Eight years ago, when Drexel University’s law school was still one of the youngest in the country, Daniel Filler, JD, moderated a debate on campus in the midst of the election for Philadelphia’s next district attorney. This spring, as the city sought a new lead prosecutor, the race once again ran through Drexel when a forum gathered the candidates in the weeks leading up to the primary election. In the intervening years, quite a bit has changed for Filler and the law school alike.
For one thing, the law school is now the Thomas R. Kline School of Law. And Filler, who was an inaugural faculty member in 2006, is now the dean, having succeeded founding dean Roger Dennis in January. The law school has also evolved, globalizing and finding new ways to meet the needs of students in a rapidly changing legal environment that would hardly be recognizable from the perspective of those early days. Along the way, the law school has maintained its important role within the University and the Greater Philadelphia legal community.
Halfway through his first year as dean, Filler opened up about his high hopes for the trajectory of the Kline School of Law, how the school is adapting to changes in legal education, and why it’s necessary to keep one eye on the present and one on the future.
Q: How has your tenure as dean been so far?
A: The law school is in a really good place right now. The seeds were planted by Roger Dennis and they’ve begun to bear fruit in all sorts of different ways. We have a new building — a trial advocacy center at 1200 Chestnut St. — and it will be open by the end of the year. It’s going to be a fantastic, state-of-the-art training facility for advocates. That’s a great thing both because it’s a wonderful space for our students to learn and also because it plants a Kline Law flag in Center City. We love being in University City for all of the connections with the rest of the University, and having this facility at 12th and Chestnut will connect us with all the lawyers in town. The new center is three or four blocks from both the state and federal courts. Our hope is to have programming there that brings the bar into the Kline School of Law.
Q: How do you view the law school’s role in the legal community in Philadelphia?
A: In 2005 and 2006, when we designed the law school, we very much wanted it to be a law school with deep roots in the community. We saw an opportunity because no other local law school had that same intense focus on grounding itself in the Philadelphia community, and I think we’ve achieved that. You can see the success in so many different ways, and the most obvious way is that our employment numbers reflect that connection to the local bar. Among the law schools in the Philly area, we’re second only to Penn in our placement rate. That reflects a legal community that is excited about being engaged with us.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish as dean of the law school?
A: The law school’s been phenomenally successful to this point and we want to build on that. There have been a couple of rankings in recent weeks that have made our progress visible. When I think of valuable metrics to judge law schools, it seems to me that student outcomes are a great starting point. In a recent ranking, The National Law Journal put us at number 30 in the country for employment. At Above the Law, a blog that integrates additional factors, we’re in the top 50.
I want to see us build on our success, and right now I’m focusing on three big priorities. The first one is to maintain our focus on a strong experiential education. We do that by enhancing our ties to the legal community. We’re also trying to be intentional so that our co-op opportunities are in areas that are seeing a lot of growth. It’s not just finding a place for students to do a co-op, but creating opportunities that will launch careers in hot areas of practice. We want to make sure we create opportunities in areas like legal compliance and information privacy where we know there will be growth.
The second really important thing is maintaining our strong research profile. We have superb faculty who are very productive, and I’m hoping to build on that by supporting growth in interdisciplinary research. I am optimistic we will be developing interdisciplinary scholarship around cyberlaw and cybersecurity with the Isaac L. Auerbach Cybersecurity Institute. I also have a goal of promoting law and society research more broadly. The law school, and in fact and the University more broadly, has a surprisingly large cohort of faculty whose work is centered around sociolegal studies. I really want to build out structures supporting that community to support new research while making these strengths more visible. More broadly, I’m eager for the law school to play a part in making the social sciences a more muscular and visible element of the University’s portfolio.
My third big priority is making sure that the law school is identifying and addressing legal education needs beyond the traditional JD. I see law schools as much more than just JD programs. A lot of legal compliance work is done by nonlawyers, and we’re working on training those people with our Master of Legal Studies program. We know there’s demand for graduate legal training for people who have LLBs — undergraduate law degrees from outside the United States. We want to provide LLMs for those students. We’re looking at opportunities to train lawyers abroad. We have a new initiative, partnering with the International Law Institute and an NGO in Africa to develop an LLM, for example.
