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Danielle Conway on Building an Inclusive Culture in Legal Education

Law 2030 Podcast: Danielle Conway

Law 2030 Podcast - Season 2 | Episode 4

Dean Danielle Conway Danielle Conway  is Dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law at Penn State Dickinson Law. Dean Conway is a leading voice on creating an anti-racist approach to legal education and has helped those who work in law schools around the country, including at Penn Law, develop better approaches for designing inclusive experiences.

On this episode, Dean Conway shares her thoughts on how the legal profession has historically excluded marginalized groups, how she’s leading her community through this tumultuous era, and how law school leaders can create more inclusive environments for all aspiring lawyers.

Episode Mentions:

Penn State Dickinson Law

Emancipation: The Making of a Black Lawyer 1844-1944 by J. Clay Smith

Our Key Takeaways From This Episode

All of us in the legal profession have to confront our history of excluding marginalized groups.

We have to come to terms with our past if we truly want to fulfill the aspirational aims of our profession.

Our era can be rightly defined by overwhelming and cascading crises - any one of which can challenge a leader and throw them off their game.

Dean Conway’s military training provides a roadmap for how we can break down big problems into smaller, actionable components.

Representation matters.

No matter how well-intentioned your organization is when it comes to diversity and inclusion, until the lived experience of your leaders provides aspiring lawyers with authentic role models for success, your institutional responses to racial injustice will fall short.

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Full Episode Transcript

Jennifer: Dean Conway, what makes you optimistic about the future of the legal profession?

Dean Conway: Every prospective student who is willing to come into law school with an open mind and with a mission to serve above self. Every time I see someone like that, I get giddy and start moving in my seat and get excited because that person is going to grab that baton and move us forward.

Jennifer: Hi everyone. I’m Jennifer Leonard, Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Pennsylvania, Carey Law School. As an alum of the law school who practiced law for a decade in private sector and government practices, I realized there are so many ways we lawyers can better serve our clients. And now through the Future of the Profession Initiative, my colleagues and I focus all our energy on thinking about how to do just that. Our profession is full of bright, engaged lawyers working at the highest levels, but we frustrate many of those we want to serve because of the way we structured the practice of law in our legal systems. And students coming to law school today need new skills that turbocharge their legal education so that they can navigate the dynamic landscape that lies ahead.

To develop fresh approaches to the way we educate lawyers and serve our clients, we need to open up the conversation. So, on this podcast, we’ll hear from experts working to change the legal profession and leaders who’ve developed creative solutions to complex problems in other fields. We’ll also discuss how the law school is producing the next generation of lawyers, a generation that will create new ways to put the people they serve at the center of everything they do. There’s so much to do, so let’s get started.

Today. I’m excited to welcome Danielle Conway, Dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law at Penn State Dickinson Law. Dean Conway is a leading voice on creating an anti-racist approach to legal education and has helped those of us who work in law schools around the country, including here at Penn Law, develop better approaches for designing inclusive experiences in our profession. She joins us today to share her thoughts on how the legal profession has historically excluded marginalized groups, how she’s leading her community through this tumultuous era, and how law school leaders can create more inclusive environments for all aspiring lawyers. Here’s my conversation with Danielle Conway

Jennifer: Dean Conway, thank you so much for joining us and welcome to the show.

Dean Conway: Thank you, Jennifer, for having me. I’m excited to get started with our conversation.

Jennifer: I was so excited to learn that we have a shared passion for interior design. Can you tell us a little bit about your love of interior design, Dean Conway?

Dean Conway: Absolutely. I am a complete interior design addict. And it might have come when I was in college in New York City and all the buildings and all the different kinds of homes that you could see. But then it got even more magnified. My interest got more magnified when I went to London for the first time. And the architecture there just saying to me. And I remember it between New York and London, I would always buy the Architectural Digest magazine because I never thought I’d be able to afford a house. And so, I just dreamed by looking at the magazine. And one of the people featured in the magazine just struck me, and it was Sheila Bridges, this Black woman. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, a Black woman is in Architectural Digest.” And she sang to me, it just resonated with me. And ever since then, I’ve been an interior design fanatic. I’ve been a Sheila Bridges fanatic. And the last thing I really want to do in my house is figure out how to get her Harlem Toile into my design. Was that too much information?

