Martin H. Brinkley was named the 14th dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law in July 2015. The Raleigh native is a graduate of the law school and is only the second practicing lawyer to become dean in the history of Carolina Law. Prior to his role at the law school, Brinkley was a corporate partner with Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan LLP in Raleigh, where he remains of counsel.
Dean Brinkley sat down with Attorney at Law Magazine NC Triangle Executive Publisher Bob Friedman to discuss his vision for the law school and its responsibilities to the legal profession.
AALM: As you embark on the second year of your deanship, what are some of the values you hold dear that inform your leadership?
Brinkley: I grew up in a close family. Our family respected every human being that came within our circle – valuing that person as a human being no matter their level of education or professional accomplishment or economic success or social position. We were a family that valued enterprise and hard work but that was also deeply engaged in the community in the traditional American ways. My parents and grandparents were town council members, school board members, ran the Rotary Club … and that was simply an assumed part of life.
AALM: How do those values impact your vision for the law school?
Brinkley:This is a school that traditionally and still is the best glue factory you could ever imagine. I’m talking about human glue. What we do better than any law school in America, in my opinion, is educate lawyers and graduate leaders who will move to and greatly impact communities across North Carolina and beyond. There are towns in North Carolina that would not be positive, productive places but for graduates of this school who help hold those communities together.
Lawyers should make a conscious decision to spend time in their communities, not just look to maximize their incomes.
AALM: While you were in private practice, you played leadership roles with NCBA’s 4ALL, “Lawyer On the Line” and Legal Aid of North Carolina. How does your commitment to help the underserved translate into your role here?
Brinkley: We lawyers have been given the opportunity to impact American life and culture by bringing legal knowledge to bear on human problems. But we only deserve that opportunity if we make our services available to the widest swath of people possible. If we’re only serving those who can afford to pay us, we draw into question whether we ought to be the only people to have this opportunity.
I want to get the word out that the freedoms we value are because of lawyers. Lawyers teach people to think and act rationally. We are simply necessary, and we are proud of what we do.
AALM: What are some of the things you are doing to make graduates more practiceready?
Brinkley: Our goal is to continue to provide opportunities for our students to develop as lawyers and leaders. Our students are doing more skills-based learning than ever through our externships and clinics. We have over 100 students taking part in externships.
Also, we are looking for ways to become better engaged in the economic life of North Carolina. We are doing more in the areas of health care, energy and banking. Our banking program is one of the best in the country.
AALM: You offer a powerful message to your 1Ls.
Brinkley: One of the things I tell 1Ls at the beginning of the year is to not allow what we tell you about your abilities through our assessments, exams for example, to determine anything about your future and your belief in yourself, other than areas in which you can improve your analytical prowess.
Many students come to law school very young, right out of undergrad. They have this impression that if they are not in the top 10 percent of the class that all is lost and that they will not have opportunities. What I try to say to them is that the world is going to test many things about you that we do not have the ability to test here in this machine that has been built up over the years.
The world will test your powers of compassion, your powers of human understanding, your powers of political savvy, your stick-to-it-ivness, your ambition. Many of you who are of only average success in these walls according to our methods of framing success are going to wind up going out and becoming the ones who give work to the law review editors because other things about you will get tested and valued.
You are all going to be splendid lawyers. You have to believe that, not withstanding what your academic experience may be. There is a world waiting for who these students are as human beings.
I do hope there is some element of eternal truth in that proposition.