Dean Limelight: Fordham Law School’s Michael M. Martin


Fordham MartinMichael M. Martin’s relationship with Fordham Law School began with a love affair and ended up as a love affair. Here is how Martin, the dean since 2011, explained it:

“I had completed my own education – undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Iowa, then off to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar – and was teaching at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. That’s when I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for 43 years. Ellen was from New York and we decided to move there.

I applied to law schools in the area. This was 1972 and Fordham was hiring. In fact, it was clear to me that the then dean, Joe McLaughlin, was bringing in people – more women, more professors doing high-profile scholarship – to help transform Fordham from a good regional school to one with a national profile.

I was honored to be part of that transformation. And in all these years, I’ve never regretted – not for a moment – being part of this wonderful community, this family.

Incidentally, my wife ended up getting her J.D. at Fordham, creating another connection for me to the school as she went on to a long, distinguished career in employment law at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler here in New York.

LAWDRAGON: Why did you pursue the study of law in the first place?

MICHAEL M. MARTIN: I actually knew I wanted to be a teacher before I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, since both my parents were public school teachers in Iowa and I knew what a teaching career would be like. Turns out that a good friend of the family was the dean of the Iowa Law School. I greatly admired him, much as I admired a number of lawyers in the field in those days. So the stage was set, in a way, when I was very young to seriously consider teaching law as a career.

I also figured that I’d enjoy studying law: The Socratic method was familiar to me because it was something in which my parents engaged at home. I was interested in studying social studies, history and political science as an undergraduate. But what I liked about studying law was that you always have to reach a conclusion.

Moreover, a good lawyer uses all sorts of things – history, sociology, political theory, accounting – to get to that conclusion. I found it a fascinating intellectual exercise, and it fit very well with my desire to teach.

I’ve never regretted that decision. You know, I worked for a law firm on the recommendation of someone who said that all law professors should have spent some time in practice so they know for sure that the other side of the fence isn’t greener. It was confirmation enough for me.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

MMM: Fordham Law stands apart for several reasons, not the least of which is its Jesuit foundation, which finds the faculty, students and alumni very much committed to the school’s motto of service to others. There’s also a great deal of respect and affection between the faculty and students. This is a remarkable place in terms of Fordham Law’s sense of family and community spirit.

This year, however, we opened our new law school building, which I believe provides students one of the best legal education environments in the country. The building is across the street from Lincoln Center in the heart of Manhattan. Its key aim is to foster collaboration and innovation.A variety of lounges and public spaces offer places for students and faculty to gather and socialize; you’ll even see students clustered in the corridors, which I think is great. The building’s classrooms and seminar rooms are complemented by an array of simulation, training and group-study rooms.

I believe that the building reflects the excellence of the school’s faculty and students, and it enhances the school’s delivery of a complete legal education, an approach we have honed for more than 100 years.

Yes, there has been a decrease in applications and subsequently in the size of our entering class. But we were incredibly crowded in the old building; in fact, some clinics, administrators and the international program were housed apart from the law school. This building was constructed to bring us together, to support collaborative learning and to do so for the next 50 years.

LD: What do you mean by a complete legal education?

MMM: Fordham’s approach to a complete education balances rigorous academic coursework with real-world practice while emphasizing ethics and the community-building power of public service. The Class of 2014, for example, voluntarily performed more than 150,000 hours of public interest work during their time at Fordham Law. We even have a public interest resource center – one of first in the country – to help our students find those opportunities.

Fordham Law is one of the most selective law schools in the United States based on median LSAT scores. Three of our specialty areas – dispute resolution, clinical training and intellectual property – are ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the nation’s top 20. Our student journals are among the most cited in the legal profession, with The Fordham Law Review being the 9th most cited review in judicial opinions. Our students in the Moot Court Program, Brendan Moore Trial Advocates and Dispute Resolution Society compete successfully in their respective fields.

I’ve said it before and I delight in saying it here: Fordham is one of the 20 top law schools in Class of 2013 initial employment with Big Law and federal clerkships and in election to Big Law partnerships in 2013. Not surprisingly, our alumni network spans the globe and includes some of the nation’s finest attorneys, business executives, judges, public servants and academics.

LD: Is it right to assume that the emphasis on community service, Fordham’s culture around being a family – these characteristics would make it a good fit for some aspiring law students and not for others?

MMM: Our students are people who haven’t just padded their resumes with service projects, but have shown throughout their work and non-work activities, through long-term commitments, that they are in service to others.