Q: Has anything surprised you since taking over?
A: My surprises are technical — the degree to which the demands of the job control the dean. As an associate dean, I had fewer structured institutional demands, so I was more easily able to control my time and agenda. Given the sort of dean I want to be — dedicating significant time to external constituencies like alumni, donors and the local bar — as well as University demands that are part of the job, it’s tough to find time to strategize and be forward looking. I’m learning to be much more focused and intentional about maintaining the bandwidth to keep long-term planning as a central part of my schedule. As a dean, you can work 60 hours a week simply doing the mundane, essential, day-to-day work — what Roger Dennis called the blocking and tackling work. My challenge is making sure that I take care of today’s business even as I’m planning for three or four years ahead.
Q: How has the support been as you’ve transitioned in?
A: I have had superb support from both the senior staff and faculty leaders. I’ve been really lucky. In this respect, being an internal dean is wonderfully helpful. I already know folks who I can lean on to help. The law school has phenomenal staff and faculty, and the energy and vision that has made each of these people so good at their existing jobs has paid off for me as we sketch out the path ahead.
Q: You’ve been here from the start. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen from when the law school opened?
A: The law school and legal markets have changed dramatically. The law school market changed dramatically for the worse. We’ve seen about a 45 percent drop in applications nationally and that has a tremendous effect on running a law school. We’re in a brutally competitive environment. You have to be intentional, thoughtful and strategic in order to succeed.
When the law school opened, one of our central priorities — offering a phenomenal experiential program — was a relatively atypical claim for a law school. Now every law school claims it offers an experiential education, whether or not it’s central to their curriculum. That has forced us to be more thoughtful about where we’re different, why our version of experiential education is distinct, and we’ve had to focus on enhancing those differences and staying ahead of the pack. I’m proud that our co-op program remains the best high-intensity externship program in the country. But it remains a challenge explaining to the rest of the world — and particularly prospective students — why the Kline experiential education is so exceptional.
The job market has also tightened over the last decade. The good news is that in recent years, we’ve really stepped up our game in terms of career strategies support. Under the leadership of Donna Gerson, our career strategies office has become a national leader. We’re now in the top 30 for employment outcomes nationally — the top 15 percent of all law schools. The reason we have these phenomenal results is a mix of great students, great faculty, a distinctive experiential education program and a career strategies office that understands how to help students shape themselves into exceptional job candidates.
As the world around us has changed, we’ve been forced to change. The good news is that our entrepreneurial spirit and tight supportive community have helped us stay ahead of the pack in terms of adjusting to the new landscape.
Q: Where do you see the law school fitting into the broader vision of the University in the next several years?
A: My vision for interdisciplinary research is all about us as a part of the broader scholarly University community. I don’t want us to be a research silo. I want us to be seen as part of a big research enterprise that is the University. We also have a commitment to public service — we have a pro bono requirement and our students routinely exceed the minimum hours we require. Our involvement with the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships reflects our commitment to public service, to public interest law, and that is all about civic engagement, so I see us being well aligned with the University’s goals in that respect.
In terms of our educational program, we’re trying to find ways to integrate our non-JD coursework into other programs. A great example is that we’re working with the School of Nursing and Health Professions to create a master’s program there that integrates courses in legal compliance so nurses can graduate not only with nursing skills but a specialized knowledge in legal compliance. We’ve also got law school programs like an MLS in higher education compliance which are offered in tandem with faculty in other colleges.
There’s also our internationalization. I’m excited about that. We started a couple years ago with an LLM and something called a Global JD, one of the only programs in the country that allows students to bring in a year of their LLB coursework from abroad to apply to the requirements of a JD. With our new LLM initiative in Africa we have our eyes around the world now. The best part is that much of our future is still around the corner. I’m excited to see what opportunities present themselves.
This story was published in the summer 2017 issue of Drexel Quarterly.