perfect all the time. Being dean also compelled me to become very good about time management.

I do still teach small classes, which are generally more flexible regarding when we meet and for how much time. The large class I have taught most recently was administrative law, which is my area of scholarly expertise. And I guest teach in other people’s classes – criminal law, for example, where I find it fun to meet first-years.

I’ve kept as a priority involvement in the scholarly world – with one or three toes in the academic pool – because I believe it’s important to lead by example and to show that as dean I’m interested in the force of legal ideas. 

LD: What has surprised you over the years about the job and your work?

HJK: Crises arise and there are personal dramas, tragedies among faculty, staff and students. No one gives you a primer as to how to handle these compassionately – the tone and content of an e-mail, for example, or when I should speak or remain silent. This kind of episodic pastoral demand took some adjustment on my part.

LD: In the 13 years during which you’ve been dean, how have your goals changed?

HJK: The reshaping or restructuring of the legal economy forced a reevaluation of the curriculum so that we’re training students for new employment opportunities in nontraditional fields.

I’ve thought a lot about how to train students to be successful – introducing more instruction in project management, client development and understanding how technology works and can work for you as a lawyer long term. Years ago, I figured that students would pick up these skills on their own, and in those days of yore, their employers gave them one to two years to figure things out. Not any more, which is why we now try to integrate these subjects into the curriculum. The changes should help students regardless of where they work.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

HJK: Our law school boasts a unique blend of traditional academic firepower with innovative skills programs. No other school offers clinics based on an in-house law firm experience in criminal, family, employment, health, immigration, tax and small business transactional law.

We were the first school to insist upon three years of legal writing, and our advocacy teams reap national titles. We are now inculcating skills to permit students to excel in nontraditional legal fields such as in compliance and intellectual property management, and are focusing on different attributes of lawyering, such as project management, client counseling and technology adroitness, through our Praxis program.

Starting in the spring, we’re launching a distinctive program in which first years rotate through three different clinics of their choice. They will be able to see the different skills needed to be successful in different practices of law. The rotation should also help students understand why they are learning particular doctrine in class, and it should help them focus on the externships to pursue and classes to take in the future.

Why a clinical rotation for first years? It should be exciting for them to start learning about different fields, to figure out what they are interested in and not interested in. Students struggle with employment when they decide late in their law education where they want to practice because their classes and externships don’t paint a coherent picture for would-be employers.

LD: How does an in-house law firm differ from a clinic?

HJK: Clinics are great in that you can apply what you learn in class. Our in-house firm has a different dimension, which is the financial part of lawyering and dealing with clients, but in a controlled environment. The salaries of the professor-clinicians working in our in-house firm depend on their earnings through fee generation. That means the environment of the in-house firm is very different from that of other clinics. The professional issues inherent in a practice permeate the whole enterprise. These include the financial parameters of the cases you take and don’t take, the financial parameters of a settlement, what you do with a difficult client and so on.

The professor-clinicians include two focused on criminal law, two on employment law and one each on health law, tax law, small business and family law. There are generally eight students per term – and we have three terms a year – who work as apprentices to the professor-clinicians, somewhat like medical students on grand rounds.

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

HJK: The most critical challenge for most deans today is to help students find challenging and remunerative jobs. To that end, we have revamped our externship programs, retooled our Career Services office and kick-started alternative paths in compliance, intellectual property management and entrepreneurial fields, where we know there is job growth. We’re still mastering how to find the job openings that aren’t in traditional law firms and match students to those jobs. One task for Career Services is to build a plan for finding those entry points.

By the way, when I say we’re kick-starting alternative employment paths I’m referring to a variety of possibilities: We have a grant, for example, from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to build a compliance path, and we opened an incubator for those interested in starting a law firm, complete with mentors, free space, programs in marketing, understanding technology needs and more.

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

HJK: Students are pursuing more jobs in small firms than before, and our incubator for recent graduates is helping students interested in the entrepreneurial aspects of law practice build the tools necessary to succeed in the business of law as some start their own firms. Just to enter the incubator you need to write a business plan, which is a valuable experience.

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

HJK: Sleep and occasionally play tennis! Then there is the occasional treat when I visit alums – hiking in Idaho, for example; I just returned from there. Our alums have opened a world of careers and interests for our students and, happily, for me.

Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or