BYU Law Dean David Moore: The Opportunity to Think Deeply

BYU Law Dean David Moore
2024 Feature Nominations

On July 1, David Moore began his five-year term as dean of Brigham Young University Law School. Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Moore in the days following his appointment to discuss his career, his plans for the law school and the challenges he foresees for his students and the legal industry.  

AALM: What motivated you to pursue a career in the law? And in legal academia specifically?

DM: I am the third of nine children and the first person in my family to attend law school. I was not always law school bound. In high school, I remember listing business administration as a possible area of study. As I thought about graduate school, there wasn’t a PhD field that I was sure I wanted to dedicate my life to. I had many interests. Law school left doors open in areas of interest, including politics, international relations, and development. I went to law school not knowing whether I wanted to practice. Of course, employment opportunities in law school are focused on law practice. I ended up working as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC, through the Attorney General’s Honors Program.

Litigators at the Justice Department are thrown into the deep end quite quickly, so I had the opportunity to see right away whether I wanted to litigate long term. In one of my first cases, I represented the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in a Freedom of Information Act suit for records related to the tragedy in Waco, Texas. Developments related to that case ended up on the front page of the Washington Post and resulted in the appointment of, and an investigation by, a Special Counsel. In another suit, I represented an entity within the Department of Defense that was sued over federal sponsorship of Boy Scout units, given the religious elements of the scouting program.

Through my trial-level experience, I realized there were aspects of litigation I enjoyed – the writing, the strategy, the legal issues. I was less fond of fact development and the frequent conflict, including over what sometimes seemed like minor issues. I pursued a clerkship and thought that from there I would either focus on appellate litigation or pursue academia. I had seen in law school that professors have a platform from which they can influence society for the better. In particular, I observed the work of Professor Cole Durham, the Founding Director of BYU Law’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, and his impact on human rights around the world. I decided I would pursue a career in academia.

AALM: Can you share some insights into your experience as a clerk for Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.?

DM: I had the privilege of clerking for Justice Alito both on the Third Circuit and on the Supreme Court. Between those clerkships, I was able to observe Justice Alito’s confirmation as an associate justice. It was probably the first time that I knew the person on whom the media was reporting. I didn’t recognize much of the media’s portrayal. I admire Justice Alito greatly. He has a brilliant mind but remains humble.

When I was clerking on the Third Circuit, I remember an emergency motion coming in toward the end of a particular day. As clerks, we asked what we could do, but he said he would take care of it and let us go home. Years later, my wife and I and our seven children visited Justice Alito at Christmastime. Although there are those at the Court who give tours, he insisted on taking us personally, including to the highest court in the land—the basketball court that sits above the court room. This experience, among others, reflects the person I see in Justice Alito.

AALM: What motivated you to focus on foreign relations law, international law, international human rights, and international development in your teaching and scholarship?

DM: I have long had a passion for things international, a focus I share with many here at BYU Law, which has many international programs including the Global Business Law Program announced last year. I love to learn about other cultures, try new foods, and visit new locations.

At the same time, U.S. governance and politics are interesting to me. As an undergraduate, I thought about majoring in international relations but wanted to study our political system as well, so I majored in political science but took international relations classes.

In law school, I was also drawn to international courses. There weren’t as many then, but I took classes on comparative law and international business transactions, for example. When I arrived at the University of Chicago as an Olin Fellow to develop my scholarship, I turned back to international topics, publishing on human rights.

I then discovered the intersection between international and U.S. law in the field of foreign relations law. I found myself back where I was as an undergraduate, combining my interests in U.S. law and politics with international law and relations. As time went on, I began looking for something that would have more of a real-world impact on those with less opportunity than I. I began pursuing in earnest a longstanding interest in international development. As I pursued that interest, I also turned back to a renewed focus on international human rights. Both have been rewarding.