Jennifer: I love it. I love it. No, I’m so excited. I now want to do another podcast just about interior design because I want to open a company with you where we design together. But I want to know, first, of all these inspirations you’ve seen in your travels, what’s your favorite thing that you’ve brought from somewhere else and used in your own home?

Dean Conway : Oh, not a hard question at all. So, I traveled to South Africa with another professor, Trina Jones, who is just amazing. And when we traveled, we stayed about three weeks and we visited this artist in Khayelitsha. It’s a ghetto in South Africa. And he would make these designs out of absolutely anything he found in his environment. And so, my favorite thing that I’ve gotten sits on the wall. It is a wire transistor radio that he constructed out of just garbage around his house, and it works. And the artist’s name is Yellow and it’s just phenomenal. Every time I look at it, I just have this wonderful experience of that trip and my good friend, professor Trina Jones. And it gives me a lot of joy.

Jennifer: That’s so lovely. So as soon as we stop recording, I will email you to schedule our next podcast and talk all about it.

Dean Conway: Excellent.

Jennifer: I can’t wait. Well, thank you so much for sharing that part of you with the audience. And we’ll come back to your experience with Sheila and seeing a Black woman in Architectural Digest and how important that was to you. And we’ll talk about how that connects with your own leadership at Penn State Dickinson Law.

Jennifer: You’ve really had a distinguished and impressive career. Dean of the University of Maine Law School, on the Faculty of Hawaii at Manoa, William S. Richardson School of Law and you were even a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Australia. And you spent 27 years in the military. I’m curious, what branch did you serve in and what was your decision to serve?

Dean Conway : So, I served 27 years in the United States Army, the United States Army Reserve, and the Maine National Guard. And I decided to serve way back when I was 17 years old because the U.S. Army invested in my undergraduate education and awarded me an ROTC scholarship. But for that scholarship in that investment in me, who knows where I’d be right now? And when it came time to actually serve, I had a choice. I had a law firm in New York who wanted to buy out my military obligation. And I decided very quickly not to go that route because I understood the investment that was made in me, and I wanted to honor it. And that started my career in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. And I have had a fabulous time for 27 years serving the military in that capacity as a judge advocate.

Jennifer: An amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing that.

Jennifer: And I want to go back to the earlier discussion we had at the beginning and how important it is to see people who look like you, who represent your lived experience in leadership roles. And of course, that’s so important in law schools in particular.

Jennifer: And you’ve built a community of women deans of Black law deans who are really looking to build an anti-racist legal experience and education. And I’d love to start digging into that a little bit. I’ve read a bit of your work. And what strikes me, one of the many things that strikes me is this juxtaposition between what we perceive to be the most valiant aspects of practicing law. The things that I think brought most of us to law school in the first place, our integrity, our ability to advocate for people engaged in the system, to elevate people’s rights and to hold people accountable for their obligations, truth and candor, all of these wonderful things we associate with the legal profession.

But on the other hand, it’s actually legal systems that have allowed systemic racism to flourish and also have allowed the profession itself to exclude minority attorneys, minoritized attorneys, and women attorneys in particular. So, I’m wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about how you think about those two diametrically opposed visions of the legal profession and realities of both?

Dean Conway: Yeah, I’ll even lean on a little of de Tocqueville to answer this question. So, when he was writing about democracy in the United States and he was just applauding the effort and how it created this vibrant community, this egalitarianism, he had to leave out the south because the south was replete with slavocracy. And so, it’s interesting to see two sides of the same coin. You have these egalitarian notions, you have this experiment with equality, but then you have a region of the country committed to slavery. And when you think about the law, you can draw connections to that kind of duality as well.

So yes, we have a noble profession. The law is meant to solve problems. It’s meant to arbiter controversy. It’s meant to create a civil society. But at the same time, the definition of society was exclusive. And so, in building law and legal systems to support a civil society that was built on slavery, built on contestation of property interests by indigenous peoples, built on wars with other landowners, the Mexican-American War. We have a legal system that propped up American White male interest in our early society, our early government. And we have to acknowledge that system and we have to address those dualities so that we can achieve as we move forward in this profession, we can achieve that movement to a more perfect nobility of the profession.

Jennifer: And I’d love to hear a little bit, Dean Conway, because, of course, the profession itself is not immune from creating architecture to exclude Black attorneys, immigrant attorneys at the turn of the 20th century, women attorneys certainly. Can you talk a little bit about the specific scaffolding and infrastructure that was established to ensure that the same types of people would continue to lead the profession forward?

