Thursday, January 13, 2011
2011 PERSONS OF THE YEAR: Bryant Garth
Southwestern Law School Dean Sees Bright Future for ‘School of Opportunity’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
n 2005, at 55 years of age, Bryant Garth had what he acknowledges was a legal scholar’s dream job.
He had been director of the American Bar Foundation, which is associated with the American Bar Association and bills itself as “the nation’s leading research institute for the empirical study of law,” for 14 years. A San Diego-area native, he had acclimated himself to Chicago, where the ABA and ABF are located, and where he and his wife raised three children.
But then the trustees of Southwestern Law School came calling. After a months-long search, they offered Garth his next dream job—as the school’s dean.
For Garth, who had been the dean at Indiana University School of Law for four years before taking the ABF job, the Southwestern offer had several upsides. “Part of me always thought I had the makings of a good dean,” he says, adding that he “knew there was going to be a time when I would be coming back to California.”
That time turned out to be 37 years after he left San Diego to attend Yale University and more than 30 years after he graduated Stanford Law School.
His tenure at Southwestern has already surpassed his four-year occupancy of the deanship at Indiana, where he “had been sort of a reluctant dean,” he says. He was only 36 years of age when he took the job, he notes, and “had not really produced the kind of scholarship I wanted to produce.”
Having told IU officials he intended to stay “a relatively short period of time,” he recites, he left in 1990 to join the ABF, and became director there about a year later.
The ABF is “essentially an academic institution,” he explains. As director, he coordinated the work of resident fellows, as well as contributing professors from various law schools.
But when his name came up in the course of the Southwestern dean search, he began thinking it was time for a career switch.
“I knew that writing one more book or a few more articles [at the ABF] wasn’t really going to change the world,” he says. And as deanships go, Southwestern’s is among the best one can have, he says.
‘Like Being Mayor’
Because the school is independent and not part of a larger institution, being dean is “like being mayor of a small town,” he says. So if the school wants to introduce something innovative, like its part-time program for day students, or its two-year degree program, or its new joint M.B.A.-J.D. program with Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management, it doesn’t have to deal with an outside hierarchy, Garth notes.
And unlike some small-town mayors, Garth’s popularity with his constituents doesn’t seem to have worn thin with age.
Dennis Codon, a Century City lawyer who chaired the search committee and now chairs the school’s Board of Trustees, says that hiring Garth “was a decision we felt very good about [at the time] and feel even better about today.”
The committee, he explains, considered a large pool of candidates recommended by a headhunter, then interviewed 15 or 16 of them and invited five or six to visit the school and interact with faculty and some student leaders.
In searching for a successor to Leigh Taylor, who was dean for 27 years and “really put us on the map,” Codon says, the school had a number of constituencies to satisfy.
“The professors wanted a scholar, the alumni wanted someone who was congenial, and the trustees wanted a manager,” he recalls. And given the complexity of finding someone who could fit all three molds, he says, there was even some thought of splitting the position, of hiring both an academic dean and a chief executive officer.
Ultimately, he says, the board found the best of all worlds—a recognized scholar who is finding ways for the school to “increase its academic excellence,” who is “creative and innovative” and is willing to take on bold initiatives, such as a plan to create the first on-campus housing in the school’s near-100-year history.
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Robert Philibosian, who was also on the search committee and has been a trustee for 26 years, says he was immediately taken with Garth and remains an admirer.
The search panel had some very impressive candidates to consider, he says, but Garth “just stood out from the crowd.” Once he arrived on a campus, “he was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the trustees and is greatly admired by all of them,” Philibosian remarks.
Garth, he says, has a “far-reaching outlook” as to what legal education is supposed to be, “with realistic ambitions and an overall goal of raising the profile of Southwestern Law School and improving student life.”
The residential project, Philibosian says, is a big part of that vision. “It’s very unusual for law schools, particularly West Coast law schools, to have residential facilities as part of the law school campus,” he notes.
While the school once provided off-campus housing for a limited number of students, Garth recites, having its own residence hall, scheduled to open with 150 beds in 2013, will add a whole new dimension to the institution.
“We’ll be much less of a commuter campus,” he says, explaining the school’s plan to continue the physical transformation that began in 1994 with its purchase of the old Bullocks Wilshire department store, which now houses the library, moot court, auditorium, and administrative offices, among other things.
“This is the only law school where we can have events where we charge people $50 just to tour the law school,” he boasts. And he tells prospective students they will not find a better environment in which to go to school “until the Taj Mahal is converted into a law school,” he says.
In addition to the residential project, Southwestern plans to buy the adjoining building at 3100 Wilshire Blvd. to house its legal clinics. Ultimately, the school will occupy a campus of two full city blocks, with walkways and landscaped spaces, Garth says.