BYU Law is a particularly good fit for me, given its global network and its unique student body. Roughly two-thirds of our students speak at least one foreign language and have had significant international and multicultural experience. We also have an LLM program that is exclusively for foreign lawyers. One of my priorities is to grow this program, which cultivates leaders who can return to their home countries and have an enormous impact for good.

AALM: Could you tell us about your involvement with the United Nations Human Rights Committee?

DM: After returning to BYU from working at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department reached out to me to see whether I would be interested in serving on the Human Rights Committee. I was nominated as the U.S. candidate for the committee in 2020.

I was elected to a short, expiring term on the committee. The committee, which consists of 18 experts who serve in an individual capacity, oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee performs three main functions: reviewing states’ reports on their human rights practices under the covenant, issuing general comments that expound on states’ covenant obligations, and resolving individual complaints of human rights violations. Due to Covid, the committee could only meet virtually during my term, so the committee focused on resolving individual communications. Reviewing case after case of alleged human rights abuses was heavy, but it was a privilege to work alongside other members of the committee in responding to rights violations.

My experience on the committee has led to opportunities for our students to intern in Geneva with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where our students’ language abilities have come in handy. I have also taught a human rights clinic in which our students provided valuable support to the Office of the High Commissioner, multiple human rights Special Rapportuers, and a Commissioner on the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, among others.

AALM: As the acting deputy administrator and general counsel of USAID, what were some of the key responsibilities and challenges you faced?

DM: Working at USAID was one of the highlights of my professional career. The agency has an inspiring mission and attracts wonderful, talented people committed to advancing that mission. As general counsel, I oversaw over 100 fantastic attorneys, about half of whom were stationed in Washington, DC, and half in missions around the world.

The practice was largely transactional and presented a wide range of issues – from structuring public-private partnerships and global supply chain contracts to navigating terrorist sanctions regimes. As acting deputy administrator, my work was more focused on policy and operations.

I participated in policy discussions at the National Security Council; represented the agency diplomatically at the G-7, OECD, World Bank, and United Nations; and worked with the agency’s senior leaders to accomplish goals across development sectors. One of my most meaningful efforts was leading the agency’s Action Alliance for Preventing Sexual Misconduct.

During my time at USAID, the aid community confronted the unfortunate reality that sexual exploitation and abuse are serious problems within foreign assistance. Most aid workers live to professional standards, but some abuse their position to engage in sexual exploitation and abuse. The Action Alliance worked not only within USAID but with the agency’s partners and the international community to ensure appropriate response to, and the prevention of, such misconduct.

AALM: Can you share some of your goals and aspirations as the dean of BYU Law School for the next five years?

DM: Celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, BYU Law School has been through a period of tremendous growth under the innovative and energetic leadership of Dean Gordon Smith. We have introduced programs such as the Global Law Seminar (which offers a semester externship experience in Geneva, London or Dubai), Academies (intensive simulations of different areas of practice from corporate compliance to immigration and deals after the 1L year in locations around the United States and world), Law and Corpus Linguistics (which has brought the insights of corpus linguistics to legal interpretation), and the Global Business Law Program (which produces thought leadership in areas such as antitrust and private markets as well as student opportunities in law and entrepreneurship). These opportunities transform students through intensive experience.

Of course, great law schools produce great thinkers and leaders. Much of that preparation comes through the day-to-day study of law. Students come to think in new ways as they read and analyze for class, participate in Socratic dialogue, and return to discuss and outline what they have learned. BYU Law boasts a faculty of dynamic teachers and impactful scholars.

As we refine and continue to innovate in our programming, my goal is to see even greater excellence in the fundamentals of teaching and scholarship. BYU Law is a leader in many fields—business law, religious freedom, and intellectual property, to name a few. BYU law professors are well poised to expand on their existing thought leadership and produce students who are prepared to both think at the highest levels and communicate their thinking through effective writing and advocacy.

AALM: Law schools have faced a lot of change in recent years. What changes do you think are here to stay and what new shifts do you see on the horizon?

