Dean Limelight: University of Hawai’i Law’s Aviam Soifer


U HAWAII SoiferIt was the late 1960s and Aviam Soifer, an undergraduate at Yale, was a student activist protesting the war in Vietnam and promoting co-education at Yale.

“Even then, I knew I wanted to teach,” said Soifer, now dean of the University of Hawai‘i’s William S. Richardson School of Law. Precisely what and where he wanted to teach was another matter.

Law was one of several alternatives, including American Studies, as Soifer, like almost all young men of that era, would lose his exemption from the draft upon college graduation. “I realized that going into legal academia – as a student and then as a teacher – would allow me to stay involved in public interest work and social activism,” Soifer said in emails and an interview.

And a turn of the lottery wheel in the fall of 1969 meant that he would not be drafted and could stay in law school. “This was one of many instances of being extremely fortunate throughout my life,” Soifer said, “and I hope I do not confuse good fortune with any sense of self-satisfaction.”

He was right about public interest and social activism. While in law school at Yale (from which he also earned a Masters of Urban Studies), in addition to being a member of the Yale Law Journal and a director of the Law School Film Society, he helped found the C.V.H. Project. This was a clinical program representing people facing civil commitment to Connecticut Valley Hospital, the state’s largest hospital for the mentally ill.

In the years that followed, after clerking for then-Federal District Judge Jon O. Newman, Soifer has worked on appellate briefs in a variety of federal cases for the American Civil Liberties Union and other non-profits. Those included arguing against prior restraint in U.S. v The Progressive, when the magazine planned to publish an article purporting to reveal the alleged secret of the hydrogen bomb.

He has written widely on constitutional issues, including in his book, Law and The Company We Keep, an account of the importance of voluntary and involuntary groups in legal culture and individual lives. More recently, he has published articles and book chapters primarily on slavery, peonage and the Thirteenth Amendment.

All the while he has pursued a career as a legal academic and scholar, starting with teaching law at the University of Connecticut. That was followed by stints as a Law and Humanities Fellows at Harvard (1976-77), faculty member at Boston University School of Law (1979-1993), and dean of Boston College Law School (1993-1998), where he continued to teach until 2003.

That’s when he became dean of Hawai’i Law.

“I had spent a sabbatical year here, and came away impressed by how serious and well prepared were the students and how impressive and committed to teaching were the faculty; by the respectful face-to-face interactions, and by the fact that the school was all about opportunity,” Soifer said. “It remains so today.”

LAWDRAGON: What else drew you into legal academia?

AVIAM SOIFER: Being an academic is a privilege, and the life of a law professor is even more special. We can contribute directly to our communities by helping to shape future professionals and leaders, by advocating for law and policy change, and by working to improve access to justice. We also can engage in meaningful outside legal work such as pro bono projects, and we get to follow our own research and writing interests – and then bring all that experience into the classroom. Best of all, there is the opportunity for classroom and other academic interactions with highly engaged and passionate students every day.

There are negatives, but only a few – like all academics, we dislike grading exams but that’s a small price to pay in the scheme of academic life. Overall, being a law professor surely is one of the best jobs in the world, and being dean of the Richardson School of Law is even better.

LD: Is there anything you wish you had been told before becoming dean?

AS: I had the advantage of having been a law school dean before coming to Hawai’i, though this law school and Hawai’i’s legal community are wonderfully unique. One thing that I didn’t fully realize is how important the Richardson Law School is to the state and throughout the Pacific Rim. We have a wide range of influence and provide a global center for legal education in the Pacific. We are a small law school in the middle of an ocean, yet we have a very special place and mission. And we are incredibly fortunate to be in Hawai’i, surely one of the most beautiful and culturally rich places on earth.

I also did not fully realize how incredibly influential our alumni have become in such a short time. The law school opened in 1973, and we now have more than 2,500 alumni, primarily in Hawai’i but spread around the globe. And they are leading the way as lawyers, judges, legislators, business leaders and non-profit visionaries, as well as running their own firms and ventures. They are intensely loyal to the law school. I believe the highest percentage of alumni donations within the entire University of Hawai’i system comes from the law school.

LD: Was there anything that surprised you coming here?

AS: I had the advantage of being on sabbatical here for a year so I had already fallen in love with Hawai’i as a place, and I had begun to appreciate the nuances of life in the islands. I also had seen—but did not fully appreciate — the remarkable cohesion of the law school community. In Hawai’i, the practice of law is very civilized and even stalwart opponents in court are often friends beyond the courtroom.

The legal community is also unusually generous with its time and wisdom: They are always ready to help our students as lecturers, moot court judges, guest speakers, mentors and, of course, as employers. Getting to know the genuine “aloha spirit” within the legal profession resoundingly confirmed my decision to become dean here.

There were also some law school traditions, such as the annual women’s football game – the Ete Bowl – that were a surprise at first and that quickly made me a loyal fan. This is a fiercely competitive women’s flag football game between alumni and current students that has been played every fall for more than 35 years. The competition is intense, yet the circle after the game is almost a job fair and indicative of the power of sisterhood.

We also have more recent traditions like “Stew Day” and “Noodle Night,” when faculty members serve meals to our students who share their stories of “heroes” within their ranks. Their compassion is no surprise whatsoever, but the special low-key Hawaiian context can be.

One more thing: I get to wear aloha shirts to work, including when I go to downtown meetings and social events. Wearing a jacket and tie very few times a year is a very pleasant surprise.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

AS: We are distinct in many ways, perhaps most notably for the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of our faculty, staff and our students, who nonetheless remain unusually cohesive year after year. We are regularly ranked as the number one law school in terms of our diversity.