“It will be almost like having a little liberal arts college in Koreatown,” he says, and “opens up a whole new applicant pool” of students who don’t have cars and want to live on a campus, he says, and will be good for the surrounding community.
“You have to constantly improve the experience” and reputation of the school, which then impacts “the employment prospects of our students,” he says. Long gone are the days when Southwestern prided itself on being a bare-bones urban law school with a strong faculty and a good library.
To understand the symbiosis between Southwestern Law School and its current dean, it helps to know some of the school’s history. While it was located in its own building at 1121 S. Hill Street from 1924 to 1973, the school was originally located further east.
It began in 1911—making it older than all of the other local law schools except USC’s—as the Southwestern College of Law, in the Union Oil Building, later called the Bartlett Building, at Sixth and Spring streets downtown.
Its founder was John J. Schumacher, “whose dream it was to provide legal education opportunities for qualified students who might not otherwise be given the chance to pursue such a degree,” according to the school’s website.
Those early students included women, minorities, and those from disadvantaged families. Then as now, many of its students worked in the day and attended school at night.
Schumacher added a secretarial and a business school, and thus the institution became Southwestern University and the law school Southwestern University College of Law. It was located for a time in the Wilcox Building, which now houses the MetNews.
The Great Depression and its aftermath killed off the secretarial school and other non-law programs, as well as the law school’s Long Beach branch. The business school lasted until the 1960s, but “University” remained in the school’s formal name until Garth excised it.
According to a 1972 Los Angeles Times profile of the school, it once had a full range of extracurricular activities, including—in the days when a bachelor’s degree was not yet a prerequisite for a legal education—football and other intercollegiate sports. There were even enough women to form a basketball team in the 1930s.
After a period of enrollment decline, the student ranks swelled with the return of GIs from World War II. By 1972, the Times recited, more Southwestern graduates sat on the local bench than those of any other law school, and yet the school still struggled to shed its “night school” reputation and persuade its graduates to “hang [their diplomas] on the wall. “
In that decade, however, Southwestern gained full accreditation from the American Bar Association, was awarded membership in the Association of American Law Schools, and established the first two-year degree program in the country. The school also moved west from downtown to larger, more modern facilities at Wilshire Boulevard and Westmoreland Avenue, where it is now located.
Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Alan Friedenthal, an alumnus who has remained close to the school, as well as to his undergraduate alma mater, USC, compares Garth to recently retired USC President Steve Sample.
Both men have enhanced the academic prestige of their institutions while paying attention to “the expansion of things like endowment and physical campus, in particular housing,” the jurist remarks.
He quips that he now hopes “Dean Garth can woo Pete Carroll to Southwestern so that the school can become a football powerhouse again.”
For Garth, who attended college in the 1960s and 1970s, interned with a nonprofit women’s rights advocacy group while attending Stanford, and has studied and taught civil rights and international human rights law, being dean of a school with Southwestern’s history has special meaning.
“This has always been such a school of opportunity,” he explains. He notes that the city’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, attended Southwestern at night while working as a police officer, before going on to serve for decades as city councilman and then mayor.
He also points out that the school produced the first Chinese American district court judge in the continental United States, Senior Judge Ronald S.W. Lew of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California; the first black woman to serve on a California bench, Vaino Spencer, now retired as presiding justice of Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal; the first female African-American appellate court justice in the state, Arleigh Woods, and the first Latina trial judge in the United States, Frances Muñoz, named to the Orange County Harbor Municipal Court in 1978.
Lew and Woods are Southwestern trustees. Lew and Spencer are former MetNews Persons of the Year.
Garth himself had a relatively privileged background. His father, who was older than his mother, once owned a brick factory, and both of his parents came from affluent families.
He excelled at academics and worked hard at sports, making the La Jolla High School football team, although he was only 5-foot, 6-inches tall. And his prowess at the sport has become the stuff of family legend.
“His nickname was Cannonball,” son Andrew Garth, an assistant city attorney in San Francisco, explains. The younger Garth says his father, who works out regularly in Southwestern’s gym, could bench-press 300 pounds.
He left the sunny climes of San Diego at 18 to attend Yale, and then Stanford.
His “favorite experience in law school,” he says, was working at Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm representing plaintiffs in sex discrimination cases. He also clerked for an 11-lawyer Palo Alto firm with a transactional and civil litigation practice.
He expected to join the firm as an associate after graduation, but academic curiosity got the best of him, he explains.
He had the opportunity to join the first class in graduate legal studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Garth, who speaks French, Italian, and Spanish, graduated with a doctoral degree in 1979.
