Dean Limelight: Ward Farnsworth, University of Texas School of Law


UTEXAS FarnsworthWard Farnsworth, the dean of the University of Texas School of Law, is a man of distinctive passions and choice words. He devours old movies, barbecue and live music; loves baseball; is expert in and written books about rhetoric and chess, in addition to torts, civil procedure, contracts and admiralty law; and is the author of The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking About the Law, whose tools he teaches students to use effectively across practice areas.

Farnsworth’s path into lawyering and legal academia is less that of a directed careerist and more of a polymath who, unable to decide among his many interests, discovered that he need not choose if he pursued law. “Law school is great for people who want to think about everything,” he said in an e-mail exchange.

A graduate of Wesleyan University with a B.A. in history and of The University of Chicago Law School, Farnsworth clerked for Judge Richard A. Posner on the Seventh Circuit and then for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1996, he became a legal advisor to the Iran–U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague. But these were necessary experience-building pit stops on his way to a dreamed-of career teaching law students.

He did so for 15 years at Boston University School of Law, where he eventually served as dean of academic affairs. Then the University of Texas offered him something else: the role of dean.

The post came with challenges: The law school comprises more faculty and students than Boston University Law. And it’s been roiled of late by complaints against the previous dean involving faculty compensation practices.

Farnsworth said that with new procedures in place and a standard of more open communication and candidness, the law school has “put that stuff behind us” and is focused on issues rooted in the demands of an evolving profession.

LAWDRAGON: Why did you decide to go to law school?

WARD FARNSWORTH: After college, I was interested in too many things – economics, psychology, philosophy, rhetoric, etc.  I couldn’t figure out which way to go or which of those subjects to pursue in graduate school. I spent some time bartending and reading everything I could find to help settle on a direction, and was struck by how often the ideas that fascinated me were illustrated by legal situations.  Economists would illustrate their discussions with good or bad legislation.  Psychologists illustrated what they said with examples from the courtroom.  Law was the common denominator.

I realized that studying law gives you a chance to think about all of those subjects, and to bring them to bear on real conflicts—and that law school is great for people who want to think about everything.

LD: Why did you choose to attend the University of Chicago Law School?

WF: Chicago was and is an intense place with a great tradition of interdisciplinary inquiry.  It’s always been the leading school for economic analysis of law, and it has long had faculty who are interested in philosophy and literature, too.  Plus my dad went there, and when I was growing up he always talked about how much the place meant to him. I liked it very much, too.

LD: What convinced you to enter the field of legal academia?

WF: Some of my favorite life experiences have been in classrooms – those amazing days when you’re with a teacher who shows you how to think in a way that you hadn’t known before.  I’ve always loved those moments, and could think of nothing more appealing than trying to create them for others.  And I still love to teach, but eventually concluded that I could do even more to help students by being a dean.

LD: You’ve taught courses on torts, contracts, civil procedure, admiralty, analytical methods and rhetoric. How did you become interested in fields that aren’t what one usually sees on a law faculty resume?

WF: To me the best part of law school isn’t learning rules.  It’s learning how to think new thoughts and see more deeply into whatever problems are put in front of you.  Once you see law school as mostly about thinking skills, it becomes natural to teach all sorts of different classes because they aren’t really about different things. They’re all about how to reason and argue. I wrote a book on this theory called The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking About the Law.  Every chapter has examples from lots of different courses.

As for rhetoric, I’ve always been fascinated by the English language and believe that law schools are the last place where people really study the practical use of it; they are our modern academies of rhetoric.  I’ve written a book to give effect to this interest, too, called Classical English Rhetoric.

LD: Why did you agree to leave your long-time Boston home to become law dean at the University of Texas?

WF: If you love legal education as I do, being the dean at Texas is about as good as it gets. We have the best law school for a very long way in every direction, and we’ve always provided a top-tier education without putting our students into too much debt. I’m a student-focused teacher and dean, so I really care about that. The state of Texas also has a good economy and lots of jobs, which keeps morale high. And everyone likes Austin. All in all, it’s an ideal situation for a professor, administrator or student.

LD: What do you wish you knew before becoming dean?

WF: That it would be fun. I would have done it earlier.

LD: What, if anything, surprised you when you became dean?

WF: Professors get used to having control over their time. When you’re a dean, you have to get used to a very different lifestyle. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you should, and your calendar is full of meetings and travel.