Dean Conway: Certainly. And when I do, I pay homage to a former professor J. Clay Smith who has passed away, but he wrote this fantastic book called Emancipation, which chronicled Black lawyers from 1844 to 1944. And that’s where I got a great sense of how institutions excluded attorneys of color, particularly Black attorneys, but still we had individual law schools and we had individuals who wanted to actually make a way for some of these individuals, Black people, Jewish people, women to become lawyers. So again, there’s that push pull.

But I learned from the research that J. Clay Smith has done that Howard University School of Law was started before the ABA. And the ABA starting after Howard University almost 10 years after Howard University was established and saying we have to have a society of legal practitioners who would elevate the legal profession. And that was the ABA and how they also specifically intended to exclude attorneys of color or exclude attorneys who identify with different ethnic or cultural groups and women.

And when I read that research that you know it’s so funny your mind doesn’t want to believe it. Your mind… So, you do more research, and you say, “You know what, actually this was true.” And that’s the perniciousness of systemic inequity. Sometimes you don’t see it, sometimes you don’t want to see it. Even as a person of color, you don’t want to see it.

And some of the reasons for the exclusiveness were that White men thought that, and I’ll speak about Black people, but that Black people would actually be the ruin of the legal profession. And that is a trope that comes not just from the legal profession, but that’s a trope that is directly connected to slave codes, how the Southern Democrats reacted to reconstruction creating Black codes to still meter the movements of Black people in the south. It harkens also to the Jim Crow era, the Jane Crow era and how we use these tropes that are racist to continue the status quo, to continue the control and the legal profession did exactly what many other professions did in excluding Black people and people of color and women because they really thought that, based on these racist tropes, that somehow, we were going to stain in the legal profession.

Jennifer: And now we’re at a moment where your work talks about holding the profession accountable. And accountability is an idea that’s both critical to success and also really elusive to define in many cases. I think people really struggle with framing what accountability means. Can you talk a little bit about in the legal academy what you view accountability to be with respect to the work that you’re doing here?

Dean Conway: Absolutely. And as you mentioned before, so much of my framework for my own identity comes from 27 years serving in the military. So, I have a very keen sense of what accountability means. And accountability means, for me, integrity, responsibility, ownership of the enterprise. And all of those things don’t necessarily mean perpetuating it. It means actually making it better, improving it, making it more transparent, making processes more available and more viewable for scrutiny. That’s accountability because the enterprise is going to get better when the processes are exposed to light.

And so, we in the legal academy and in law schools need to think intentionally about how we serve our community and how we make our processes more transparent and bringing students and how we train them, what we expose them to, how we ready them for the challenges that they will experience as new lawyers in the profession. And really important, how do we give them a sense of self so that they too can tap into the courage to do the things that they need to do to ensure adequate, substantial, meaningful representation for members of society who have no power, who have only vulnerability? They deserve legal professionals who are trained well.

Jennifer: I’m going to ask you one more question, Dean Conway, and then we’ll move into a lightning round if that’s okay with you.

Dean Conway: Absolutely.

Jennifer: This is actually not a question. It’s reading a quote that you close your article with, but then I’d love to hear your reactions after hearing it a new. I just thought this was so beautiful the way that you close your article on anti-racist education. You say, “As educators we must recognize our unique opportunity and important responsibility to combat racism in our educational mission. We must do more than transfer legal knowledge and skills to our students. We must cultivate within them a principled enduring commitment to work for true equality over the course of their careers. To do this, we must reconsider not only what we teach, but how we teach it. Onward the movement continues.” And you say this really relates to some colleagues of yours at Penn State Dickinson Law. Would you be willing to share a little bit about that?

Dean Conway: I’d be happy to. And in fact, that’s a quote and I’ll make sure to update my article to make it clear that that’s a quote from my colleague Professor Dermot Groome. And he has helped spear head Penn State Dickinson Law’s movement into anti-racist teaching and learning. And what it derives from is a horrific experience that we all had, but especially as it affected me with the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. The day that that happened, I was debilitated. It wasn’t just George Floyd’s murder. It was all of the murders of Black bodies, men, women and children before that.