Arrogance, or being out for yourself, or being cut-throat competitive doesn’t sell well here among the faculty or students. The school has long had a reputation as being a place where pages aren’t cut out of law books in the library. If you’re eager to be part of that kind of family, this is likely to be a good fit.

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

MMM: The biggest challenges are positioning the school for a changed legal environment and preparing our graduates for a changed legal environment.

For our graduates, we are providing more opportunities for them to build their legal skill set. We accomplish that in many ways. We have developed one of the best clinical programs in the country with a total of 15 clinics. We have changed the curriculum to require a course in legislation and regulation, which is a big part of a lawyer’s practice but traditionally has not been a required course in law school.

We require an Introduction to Quantitative Methods course during orientation. This provides students with some knowledge of financial statements, a basic understanding of concepts of probability and statistics, and explanations of investment dynamics, among other things. It gives them a base of knowledge for when professors talk about these topics in courses, and it emphasizes the value of understanding math to the practice of law.

Lawyers have to deal with math issues all the time; regardless of their practice area, they have to be financially literate. This doesn’t mean they need to completely understand corporate finance. It does mean that if you have a math phobia, you need to get over it.

We are also developing concentrations so that students can make rational progressions from survey courses through research through experiential opportunities in targeted areas such as bankruptcy, criminal law and intellectual property. We want them to have both broad knowledge and some expertise in one or more fields.

As for positioning the school for a changed legal environment, we recognize that there are many valuable aspects to a legal education – not just the knowledge but the manner of thinking – and we are trying to make them available to a broad array of people. We are in the process of getting approval for a master’s Study of Law program. These would be one-year courses for people who can use some legal knowledge but are not interested in becoming members of the bar.

In addition, our faculty has done an excellent job exploring areas that reach beyond traditional JD programs. For example, we have a new LLM in compliance and one coming soon in fashion law.

Fashion is the second- or third-largest industry in New York. The law involved runs from contracts, IP and concerns about legal protections regarding designs to employment issues and international law, given how much manufacturing occurs abroad. We are lucky enough to have one of the founders of the field, Susan Scafidi, who is the founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute here at Fordham.

Of course we face the challenge of addressing the cost of a legal education. We have increased the amount of financial aid we can provide to students through university sources and through the generosity of our alumni and friends. Last year we added about $1 million from gifts of our alumni to the financial aid we are offering students.

Those scholarships, by the way, are mixed merit-based and need-based. About a third of the entering class receives need-based financial aid. And it’s guaranteed all three years: We don’t require students to maintain an impossible GPA to keep it.

The bottom line here is that whatever the challenges, it’s great to be dean of a law school that is such a community – a real family. We have an incredibly well qualified and public-spirited student body; faculty who are not only great scholars, but also great teachers; a strong administrative staff, and 17,000 exceptionally loyal and generous alumni. I have a lot of help tackling any challenge I face.

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

MMM: The reality is that since the recession there are fewer jobs. Fordham has always done well placing jobs at large New York law firms, but there are fewer of those positions these days. As a result, we are assisting our students by putting more resources into career planning and into developing increasingly strong connections with alumni in the New York metro area and throughout the country to help our graduates in their employment search.

We remain ranked in the top 20 for placing graduates with big law firms, but we are seeing more of our graduates taking advantage of all the opportunities that New York offers in areas such as finance, business, journalism, government and nonprofits. We place well with district attorneys and with the New York City Corporation Counsel. At the ribbon cutting for our new building this fall, Michael Bloomberg noted that many in his administration were Fordham Law graduates.

We try to help our graduates see their careers as a series of stepping stones. Nowadays, it is rare to get one’s ideal job straight out of graduate school and do it for the rest of your life. There is a lot more movement. What we try to do with our education is prepare students to be good problem-solvers so that they bring value to all types of employers and so that they are always well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities.

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

MMM: I enjoy playing with my grandchildren. My granddaughter turned 3 in November, and she now has a little brother, who is just a few weeks old. Living in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, I attend the theater as much as my schedule will permit.

My wife, Ellen, and I also love to travel. We recently went on safari in South Africa and had the amazing experience of viewing leopards in the wild. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a leopard from 10 feet away.

I enjoy going to Mets games, which has been problematic the last few years. But I’m optimistic about next season. And I do a fair amount of reading while on vacation or traveling. Recent books have included novels (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Nicholas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs), history (Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914), and treatments of economics (Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and mathematics for lay people (Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking).

Contact Margot Slade ta (914) 396-4248 or