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Taking Every Fork (in the Road)

Dan Filler

Upon graduating from law school at NYU, newly appointed Dean Dan Filler confronted the fork in the road familiar to all new JDs.

He chose the careful, eat-your-vegetables path designed to open a career’s worth of doors while retiring his student debt.  He clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and then joined the white-shoe firm, Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City, initially working on private financing of real estate transactions and structuring major deals, and later litigating on behalf of banks and other big clients that had lost a lot of money.  

“It wasn’t a perfect fit for me,” Filler said, noting that the words of his mentor Professor Tony Amsterdam, urging him to choose a path that traced his own passion, began to resonate.  

Filler rebooted his career strategy, embracing risk and honoring all of his dreams and ambitions, from practicing law to teaching and even performing as a comedian.

He applied for jobs that would jibe with his interests but faced skepticism from public defender organizations in New York that he shared their commitment to representing the indigent. He didn’t get a single interview. But with a former professor’s help, Filler made the case successfully with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. 

Filler moved to Philly and began working as an assistant public defender.  The job provided satisfying opportunities to represent needy clients, to develop theories of each case and to handle trial and appellate matters.  It wasn’t enough: Filler wanted to grow as a lawyer and to improve the organization.   So he wrote a 25-page training manual that would help the association prepare its young lawyers more effectively for preliminary hearings, motions and trial practice.

He also pursued a lifelong dream of performing in an improvisational comedy group, taking classes at Chicago’s hallowed Second City Theater and at Philadelphia’s ComedySportz.  Never having auditioned for a play, Filler lacked the confidence to try out. 

“I didn’t know which way ‘Stage Left’ was,” Filler recalled. “I was terrified that I’d look stupid.”

So along with several colleagues, Filler formed Next Line Comedy Theater, which performed every Friday night at the 60-seat Upstairs @ The Adrienne.

Four years after arriving in Philly, Filler learned that a new public defender organization was opening in the Bronx, and he became one of the first staff attorneys to get The Bronx Defenders started in 1997.

A year later, Filler pursued twin goals of teaching and research, and he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama School of Law, where he launched a Special Education Clinic.  The enterprise required Filler to learn about an area of the law in which he had zero experience in a state where he’d never practiced law, making it the ideal challenge for the budding professor.

“I had to network to find people who were players in Alabama and understood the landscape of special education,” Filler said.  “I wanted to add value to the community.”

Six years later, Filler launched a Death Penalty Clinic.  The move was controversial in Tuscaloosa, but the clinic’s work drew attention. Filler was tapped for an American Bar Association team that assessed the fairness and accuracy of the state’s death-penalty system.

Filler also published articles in journals including the Virginia Law Review and the Iowa Law Review that drew from disciplines like sociology and psychology as well as law.

“I love ideas,” Filler said.  “I enjoy engaging in research, exploring critical theory and learning something new about the world that I can share honestly with readers.”

But Filler was not enamored by the traditionalism at Alabama. In 2005, he learned that Drexel University was recruiting an inaugural faculty for a pioneering law school that would focus on creating a great experience for students. 

Guess which path he chose.