And I was debilitated because I’m a new and old mother, if you can appreciate that. So, I’m a new mother because my son is very young, nine years old. I had him when I was old. I had him at the age of 43. And I’m not going to hide the fact that I experienced severe trepidation at even bringing a child, a Black child into the world. I was scared to death. And I just became debilitated by watching as a mother, the life being taken in front of our eyes. And I told my colleagues who came to me and said, “You have to issue some statements to the students.” And I was like, “I have got nothing.” I have got absolutely nothing. I am sitting here looking at my child, my nine-year-old Black son and thinking how the hell do I keep and safe?

And I spoke with my colleague Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Amy Gaudion for about two hours that day as she was trying to help me through this traumatic experience. And she recruited Professor Dermot Groome to help her help me. And it was a weekend that I will never forget. Dermot Groome leading the faculty came up with the unanimous faculty resolution, pledging to teach according to anti-racist teaching and learning and condemning violence against Black and Brown people. And our faculty chair, Michael Mogill brought the resolution to a Zoom faculty meeting at which no one wanted to be anonymous in voting for it. And it got voted in in less than… It had to be in less than five minutes. And it helped me to move beyond that debilitating posture.

And then I was able, after I saw what my colleagues had banded together to do, not just for me, but for our students, for our community, but I think they weren’t telling me, we care about you, and we will take up the baton when you are not able. And that’s how I saw that. And when I saw that they took the baton, it lifted me and I was then able to write my feelings to my community, my Dickinson Law Community. And everything does happen for a reason. And everything is connected because they’re lifting me up. Help me to lift Penn State University up because my statement to community was adopted by the president of Penn State University in his own message.

And then that statement that I had written led to Black women law deans coming together and saying, “What are we going to do?” Not how are we going to hide or how are we going to get through this next tragedy, but what are we going to do as women, Black women law deans in this profession? And that was how we came up with the Law Deans Anti-Racist Clearinghouse Project supported by the Association of American Law Schools. You see all these things happen because we’re interconnected, because that day Professor Groome and Associate Dean Amy Gaudion showed me they cared about me.

Jennifer: Thank you so much. It’s such a powerful story. I’m so grateful to you for sharing it. And it just to me highlights so many different elements of what we talked about today. First, the importance of you serving in this leadership position in your community and what it does for those around you. And I can only imagine the deep love and respect that drove your colleagues to that Zoom call to support you.

So, thank you so much for sharing that, Dean Conway. And if it’s okay with you, I would love to move into some shorter questions now as we move toward the end of our time together.

Dean Conway: Yeah, let’s lighten the mood. Right?

Jennifer: All right. Let’s do some lightning round questions. Okay. So, these are questions we’re going to have you try to answer in about 10 to 15 seconds if we’re able. So, in your vision for an anti-racist law school culture and curriculum, you used the term battle implementation plan, language that evokes a military strategy. Given your background in the military, what special meaning does this phrase have to you? Why is it so powerful?

Dean Conway: Battle implementation plan is powerful to me because it is a tool to take really big problems and break them down into smaller compartmentalized, tactical maneuvers that you can delegate. And by delegating and by trusting the people you were with, you can actually attack these really big, big problems, knowing that you have this battle implementation plan, and it means trust, it means loyalty and it means a respect for the knowledge of the people that you delegate to.

Jennifer: Thank you so much. So, you just shared an incredibly moving story about part of your own leadership journey and your community, and you’ve outlined different ways that you try to advance the community in your efforts. At the same time, you talk about the toll that it takes on you as a mother in particular. How can you take on all these responsibilities on your shoulders while also trying to take care of your family and take care of yourself as a mom?

Dean Conway: Well, three things. I trust my experience and my expertise. The second thing, I have developed my colleagues and I trust their ability to do their jobs. And so, it allows me to compartmentalize and know that they’re covering their pathway, their avenue, and I’m covering mine. And the third thing and this is, I think the crucial part, I do not expect perfection. There is a go and there is a no go. Sometimes go with 60%. And you know what? You go with it. Sometimes go with 75% and you know what, you go with it. And sometimes it is so important that you might have to get 90% in order for this to be done well and to be done right. And so, I make sure to tell people when we’re talking about communication, what kind of a goal this is?

Jennifer: I love that. I think that’s particularly important in a profession that sometimes can experience toxic perfectionism, that everything has to be done perfectly every time which is a recipe for burnout, I think.

Dean Conway: And disaster.

Jennifer: And disaster. And people who have the capacity to lead, leaving and stepping out because they think they’re not living up to the ideal of what they want to achieve.