Now fully engrossed in academia, he headed to Bloomington, Ind. to join the IU faculty. He taught courses in civil procedure, the legal profession, and international and comparative law and human rights, and became dean in 1986.
Garth calls himself a “legal sociologist,” a teacher and chronicler of how law, and lawyers, shape, and are shaped by, various societies. His work, he says, emphasizes “how globalization is changing the practice of law.”
He has written, co-written, or contributed chapters to nearly 30 books and written dozens of articles. The most recent book is “Asian Legal Revivals: Lawyers in the Shadow of Empire,” a study of how law and lawyers are impacting several Asian countries. It is the fourth book he has written with French sociologist Yves Dezalay.
He has also written about the sociology of American legal practice. A recent contribution was “Not That Into You,” an article written for The American Lawyer in which Garth and an ABF fellow suggested a new model for large law firms, in which they would cut expenses and improve productivity by hiring “hungrier” associates from outside the elite law schools and “rethink the structure that depends on making life relatively miserable for all associates.”
But while he has continued to contribute his own scholarship, the dean makes clear, the needs of the school are always his priority. To fulfill his vision, he acknowledges, requires constant attention to fundraising.
He had responsibility for importuning donors in his prior posts, he says, but it was not the major component of his work as it is now. But while it takes up more of his time than he expected when he took the job, he says, he actually enjoys doing it.
He has traveled not only around the state, but also to Portland, Seattle, Boston, Washington, and other major cities where the school’s alumni have located.
“It’s getting out there,” he comments excitedly, “connecting with our alums, hearing their stories, getting a sense of what their lives are like,” as well as telling them about the school’s ambitions.
Steven P. Byrne, a Monrovia lawyer who is a trustee and past president of the school’s alumni association, says Garth “has always had an extremely good relationship with the alumni,” one that recognizes that the “the alumni of a law school are one of [its] primary assets.”
As for the seemingly endless round of alumni receptions the dean attends, Byrne explains:
“Having been at and hosted them, [I know] they are not always a fun time, but they’re important. [Garth will] sit there for as long as anyone asks questions. ”
The alumni, he says, are excited about having Garth as dean because they share his ambitions for Southwestern. “This school has tremendous potential to be in the top echelon of law schools nationally,” Byrne says.
Alice Salvo, past president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association and a 1980 Southwestern graduate, says Garth is “a delight to deal with…personable, intelligent and sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the students, the faculty and the alumni community” and that “he has made it hip and cool to be a graduate of Southwestern.”
Garth also oversees a large and diverse faculty. The school’s website lists 72 full-time educators and 117 adjuncts.
Michael Berger, who started out as an adjunct professor and now combines an associate professorship with his Encino trusts and estates practice, gives the dean high marks.
“He’s been amazing in terms of modernizing the curriculum,” Berger explains, introducing “courses that are cutting edge,” departing from the semester-long mold by having some courses meet for just three weeks or during intersession. The faculty, he says, is very much on board with Garth’s plans, in part because the dean is meticulous about keeping them informed.
“He is very affable,” Berger—who is a Southwestern graduate and the father of another—says. “He has a great manner about him, and his academic background gives him great credibility with the faculty.”
Pride in Faculty
Garth is proud of that faculty, he says, noting that several of its members are recognized scholars themselves in various fields of law. The adjunct professors contribute a unique dimension, he adds, because of their unique and diverse fields of expertise.
Where else, he asks, could a student take a course in video gaming law, taught by one of the top practitioners in the field?
And in the midst of his research and writing, and administering his small city, and teaching a few courses, and running around the country keeping touch with alumni and asking for money, he still finds time to indulge his interest in sports, both as participant an spectator.
Besides his gym workouts, he plays tennis once or twice a week at the Beverly Hills Country Club. He continues to follow baseball, football and basketball, getting to an occasional Dodger game and maintaining his decades-long loyalty to the San Diego Chargers.
“I’m a little more ambivalent about the Padres,” he quips, although he’s impressed by Petco Park, where they have played the past few seasons.
After living in Chicago for 14 years, he continues to root for that city’s teams, as well, admitting that he was rooting for the Bulls when they took on the Lakers recently. And although he hasn’t worked in Indiana for 20 years, he remains a steadfast follower of IU basketball, keeping up, like any true Hoosier fan, not only with the games, but with recruiting efforts.
He also makes time for family, visiting his son in San Francisco and his two daughters, and his grandchildren, who live in Minnesota.
He speaks optimistically, not only about his law school, but also about law itself, and its role in bringing about an orderly world.
“I’m an idealist,” he says. “I believe the stronger international law gets, the stronger the United States will be.”
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company