As I say, it’s fun if you love the mission. But it’s a different kind of fun than teaching and writing all day long.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

WF: Return on investment. US News & World Report recently ranked UT Law #1 in the country on that dimension, and for many years it has been our specialty. As I said before, we like to provide a top-tier education and top-tier opportunities without putting students into top-tier debt.  We impose less average debt on our students than most of our peer schools.

As for our academic programs, we have very strong specialties in energy law and intellectual property, and we have more clinics than most other schools.  Our students love them.

Another big “differentiator” at Texas is quality of life.  We take pride in having a collegial atmosphere and making law school enjoyable as well as hard.  Again, being in Austin helps.

Our alumni are also an important and distinctive part of this place.  We were a huge school for many generations, and the first choice for every talented Texan and many non-Texans.  The result is that we now have a gigantic community of graduates who are wildly successful and very loyal to the school and its current students.  You join that community upon arrival when you get here as a student, and one of my goals as dean has been to increase those connections between our current students and our amazing alums.

LD: How are you accomplishing that goal? 

WF: We enlist our alumni from all over the U.S. to explain what they do and how they can help our students. Then we match students to alums who work in the places that interest them the most and who have the kinds of practices that our students think they might like.  In this way we’re systematically increasing the number of relationships between our students and our graduates. Both sides are enjoying this and benefiting from it.

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

WF: To me our most important mission is helping all of our students find the jobs that they want. That’s challenging in the current market. We spend a lot of resources on career counseling, and we work hard to get our students connected with those alumni all over the country who I mentioned a moment ago.

Students often don’t realize how large a part of building a career is about building relationships.  I view our school partly as a rigorous academic experience but also as a place where students can form relationships with their colleagues and with alumni that will help them get the careers they want.

LD: UT law has undergone several challenges lately, including having the previous dean forced to leave after facing a crisis of confidence. How have you been restoring confidence?

WF: We moved on from that stuff a long time ago. The school had deployed money to recruit faculty in ways that were very common in private schools but that caused problems for us as a public school, because public schools have to be more transparent about who is being paid what. We put procedures in place to fix those issues, and that was that.

Our strategic plans are elsewhere. We’re always working on ways to prepare our students to thrive in the current legal market. These days that means more experiential education, more quantitative literacy and more transactional sophistication. And of course, writing skills, first and always.

LD: Why those subjects?

WF: A client values a lawyer who understands the economics of whatever the client does. It’s also important to understand the economics of whatever your partners and adversaries are doing! So we’re offering more courses that introduce students to quantitative methods and make those issues interesting. To many students, accounting sounds like a boring subject at first, but it’s not when brought to life by a good teacher who gives examples from interesting legal situations.

As for writing, great lawyers are masters of persuasion, and most persuasion is achieved through words. So as important as numbers can be, a lawyer’s first job is to master the English language, written and spoken. We have eight full-time writing instructors and have been adding more writing classes every year. Bryan Garner, one of our graduates and the country’s leading authority on legal writing, is teaching one of those classes this spring.  I want every graduate of our school to be an outstanding writer.

LD: You’ve said that your first order of business as dean was to get to know the faculty, where their strengths and interests lie, and to shape your work as dean accordingly. What did you find and what did you decide to do?

WF: Our faculty contains many of the most talented people I’ve ever met – truly gifted teachers and scholars who are revered by their students. I try to stay out of their way.

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

WF: The energy boom in Texas is drawing a lot of students to work in that sector.  Our school also has a great judicial-clerkship program, which a lot of students find is a very helpful way to break into the job market.

We’re also seeing an uptick in students who are committed to public interest work.  I love that. We’re a public school, and we give back to the taxpayers partly by turning out students who want to serve them and can afford to do it.

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

WF: I watch old movies with my family at one of the Alamo Drafthouses in Austin – the best movie theaters in America. They don’t just show first-run films. They’re always showing classics, and I love seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen.

I eat a great deal of barbecue, of course, which is a staple here and is practiced at a very high level. I’m writing a book about metaphor when I can find the time at the end of the night.  And on weekends I enjoy live music and outdoor fun in Austin, the most entertaining city I know.  Every interesting musician in the world comes to play here.

As for chess, I have no time right now. A person can have only so many obsessions at once.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or