We are also uniquely situated in the middle of the Pacific, with deep cultural connections to the Native Hawai’ian culture, the Pacific Islands and the Pacific Rim nations. This is a blessing. The William S. Richardson School of Law’s mission fits this special place: We are renowned for our environmental law program, Native Hawaiian law and the law of Asia and the Pacific. We are proud of our unusual strength in our international and comparative law focus.

Our law school also has an unusually deep commitment to public service work, seeking to realize the vision of our founder, Chief Justice William S. Richardson. In the early 1990s, our law students asked the faculty for an additional graduation requirement: mandatory pro bono legal work. The faculty gladly agreed and we have required 60 hours of supervised pro bono legal service to graduate ever since, contributing thousands of hours each year to improving our legal system and access to justice.

Celebration of the music and food of our many different cultures is evident in the school’s daily life. I believe we are the only law school with a tradition of students (and sometimes faculty and staff) performing a hula during graduation. We have a wide variety of culturally focused law student organizations and a strong focus on varied professional pathways. Almost surely we were the first law school with an on-line journal – the Asia-Pacific Law and Policy Journal, which launched more than a decade ago – as well as our excellent traditional law review, the Hawai’i Law Journal.

Our students are highly competitive in one sense – achieving excellence in the classroom and in their scholarly writing, and they do exceptionally well in a wide range of national and international moot court competitions. Yet, as I said, they are highly collaborative – it’s a face-to-face culture – and they help each other get through law school and life in small and large ways every day.

We have a remarkable array of clinical programs, including for example a distinguished elder law program, a medical-legal partnership for children, an innocence project, a small business clinic and a veterans’ clinic. These supplement more traditional offerings in criminal defense and prosecution clinics and an array of civil clinics.

We also lead in multidisciplinary programs, such as our child welfare clinic, which involves faculty and students from the schools of education, nursing, and social work as well as the law school and that brings the university’s social capital into the community. We have an excellent joint J.D.-M.B.A. program with our business school and about 10 percent of our graduates get both degrees.

To create more opportunities for working students and those with family obligations, we started an Evening Part-Time program seven years ago. We intentionally keep this program small, and it has turned out to be a huge success with doctors, police officers, government agency staffers and busy moms and dads who cohere as a group as they take night classes together with remarkable enthusiasm.

The law school also has a major academic paper requirement in the 2L year, supervised by full-time faculty in a small seminar, and a year-long Lawyering Fundamentals program for 1L students taught primarily by full-time faculty members in the first semester and primarily by practitioners in the second semester.

Another distinction is the exciting one-week January Term (“J-Term”), during which we offer seminars with outstanding scholars and judges from around the world. As you might guess, it is relatively easy to persuade these stellar teachers to come to Hawai’i at that time of year. We have regularly hosted U.S. Supreme Court justices and renowned international jurists for a week each spring semester, during which they teach classes and meet with faculty, students, bench and bar.

We have what I believe is a unique program in which our law students collaborate with local high schools to prepare their students to understand the nuances of, and then watch, a Hawai’i Supreme Court oral argument, with the court actually sitting live at their school, bringing real law directly to youth in our community.

An emblematic program, started by our students entirely on a volunteer basis, involves going into the juvenile detention center to teach street law. As anyone who visits can see, our students come to us empowered and creative. We strive to teach them many different skills, and we also try to get out of their way.

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

AS: The biggest short-term challenge is to help students and faculty find the time and money to travel for conferences, research, moot court, hosting our many visitors and other professional opportunities given current budgetary constraints and our distance from the continental U.S. The biggest long-term challenge is to help students afford law school.

Our law school is quite a bargain with lower tuition compared to other law schools, and our level of student debt is among the lowest – currently the third lowest, according to the most recent survey – in the U.S., but the cost of living is very high in Hawai’i. Fortunately, our graduates get jobs here at a very high rate, but the salaries are relatively modest, particularly compared to the cost of living. So even though our students graduate with an average of around $56,000 in law school debt, this can be a big nut given the cost of “living in Paradise.”

In response, funding scholarships has been a primary fundraising goal, and donors are responding. We also focus on financial aid counseling early and often, to help students manage their debt, instead of having their debt begin to manage them.                                                              

Another challenge for us is completing a $7 million building project to house our clinics, advocacy and trial practice programs. Although we have long had support from the Legislature and many others, the University’s approval processes have been slower and more difficult than we expected. We are on track to start construction in 2016, but it has taken an extraordinary effort to get to this point.

Helping students have a broad and practical law school experience and yet prepare to pass the bar is also a challenge. To help them balance everything, we offer academic success classes along with bar-skills focused classes and counseling. Our students regularly do better than the state average, but we are actively engaged in helping them do well.

They take an unusually high number of skills and clinical courses, as well as externships. This certainly helps them get “practice ready.” Overseeing all of these curricular needs and keeping an eye on changing ABA Standards and bar admission criteria is a welcome, ongoing challenge.

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

AS: We remain very lucky to have approximately 30 percent of our graduates land judicial clerkships upon graduation, one of the highest rates in the nation. These clerkships are an education in themselves, but they also tend to lead to better employment possibilities. We have an unusually high percentage of our students going into public interest and government work. We try to help them find pathways through post-graduate fellowships and debt counseling, and we are working to launch an incubator program that will allow graduates to serve low-income clients within a strong professional mentoring program.

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

AS: I run several times a week with my wife, documentary film-maker Marlene Booth. I read and write and continue to present papers at faculty workshops and conferences. I follow the ups and frequent downs of the Red Sox, and I try to keep up with our two adult children: a daughter who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in New York City, and a son who long ago fell in love with Brazil and is now a street performer and community activist while also being a Ph.D. student in urban and regional planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or