Attorney at Law Magazine Alabama Publisher Michael Kelly sat down with the newly instated dean of Cumberland School of Law Dean Henry Strickland III to discuss his prior legal career and his plans for the law school.
AALM: Please give our readers a brief overview of your legal career.
Strickland: I grew up in metropolitan Atlanta. I attended Presbyterian College in South Carolina. It was a small school, but gave me an idyllic undergraduate experience. When I finally decided on law, I applied to and was accepted by Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville. I served as the executive and articles editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review. I found that editing articles from law professors around the country was as educational as my classes.
After law school, I clerked for Federal Judge Virgil Pittman, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. It was a great experience to see the judicial process from a side most of us don’t get to see. Judge Pittman was a compassionate and conscientious judge and an extraordinarily ethical person. He was great to work with.
I went into private practice in 1985 with what is now Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte, North Carolina. I concentrated mainly on business litigation, from securities class actions to NASCAR souvenir and trademark issues. I interviewed for a faculty position at Cumberland in 1987 and moved to Birmingham in 1988 to join the faculty at the rank of assistant professor.
AALM: Now that you are in academia, what do you miss about being a practicing attorney?
Strickland: I’ve not practiced law for a living in a long time. The practice of law has changed enormously since I practiced, becoming more competitive and more complex. I miss the moments in court when you are making an argument or examining a witness and you know it’s going well, you’re making sense, and the judge or jury is following you and agreeing. I get much the same satisfaction from teaching, though, when students finally grasp difficult concepts.
AALM: What drew you to the Cumberland School of Law?
Strickland: I liked Cumberland’s emphasis on preparing students to be lawyers. While all law schools do that, some schools neglect the more practical aspects of practice. Cumberland tries to address the academic and theoretical side of the law as well as the practical aspects of being a lawyer.
AALM: Do you have a mentor whose example you want to follow in your position as dean?
Strickland: Not in the sense of following someone’s policies or ideas of what a law school should be. The current environment of legal education is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to look at past practices for substantive guidance. I do look at my immediate predecessor, Dean John Carroll, as a great example of how to lead an institution. I am constantly reminded of his first meeting with the faculty and staff when he said, “I have only two rules: be nice and do the right thing.”
AALM: What are your plans for the law school?
Strickland: First, our strength has been trial advocacy. I want to continue to strengthen that program and expand it to include more emphasis on negotiation and mediation. Second, I want to strengthen Cumberland’s already successful business curriculum, and create programs that give it more visibility. Third, we are creating new, shorter degree programs that do not enable graduates to practice law but rather prepare them for careers in growing fields like compliance. Our first such program, M.S. in health law and policy, is up and running and we hope to launch several more next year. Finally, I want always to work to make a Cumberland legal education more accessible to qualified students. That requires us to control costs and to raise scholarship funds to help students with tuition and avoid graduating with excessive student loan debt.
AALM: What has given you the greatest satisfaction so far in this position?
Strickland: The greatest satisfaction is when a class is going well, you’re communicating well, and the class prompts lively and engaging discussion. Take civil procedure, for example. It’s normally considered a rather dry subject, so it’s gratifying when students find it engaging and it illicits discussion.