Greg Bowman, who became the full-time dean of the West Virginia University College of Law on May 1, plans to continue the pace set by his predecessor, Joyce McConnell.
McConnell, Bowman said, led the school to see its highest national rankings, spearheaded the creation of one-of-a-kind educational opportunities and modernized classrooms during her time as dean.
After all, she was promoted to provost of WVU after heading the law school for seven years.
Bowman, who had worked with McConnell for six of those years, was named interim dean in June 2014, while the school conducted a nationwide search for McConnell’s replacement.
On April 30, the school announced that Bowman — who had served as associate dean for academic affairs and won a WVU Foundation award for outstanding teaching in 2013 — would be the best fit to replace her.
Earlier this week, McConnell and Bowman spoke with the Gazette-Mail about the challenges they faced during the past several years, along with the successes the school has had and their plans for the future.
“I came in very early on in Joyce’s tenure,” Bowman said. “I saw the law school truly surge ahead, and it really was a matter of Joyce being a visionary and energetic leader, able to lead and guide the school and faculty forward in a collective fashion. It was a joy to be a part of that.
“I’m very excited to be able to step in and serve as Joyce’s successor — it’s an incredible honor. There’s so many good things now that she started that we will continue to move forward and up,” Bowman said.
In 2010, two years after McConnell took over as dean, the school cracked the Top 100 list with a spot at 93 on U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings. It has remained in the top 100 ever since.
WVU has seen quite a bit of movement in the rankings over the years. The report ranks the 100 best schools, and the rest are categorized as third and fourth-tier schools. The report previously ranked all schools as first through fourth tiers, until about 2010.
In 2002, WVU’s law school fell from second-tier status and fell again in 2006 to fourth tier. In 2008, it ranked as a third-tier school.
The school is ranked 94th this year — tied with eight other schools. Last year, it was 83rd.
While Bowman and McConnell say the rankings are important, they stress that they must be taken with a grain of salt — especially because some schools at the top of the list will never change.
“I always said to the faculty, we couldn’t make decisions that were purely based on changing rankings,” McConnell said.
“You cannot chase rankings,” Bowman agreed. “We have to be aware of them, we have to understand how they impact the school, but what’s most important is to do what is best for the state and the students and the legal profession.”
Focusing on student achievement, while keeping in mind what WVU’s law school means for the state — as it is West Virginia’s sole law school — is what McConnell says has been the key to success.
Not long after McConnell was named dean, the stock market crashed and the money that private schools used for scholarships began to disappear. What was happening at private law schools across the country at the time became what people heard about law schools as a whole, according to McConnell.
“There was bad press around legal education because of the indebtedness of private law schools. Enrollment began to decline,” McConnell said. “We really made a commitment as a law school to really re-imagine who we are and what kind of legal education we wanted to offer.
“This college is responsible for almost all of the circuit court judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, federal judges [in the state] . . . they are all graduates of the WVU College of Law. We take very seriously our role in the state.”
McConnell moved quickly after becoming dean, she said, to expand the school’s clinical programs, which gives students real-world experience and allows them to provide services to West Virginia residents while being supervised by faculty members.
Several of the clinics allow students to work with low-income West Virginians who can’t otherwise afford a lawyer, while several clinics pair students with other schools within the university to offer legal services. For example, she said, a student studying business might need legal advice on aspects of their work.
“I would put our clinical law programs up against any in the country,” McConnell said.
Bowman agreed and added that the clinics at the college provide “service and education all rolled up into one.”
“It’s such an important component of the law school. We are providing our law students the opportunity to think more about things they might want to do in the future by providing education and service at the same time,” he said.
The college has also focused immensely on and expanded its international programs.
“We are preparing our students to go anywhere — anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world,” McConnell said.
The clinics, the school’s devotion to international law, along with modernizing equipment and updating facilities and creating smaller class sizes, have all helped raise the school’s profile, McConnell said. Those things, in turn, they said, have helped hold the school’s place in the Top 100 rankings.
Since 2008, the school has raised $40 million from alumni and other supporters, according to McConnell. The money has gone toward a new wing at the school and renovations to existing facilities.
A section of the school is now designed to look like a law firm, with a waiting room for clients, conference rooms and private offices.
There is a state-of-the-art courtroom, new teaching classrooms and the entire library is being redesigned, McConnell said.
“It continues to be a really exciting time at the law school,” Bowman said.
Schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford will always be on the top of the list, because of their reputations, McConnell and Bowman said, but WVU’s law school will continue to make itself stand out.
“Unlike Harvard and Yale, which always will have a national reputation, we have to work to make sure people understand exactly what WVU does,” McConnell said. “Both Greg and I have worked very hard to raise our national profile.”
Bowman said he’s vowed to continue that work.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com, 304-348-1723 or @KateLWhite on Twitter.