Let’s talk for a couple of questions about the law school admissions process because I know a lot of your work focuses on this part of the pipeline at getting more diverse students to law schools. So, one of the dynamics you explore in your work on diversity in law school admissions is the relatively late applications in the admission cycle among black applicants as opposed to their white peers. Do you have theories as to why this is the case that black law students, aspiring law students tend to apply later than white law students do?

Dean Conway : I Do. I have a theory, it may not be correct, but I’m going to put it out there. I think that many black students have not had the role modeling or representations of lawyers in their communities. And so, by not having that kind of access to role models or people who have become lawyers, black students don’t necessarily see themselves in the profession. And so, they question whether they should even be applying.

There’s also the financial resources question, the affordability, and they may know better than any of us what their financial resources are. And so, they may decide, I can’t afford to pay for that without coming to the experience saying, “Are there scholarships?” Might there be an investment that others would make in my pursuit of a law degree. And I think many times black law students come to the realization that there is this kind of financial support out there. And then by the time they make application, it’s late because the schools are already parsed out their resources.

Jennifer: And also, there’s a growing trend among law schools to accept GRE scores, to accept GMAT, different admissions tests. Can you talk a little bit about why the acceptance of the GRE can have positive effects in attracting more diverse law students to law school than just the LSAT?

Dean Conway : Certainly. And I’ll speak specifically to Black students, but I think it applies as we move out from that demographic. The GRE is given in more cycles. So, every 21 days, you can take a GRE. The testing facilities are extensive, and the cost is cheaper. But now the Law School Admission Council seeing that has a waiver provision in place, a Tier 1 and a Tier 2 waiver provision to try to bridge that access to resources question. And the Law School Admission Council in administering the LSAT has also increased the administration of the test. So, I think the LSAT and the administration of it is coming closer to the GRE, but the GRE just is more accessible right now, more affordable, but I think else the LSAC leadership is closing in on that.

Jennifer: And this is a little bit of a curve ball question. So, I’ll throw it out there and see how it goes. I’ve heard people say that as the job of a law school dean becomes more complex, becomes more challenging that it actually maybe counterintuitively opens up more opportunities for women and deans of color. Do you think that’s true?

Dean Conway: I do think it’s true. Let me throw into the calculus of the question that U.S. News & World Report in the ranking of elite law schools has an impact on your question. And so, I do not think that women of color are represented well in the T14. I don’t think women of color are represented at all. Let me get that straight. And so, I would say outside of the T14, outside of what people determine as elite law schools, there are opportunities for women of color. There are opportunities for people of color. There are opportunities from women across the diaspora because it is becoming a really, really difficult job to do. And many people who have the chops to do it say, “I don’t want to do that.”

In my experience, I’ll just speak from my experience. Dean-ing was a way for me to access that part of my identity that I could deliver to an enterprise. So as a law professor, I was leading, but not on the organizational level. So, it allowed me to tap into that. But it’s also become a way for women and people of color to have mobility within the academy. So maybe women of color, for example, were not being looked at for a lot of lateral movement. Well, entering into the competition to become a dean opens that up. So, this has created space.

Jennifer: Well, thank you so much for your time today. This has just been professionally amazing, but on a personal level, just a treat. I saw you speak at the UVA conference on Women’s Leadership in Academia a few years ago and I was enthralled. So, any opportunity I have to talk with you to amplify the amazing work that you’re doing. And now that I know you love HGTV as much as I do, forget about it.

Dean Conway: Oh yeah, it’s on now. It’s just on.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for your courage and your leadership, Dean Conway. And we look forward to seeing all of the exciting things on the horizon in your work.

Dean Conway: Thank you so much. This was great.

Jennifer: What an enlightening conversation with Dean Danielle Conway. Here are my three key takeaways. First, all of us in the legal profession have to confront our history of excluding marginalized groups. We have to come to terms with our past if we truly want to fulfill the aspirational aims of our profession. Second, use battle implementation plans. Our era can be rightly defined by overwhelming and cascading crises - any one of which can challenge a leader and throw them off their game. Dean Conway’s military training provides a roadmap for how we can break down big problems into smaller, actionable components. And third, representation matters. No matter how well-intentioned your organization is when it comes to diversity and inclusion, until the lived experience of your leaders provides aspiring lawyers with authentic role models for success, your institutional responses to racial injustice will fall short.

Thanks to all of you for joining us today. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen. Be sure to leave us a comment and rate the show too. We’ll see you next time on another edition of law, 2030.


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