UW News

October 8, 2009

Legal education is at a crossroads, and UW law school can be a leader, new dean says

One of the newest faces on campus is also the face of a new era in legal education. Kellye Testy, the UW School of Law Dean and James W. Mifflin University Professor of Law, is one of the top leaders across the country looking at how the law school curriculum needs to respond to match the rapidly changing demands facing legal practitioners.

“Legal education is at an important crossroads, one that more resembles the complexity of LaGuardia than a traditional town square,” Testy recently wrote, and she plans to lead the UW School of Law through this labyrinth to emerge as a national leader.

Growing up in the shadow of Indiana University, education became important to Testy, a first-generation college graduate.

“I’m not from a family of educated persons in a formal sense and my going to college was lucky — we just happened to live in Bloomington,” she said. “At Indiana, I fell in love with the whole university environment. I was compelled by education because it transforms so many lives and helps people achieve their dreams and be what society needs then to be.”

After her undergraduate days, Testy launched a successful career in business in Northern California. Her next step was law school — not a surprising choice given her love of language and the written word — and that’s the step that would lead her to Seattle.

Testy applied to only one law school — Indiana, of course — and as a first-year law student, she took a civil procedure class taught by David Skover, a professor visiting from the University of Puget Sound Law School. (The school is now at Seattle University.) Skover, the Frederic C. Tausend Professor of Law at SU, said when he first met Testy, he realized she had extraordinary talent and aptitude.

“Kellye’s performance in the classroom so far exceeded that of her classmates, I explained to her that I couldn’t call on her as often as she raised her hand, since her astute and thorough commentary left too few opportunities for other students to contribute.”

Reflecting on the advantages teaching in the Seattle metropolitan area would have vis-à-vis remaining in Bloomington, Skover recalled that he told Kellye: “Kiddo, I’ve got to get you out of here.” Skover returned to Seattle, but stayed in touch with Testy. When a faculty position opened on the SU faculty nearing the time of her graduation, Skover asked her to apply.

Testy was at a point where she was looking at several different paths. She had clerked for Judge Jesse E. Eschbach, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Her position at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, an internationally renowned corporate and tax law firm, could lead to a promising career. She had been offered, and was on the verge of accepting, a faculty position with a public university in the Midwest. But, in the end, it was the charm of Seattle that sealed her fate.

She woke up the morning of her interview to fog horns and walked down to Pike Place Market. “Indiana is a long way from any mountains or oceans. I absolutely fell in love with this city. I haven’t been a bit sorry I came.”

Once in Seattle, Testy moved quickly up the academic career ladder. She was tenured in six years and installed as the Patricia Wismer Professor of Law and promoted to associate dean in less than 10. Testy was hired as the dean of SU’s law school in 2005 and is widely credited for significantly increasing the school’s reputation, not just locally, but across the nation. Academics look to her as a resource and guide for legal education. The bar recognizes Testy’s many accomplishments. Members of the bench respect her leadership and national reputation.

That’s probably why joining the UW appeals to Testy, adding another chapter of challenges and exciting opportunities to her professional biography.

“The UW is wonderful. It is very much a culture of discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurial activity and I love all of those things,” said Testy. “That’s what’s great about being part of a great research university.”

A big research university does have its challenges, Testy points out, as does legal education.

“When you first hear the word ‘research’, you envision a scientist in a lab with a microscope saying, ‘Aha!’ But there’s so much more to it than that, just like in law,” she said. “People tend to think of law as a guy in a courtroom arguing. What’s often missing are the stories about why research or the rule of law is so important to society.”

So much of what society takes for granted — that contracts are enforced, property rights are respected, judges aren’t crooked, and there are remedies for people who have been wronged — is the result of how fundamental the rule of law is, she said.

“We need to tell that story better,” said Testy. Among her first-year priorities are finding and telling these stories about the UW’s law school, including student accomplishments, curriculum reform, faculty research, or program highlights. She also believes that the school’s vital role in the state of Washington is underappreciated. “The amount of public service this law school generates — between the work of its faculty, its law clinics, its students, and its alumni — is immense.”

“Our task is to make the whole more than a sum of its parts, to unify the law school around a common thread, then communicate that to the entire world,” she said, listing some of the UW law school’s strengths: Asian law, tax, global health, public service, Indian law, and law, technology and the arts. She then points out that there are many areas that could shine even brighter with a little work.

The other priority for Testy is the integration of curriculum, so it provides law students with a sensible progression during their legal education. “Theoretical, doctrinal, and skills courses (such as trial advocacy, the clinics, legal writing, and externships) need to be sequenced in a way that makes sense for a student’s professional development. Law schools across the country are doing better in adding skills courses, and the UW is way ahead of the curve on that, but there is still a lot we can do.”

“If we focus on building quality programs and excellence throughout the school, the rest, including reputation and resources, will take care of itself.”

Its clear great things will come with Testy at the helm of the law school. Skover, who readily admits he’s an “unabashed Kellye Testy fan” says here’s what UW can expect from her: fairness, integrity, respect of all, and high standards and expectations.

“If you trust her ability to lead and you listen carefully to her insights and assessments, the school will be much stronger for having had her as a dean.”