When Browne C. Lewis was named dean of North Carolina Central University School of Law in June 2020, the world was in the middle of the pandemic. It was just weeks after George Floyd’s murder rekindled the Black Lives Matter Movement and a worldwide discussion about racism and inclusion. Those issues loomed large when I sat down for an interview with` Dean Lewis this past fall to discuss her vision and her plans for the law school’s future.
AALM: The number of applicants to law schools nationwide has declined for the first time since 2018, according to data from the Law School Admission Council. Your enrollment is up 25% to 446 students. To what do you attribute that success?
BCL: I think it was the political climate in the country with regards to social justice. I think there was a reckoning where you had students of color, in particular wanting to go to law school with a commitment to diversity and social justice. That’s our history. NCCU Law School was created to foster segregation, but when we were designed, the program we put in place was to increase diversity because we wanted to be one of the most diverse law schools in the country, which has resonated with a lot of young people.
So, when we talk to young people, they want to go places where they can really serve the public and increase access to justice and social justice broadly, not just the criminal justice system, by looking at fair housing, consumer protection, credit scores and lending practices.
As we travel around the country recruiting with our admissions team, the number one thing students are interested in is bar passage. They want to get a job that will fulfill them because I think this generation of students are not as concerned about going to big law firms and making a lot of money. They want work/life balance. They don’t want to work 90 hours a week. They want to make enough money to pay off student loans and be able to do some good.
The practice of law is going to be permanently and forever changed because of the global pandemic. I think companies and people have realized there are different ways to leverage the legal profession.
AALM: How did the law school fare during the pandemic?
BCL: Most law schools had to close for a week or two to pivot to virtual learning. NCCU School of law did not have to do that. We already had the technology in place. Our faculty already had the training and expertise to transition from in-person learning to online learning seamlessly.
I want to keep increasing the number of online opportunities we have for students so we can reach beyond North Carolina and the region. Not just nationally but also internationally. I want someone to be able to get a law degree without ever physically coming to Durham.
Forty percent of our students are from out of state. We have students from as far as California, and most of those students must go back home and practice law. We must equip them with the skills they need to pass any bar exam in the country so they can practice anywhere they wish to practice.
AALM: To that end, how are you preparing students for the business of practicing law?
BCL: Many of our students go into practice for themselves or join law offices that are relatively small. We have a class that teaches students how to be solo practitioners. We have a class that’s focused on the technology needs of sole practitioners. We’re bringing in technology experts to say here’s the technology that you need to set up a legal practice. How do you handle clients’ funds? How do you avoid conflicts of interest? How do you market your firm in an ethical and professional way, with professionalism skills? We have programming through our Career Services office that teaches students basic time management, billable hours, and everything they need to set up a law practice.
AALM: A 2018 NC Equal Access to Justice Commission study found that more than 2 million low-income North Carolinians were eligible for legal aid services but 86% of these legal needs went unmet because of limited resources for civil legal aid providers. Is the law school involved in addressing these needs?
BCL: We have a virtual justice project where we are able, through our clinical legal education program, to use pro bono attorneys to provide representation for persons in legal deserts. In eastern North Carolina, there are places where you have people who can afford lawyers, but they don’t have access to them—so we are leveraging technology to reach those communities. I’m also trying to even the playing field by creating pipelines for people in those communities. You don’t have a lot of lawyers in certain communities because you don’t have a lot of law students from those communities. So, we’re going to have to reach into those communities to find those people who want to go back and represent their neighbors, and a lot of people go to law school for that very reason. The key to spreading justice is to spread the people who are providing justice.
AALM: What’s your long-term vision for the law school?
BCL: My vision for the school is to elevate it to more of a national law school than a regional law school and to do that by focusing on tech law and health law.
Now, with Apple moving a campus here, tech law will be even more important. We have a patent law clinic. We have a trademark clinic. We have relationships with HBCUs that have engineering and computer science programs.
I like to tell my students that we’re preparing them for jobs that have not been created yet. So, for example, we’re offering courses in logistics, blockchain and data analytics. And my vision is not just to teach and expose our students to technology. But to make sure that we use technology to make the delivery of legal education more efficient.
AALM: Past NCCU School of Law deans have told me there was a lot of emphasis on graduates working in public service. Is that still a goal?
BCL: I think it is because it serves the greater good when we think of public service broadly. For example, our patent law clinic has gotten patents for nine persons from underrepresented or marginalized communities. We’re focusing on increasing the availability of technology to people in low-income areas and rural areas. Traditionally, our students have gone into public interest like the public defender’s office, the prosecutor’s office, or the government. I don’t want to change that, and I don’t think we have to change that. For example, when you look at cybersecurity law, the biggest breaches occur in the public sector.
AALM: What personal values do you hope to imprint on NCCU School of Law?
BCL: The key value I want to imprint on the law school is overcoming the impossible through hard work, perseverance, and tenacity. It is important to overcome adversity and realize that you can accomplish any goal even if you do it in bite-sized pieces. I’m one of 12 children from a family in a small country town in Louisiana. I grew up knowing that you have to persevere, overcome adversity, and keep pushing forward. Likewise, NCCU School of Law is one of only six HBCU law schools in the country. We’re the underdog pushing forward.
When you go out and recruit people, and you recruit diverse students, and you bring them into a situation they have to feel included, but they also have to feel they belong. As an HBCU law school, the myth is that we educate only African American students. That could not be farther from the truth.
We educate a diverse population of students. For this recruiting season, we must look at diversity and inclusion broadly. For example, we created a Native American initiative to increase the number of Native American students. We’re working with UNC at Pembroke and other Native American serving schools to increase that number.