Cultivating a Law School Culture: Gary Clinton Reflects on 33 Years at Penn Law
Organizational culture can be difficult to define, let alone understand. In many circles, the term has become an empty cliché. But when it comes to schools, experts call culture the "invisible essential" that, although not visible to the eye, is clearly apparent to those who have experienced it. So it is not surprising that alumni often have a similar reaction when asked: what makes Penn Law Penn Law? Beyond excellent academics and rankings, they respond, is a discernable culture of community. Invariably, in trying to pinpoint that culture, someone will mention Gary Clinton, the ubiquitous dean of students. It's no surprise that for many, Clinton embodies Penn Law's culture – serious and driven when necessary, but also supportive and remarkably fun. For over 20 years, it's been Clinton's job to cultivate a school culture where community and diversity are more than just buzzwords, where collegiality really does trump competitiveness.
Clinton is quick to acknowledge that a school's culture is always somewhat organic, but that doesn't mean that Penn Law has been content to leave its culture to chance. A prime example is a plan the Law School implemented to maintain its culture of community in the digital age.
"When Mike Fitts became Dean, his great concern was that the hallways were emptying out," says Clinton, explaining how technology had moved people away from campus. "With the Internet and laptops, everyone's kitchen table became their library. You could see a palpable difference. The Law School wasn't as busy as it had once been. We had a great new academic library, but it was rarely filled to capacity."
A firm believer that education is more than just what happens in the classroom, Dean Fitts worried that classroom learning, although the core of any legal education, fell flat without that cohesive Penn Law community. "Something special happens in interactions among students and between students and professors – even random encounters in the hallways – that can't be replicated in a virtual world," explains Clinton.
Dean Fitts devised a plan to bring students back to the building. The Law School would encourage student activities by devoting more resources to them, from faculty and staff support to funding. "He made a conscious effort to give students an opportunity to have more clubs, more journals, more debates, where they could work with one another, work with staff, work with faculty, simply be together," says Clinton.
The effort to increase student engagement by supporting student groups was a resounding success. "We saw a huge change," says Clinton. "In a fairly short period of time, the hallways were again buzzing with activity. People today feel connected to one another, which was the goal all along – to bring them back."
The number of student groups shot up – from around 25 when Clinton first joined Penn Law as a stack attendant in Biddle Law Library in 1976, to over 90 today. The student groups vary from the newly formed Law and the Brain Group, to basketball (run by a 3L "commissioner" and involving hundreds of players), to the Equal Justice Foundation with its annual auction, to the Federalist Society (hosting a national symposium this year due in large measure to commitment from professors at both ends of the ideological spectrum), to student-run pro bono projects. (Read more about the student groups here)
The goal in supporting student groups was never just about making Penn Law a nice place to study for three years. "For many students, this is where they begin the process of becoming professionals," says Clinton. "As opposed to simply taking classes and then going into the world, they learn how to build relationships with colleagues, how to engage in civil discourse even with those they diametrically oppose. At the end of the day, that's really what being a lawyer is about."
Clinton points to other specific ways that Penn Law has been deliberate about fostering collegiality and maintaining its sense of community: the Law School does not class-rank students; it assigns interview slots during on-campus recruiting by lottery rather than grades; it limits incoming class size to around 250 so students can know each other and their professors; and the physical makeup of the school, with buildings surrounding a common courtyard and student lounges, encourages interaction.
The Law School's culture is also self-perpetuating. "There is something really good about Penn students and the Penn ethos, and it becomes self-selecting," Clinton explains. "We say to prospective students and professors looking to join the faculty: this is the kind of community that we have and we hope to replicate year after year. And they come and they do it. They recreate the community again and again."
Then there is the fun element. "I'm a ham," Clinton freely admits, describing his flight-attendant-style exam information sessions – which involve "emotion discomfort" bags in the event students experience stomach upset, oxygen masks for sudden loss of classroom pressure, and a flotation device-like tutu in case the building lands in water. Clinton devised the tongue-in-cheek instructions years ago, after struggling to have students listen to instructions when they were preoccupied with their impending exams.
"A lot of people just need a good cathartic laugh and then they can move on," Clinton says. "My job as dean of students can be so serious, and I take students' education and their responsibility very seriously. But I try to balance it, to read the atmosphere. I think it's important that people laugh. Law students are tense enough."
Besides cultivating a culture of community and bringing levity to the Law School, Clinton keeps a day job: advising students who face personal and professional challenges. "After years of seeing students up close, 99% of the time I can tell a student who feels off track, ‘that may not be usual for you, it may be a real challenge for you, but it's not unusual for law school.'" He raises his hands in the air and spreads them wide apart. "This is my experience of what normal is for law students. Once I can assure students that they're in the ballpark and help them gain perspective, they can usually move beyond the anxiety and get on to solving the problem."