Attorney at Law Magazine writer Susan Cushing recently had the pleasure of speaking with University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner about her career and her plans for the future.
AALM: Please give our readers a brief overview of your legal career.
EKW: I graduated from the University of Michigan School of Law, and started my legal career in Washington, D.C. I practiced environmental, energy, and American Indian Law first at Troutman Sanders LLP and then at Latham & Watkins LLP. After practicing law in Washington, D.C., I joined the law faculty at the University of Montana. After five years in Montana, I spent a year on the law faculty at Texas Tech University, and then seven years at the University of Kansas. While at the University of Kansas, I served as Director of the Tribal Law and Government Center, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and acting Dean. I became Dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah on July 1, 2019.
AALM: It seems the majority of your career has been dedicated to teaching what drew you to academia?
EKW: Both of my parents were adjunct instructors at various points, and they loved teaching. They really enjoyed having the chance to work with students. I too find great joy working with students – there is no better feeling/moment when you see a student grasp a complicated subject and succeed at something they worked hard on.
AALM: When attending law school, what kind of career did you imagine attaining? How does your career differ today from those ambitions?
EKW: When I started law school, I had dreams of defending people sentenced to death row. However, once I got to law school, I found that I preferred property and civil procedure more than criminal law. So, the fact that I am now a law professor specializing in Indian law, is very different from the path I originally thought I would take.
AALM: Tell us about one of the most important lessons you learned from a personal or professional mentor.
EKW: One lesson I received that has really stayed with me came from the former KU Chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little. She explained that, over the course of her career in higher education, she routinely saw talented women not apply for leadership positions. When she would ask why, they would answer some version of not feeling ready. She encouraged me to apply for leadership positions not when I felt “ready” (because that may never come until you do the job), but to apply when I was ready to learn (i.e., had the foundation in place that allows me to go to the next level). That always stayed with me.
AALM: What is the most important lesson your parents taught you?
EKW: To get an education – “it is the one thing they can’t take away from you.” My dad would always tell me to marry someone you respect. And picking the right partner is so incredibly important to these leadership positions.
AALM: Tell us about your work as co-chair of the Native American Resources Committee.
EKW: When I served as co-chair of the Native American Resources Committee, we worked hard to ensure that the intersection of environmental and Indian issues was considered and discussed within the ABA SEER section. It was great working with so many wonderful environmental and natural resources lawyers working in Indian country.
AALM: What attracted you to your current role as dean of S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah?
EKW: The S.J. Quinney College of Law is the premier College of Law in the West – we have amazing faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We have people working here who are internationally and nationally known in their fields. Combine that with the fact that we are the smallest Top 50 law school – and, I think we have a really special and welcoming community. I also strongly value public education and value being at a flagship public law school. We are also very fortunate to be in Salt Lake City with easy access to the state and federal courts, nonprofits, governmental agencies, top law firms, and the state legislature. You couple that with the fact that we are located in beautiful Utah – and I think this is the best place to be in the country.
AALM: Please tell us about a case you’ve handled over the course of your career that has impacted you personally or professionally.
EKW: When in private practice, I had the chance to work on an asylum case for someone seeking asylum from Zimbabwe. I was deeply humbled by his personal story and suffering. It was an amazing experience to not only succeed in obtaining asylum for our client, but we were also able to successfully bring his family to the United States. Their reunion is one of the best moments of my life.
AALM: What are some challenges you see negatively impacting the judicial system?
EKW: Lack of representation. For example, there are only a handful of federal judges who are of Native ancestry. Federal law disproportionately impacted Indian country, as many aspect of Indian life fall under federal jurisdiction. Because there is not proportional representation on the federal bench, I think it is safe to say that many in Indian country feel that the federal bench does not work to protect their rights.
AALM: What is the biggest change you see coming ahead for law schools?
EKW: Prior to the recent COVID 19 challenges, I saw increased diversity, focus on access to justice and adapting to technological change as significant changes. Society, legal employers, and clients are all demanding a more diverse legal profession – so that I think law schools will need to adapt. Similarly, we have access to justice challenges. There are justice “deserts” throughout the United States where people have no meaningful access to justice. Law schools should be thinking of how to address these needs. Finally, technology is rapidly advancing – law schools need to be thinking about how we should be adapting and what the legal ramifications are.
The COVID 19 challenges present two new changes. First, there are likely to be economic changes coming similar to what we experienced in 2008. Law schools will have to be nimble and aware of where the legal needs are in order to best serve our students and society. Second, all law schools within the United States are now offering online classes given the threat of COVID 19. What this means for legal education moving forward remains to be seen. Now that we have all demonstrated the capacity to teach online – it will be interesting to see if there is a stronger push to allow for more online legal education.
AALM: How do you think law schools can better prepare students for the practice of law?
EKW: Quite frankly – I think the S.J. Quinney College of Law does a pretty good job of preparing students. We regularly hear from employers that they are impressed by the fact that our students are “practice ready.” That being said, I think there is always opportunity to improve upon law students’ learning environment.
AALM: What ambitions do you have for the future of your career? Where do you hope to be in five years? In 10?
EKW: In five years, I hope to be in my present position. I hope we will have succeeded in being able to provide more scholarships for our students and reduce debt load. I also hope we will continue to have a thriving academic and humane community. In 10 years, I hope to return to the faculty and working with the students.
AALM: What are you most proud of professionally or personally?
EKW: Personally, I am proudest of my family – I think we are a loving, happy (for the most part) family. Professionally, I still can’t believe I am a dean. It is a long way from my reservation in the Upper Peninsula.
AALM: Tell us about your life outside the law school. Do you have any hobbies or interests that you are passionate about?
EKW: My two favorite activities are scuba diving and downhill skiing. I have also really enjoyed hiking and exploring Utah.
AALM: Tell us about a book, movie or event that changed your perspective on the practice of law.
EKW: I recently watched “Just Mercy” and it was a very compelling story. I have great respect for Bryan Stevenson and the wonderful work he does.