DM: Legal education has seen a tremendous shift toward experiential learning. Learning by doing is powerful. I hope, however, that we will not lose sight of the fact that practice-ready means far more than understanding rules and processes or acquiring technical skills. Practice-ready means being able to think deeply about the law and practical problems.

It includes being able to communicate that thinking effectively. For most law students, the practice of law will provide decades to learn by doing. That process should begin in law school, but we should not crowd out the precious opportunity to read, analyze, and discuss a wide range of areas of law. That opportunity prepares minds and develops leaders.

AALM: What changes do you see for your students in the future? How are you working to adapt your teachings to the shifting legal profession?

DM: Generative AI is already upon us. Indeed, it has been predicted that generative AI will displace legal practitioners in significant ways. I suspect this prediction is overblown, although generative AI will undoubtedly alter legal practice. I expect that rather than prohibit all uses of generative AI, we will need to teach students how to begin with generative AI, then conduct the research, analysis, and writing to ensure that the final product is ethical, accurate, and reflects the best legal judgment.

AALM: What role does your spirituality play in your approach to legal education and leadership?

DM: My faith is the core of my life. That faith teaches me that each individual is a child of God. That belief has motivated my development and human rights work. Building on that belief, at BYU we strive to help each student feel the love, and live the covenant expectations, of Jesus Christ. We also seek to prepare our students to be both outstanding professionals and disciples of Jesus Christ who are leaders in their homes, the Church, and their communities.

In that regard, I believe what prior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have taught: “Religious devotion [is] no excuse for professional mediocrity.” Quite the opposite. If we are trying to be disciples, we must develop our minds, character, and abilities. As a result, I expect much of myself and my students. We are each capable of so much when we know our worth and potential.

My faith also teaches servant leadership. I fall short, but I believe a leader should inspire and serve those within his or her stewardship.

At BYU Law, we embrace our unique role in combining faith and professional excellence. As faculty and members of the law school community we are intentional in serving as both spiritual and professional mentors, helping our students see how to navigate a life of faith and professional distinction.

AALM: Balancing a demanding career and personal life can be challenging. How do you manage to maintain a work-life balance?

DM: My wife and I have seven children; we call them the “Seven Wonders of our World.” I have long kept a reminder on a note card that says, “I go to work to make a living. I come home to make a life.” I don’t take that to mean that my work lacks meaning. I hope to make an impact for good as a teacher, a scholar, a human rights expert, and now a dean. But my wife and I both feel that our most important work and relationships are found at home. I believe those relationships have eternal value.

AALM: Are there any hobbies or activities that you enjoy outside of your professional life? How do they contribute to your overall well-being?

DM: As mentioned, I appreciate time with my family. Together, we’ve enjoyed travelling. Our children have been to all 50 states, mostly in our twelve-passenger van. I think I missed Alabama, so I still have to catch up. Their last state was Hawaii, so we arrived in Hawaii with Hawaii 5-0 T-shirts. I also enjoy gardening, walking and jogging, wandering in new locations, historic sites, cooking, and ethnic food. I find that to be my best self, my life needs to be multi-dimensional. Utah is a wonderful place to live with its natural beauty and wonderful people.

AALM: Looking back on your career to date, is there anything you would change?

DM: BYU Law was an incredible launch pad for me. Not only did I receive an outstanding education in a faith-filled environment, but I was also able to graduate with the financial freedom to pursue passions for public service, academics, human rights, and development. I could not ask for more. That said, while I was at USAID, I discovered the incredible energy and potential for good of the private sector. I learned that my corporate colleagues are onto something as well.

Attorney at Law Magazine

Attorney at Law Magazine is a national B2B trade publication for and about private practice attorneys. The magazine focuses on the industry, its events, happenings and the professionals and firms that drive its success. The editorial is a collaboration of interviews with professionals, industry expert penned columns and articles about advancing your legal practice through marketing, practice management and customer service.

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