Dean Limelight: Daniel Attridge, Catholic University’s School of Law


“Practical, focused and connected” is how Daniel F. Attridge says The Catholic University of AmericaCATHOLIC U ATTRIDGE’s Columbus School of Law markets itself. In a way, it’s a fitting description of Attridge’s own attributes when he became the law school’s dean.

A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, he spent more than 32 years as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a major international firm, including 14 years as managing partner of Kirkland’s Washington, D.C., office.

“When I became dean, I brought all of that litigation practice and law firm management experience with me.” Attridge said in an interview.

It grounded him, he said, in the management skills that a dean needs to deal with students, faculty, staff and alumni along with university administrators, in addition to an understanding of a wide range of budgetary, personnel, financial and strategic issues.

“And having spent my career outside the legal academy, I brought a fresh perspective and unusual degree of independence to my new position as dean,” he said.

Those years as a practitioner who helped hire newly minted lawyers also gave him “a strong understanding of the skills, training and experience that legal employers expect new lawyers to have, and of the markets and career opportunities potentially available to new lawyers,” Attridge said.

The downside to being one of the few U.S. law deans long on practice and short on classroom time, scholarship and academic credentials, Attridge said, he was able to deal with.

“Fortunately, at Catholic University of America Law we have a very gifted and talented faculty and staff whose members brought me up to speed quickly, offered me strong support and sound advice, and worked cooperatively with me,” he said.

He added: “A key ingredient to our success is that we all share the same goal: to offer our students a first-rate legal education

LAWDRAGON: What drew you into the field of legal academia?

DANIEL F. ATTRIDGE: I became interested in serving as dean at Catholic University of America Law because the position combines three things about which I have long been passionate: law, education and my Catholic faith. I have dedicated my professional career to law. I owe my professional opportunities to education and have been very stimulated by my involvement with academic institutions. And, obviously, I am called to serve my church in whatever role I can.

In addition, having practiced law in the private sector for more than three decades, I was ready for a new challenge. Practicing law at the highest level of the profession at Kirkland has been a great privilege, but the time came to do something different, where my experience could be helpful in a new way.

At this stage of my career, I was also looking for an opportunity to be of greater service to the public, my profession and my faith. A leadership position at the law school permits me to do that.

LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?

DFA: We are a law school that accurately markets itself with three key concepts: We are practical, focused and connected.

Our law school is historically among the true pioneers of clinical legal education in America and continues to be so to this day. So, for our students, “practical” means hands-on; you get to do it yourself – under the supervision of a professor, of course. Our students manage cases, counsel clients, write and file briefs, and thus hit the job market with a much shorter real-world learning curve in front of them when they land that first position.

This is not just a dean’s hyperbole. Our own alumni have ranked the law school in the top 15 nationally in a new survey of law firm associates’ satisfaction with their legal educations published by The American Lawyer magazine in its latest issue.

At CUA Law, “focused” refers to the great variety of specialized legal career paths a student may choose to follow here. We offer four long-standing certificate programs in securities law, law and public policy, comparative and international law, and communications law.

We also offer six areas of concentrated study and a wide variety of electives that permit upper-class students to custom-design their educational objectives. Our eight clinical specialties provide training in areas such as clemency, criminal prosecution and immigration, among others.

Finally, our concept of “connected” means two things for each of our law school students: It refers to small classes, professors who take a personal interest in you and students who treat each other like family. It also denotes our extensive and supportive alumni network. Our graduates are more than willing to mentor, coach and make calls on behalf of current students to help them gain a foothold in the employment market.

Taken together, we believe that these advantages combine to set Catholic University of America Law apart from most other law schools.

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

DFA: Our challenges are also those of nearly every other law school in the country. They are enrollment, job placement and fundraising. Overall, we are a significantly smaller law school than we were five years ago. We have reduced costs, including faculty and staff expenses among other measures, in a way that is consistent with today’s reality.

We have also instituted measures to help retain those students who, for various reasons, may be considering a transfer. It appears to be paying off. We are gratified to see that our total number of transfers out has fallen sharply.

The job picture is gradually getting brighter, but gradually is still the operative word. The overall number of jobs available for new lawyers in the legal profession has declined in recent times.

This doesn’t mean that nothing is available. As someone who is not that long removed from being in a position to hire new young lawyers, I am keenly aware of what the market demands from new law school graduates. We are doing everything within our power to ensure that our young men and women are attractive candidates for any opening they choose to pursue.

Regarding fundraising: Like most schools, we are heavily dependent on tuition for revenue. This places a large burden on our students, virtually all of whom will graduate with six-figure loan balances. This also creates certain challenges for a school such as ours that is dedicated to maintaining the high quality of its programs in an environment of reduced financial resources.

I have spent a considerable amount of my time as dean on this issue, hosting fundraisers and working to establish positive relationships with potential donors. We have also been a bit entrepreneurial. This fall, we enrolled the first students in our new Master of Legal Studies program, which is a non-J.D. option for professionals who may desire to increase their legal mastery within a specific area, without committing to the time and expense of a law degree. It’s off to a promising start.

LD: Why were students transferring and what measures did you institute to retain them?

DFA: Law students transferring from one school to another has become a common phenomenon in the United States. Indeed, some law schools have adopted a strategy of deliberately denying admission to an applicant whose LSAT score or undergraduate grade-point average doesn’t measure up to the school’s medians, and then turning around and actively recruiting the same person as a transfer student a year later.

The strategy is motivated by the U.S. News & World Report ranking system, which only counts a student’s LSAT and UGPA on admission as a first-year student and completely ignores those same factors for transfer students. At such schools, a substantial portion of the graduating class may consist of students who were transfers and considered unacceptable applicants as first-year students.

Those who transfer offer many different reasons and combinations of reasons for doing so. These may include a desire to attend a higher ranked school, a lower cost (e.g., public) school, a school located in one’s home state, a school offering a particular specialty or program, a school where a spouse or significant other is located, a school located where a specific job opportunity is found, or a school previously attended by a parent or other family member.

A transfer may also be motivated by an unfavorable experience at the initial school, a belief that one’s performance or opportunities may be enhanced in a new environment or other unique personal or family circumstances.

At our law school, I join faculty members or administrators in having one-on-one discussions with students who may be considering a transfer. We also conduct events at the law school or off campus and arrange personal connections with alumni and friends of the school to acquaint our students with what we call the “CUA Law Advantage” – the advantages our students will enjoy throughout their legal careers by virtue of the practical, focused education they receive here and as connected, life-long members of our law school community.

Our aim is to ensure that any student considering a transfer has all the facts needed to make a decision that is in the student’s best interests. A student may not realize, for example, that his or her academic performance or leadership prospects may suffer at another school and thus negatively affect employment prospects.

A student may not realize that it may cost more to attend another school because he or she may not be eligible for a scholarship there. Or a student may not realize what opportunities our program can offer in terms of our courses, clinics or externships. A student may be unaware of our placement success in certain geographic or practice areas, or may not be familiar with the strength of our supportive network of alumni and friends.

At the end of the day, however, we recognize that students must make their own decisions about where to attend law school, whether that is remaining with us through graduation or pursuing something else.

LD: Are you considering any initiatives to lower students’ costs? 

DFA: We offer merit-based, partial tuition scholarships to many of our students. Since I began my service, we have substantially increased the percentage of students who receive scholarships, and we have substantially increased the average dollar amount of scholarships awarded. Students not on scholarship upon matriculation may later receive scholarships based on their first-year performance, and students on scholarship may later receive an increase.

Scholarships are our Number 1 fundraising priority.  Alumni and friends of the school are urged to donate generously to scholarships.  I’m a donor as is 98 percent of our faculty, 100 percent of our Board of Visitors and 100 percent of our Alumni Council. All unrestricted gifts are used to fund scholarships.

Moreover, we assist students’ efforts to secure part-time employment during law school or during summer breaks to help them defray the expenses of their legal education while gaining valuable experience.

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

DFA: We haven’t noticed any significant trends in postgraduate employment with respect to more hiring in one type of industry or another. We have a fairly even distribution of our graduates who enter into private practice, government and business. Historically, our students go to a variety of types of legal employers and use their law degree in a variety of ways. This balance continues today.

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

DFA: I practice law part-time as Of Counsel with Kirkland & Ellis. I also serve as a trustee of the Federal City Council; I’m on the board of trustees of St. Anselm’s Abbey School and on the pastoral council of St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis.

I enjoy spending my free time with my wife of 34 years, Missy, our three adult sons (one of whom also practices law), our relatives and friends, as well as reading, boating, biking and traveling.

Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or