Meeting the Moment

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

Five More Years: Speaking With Dean Mnookin at the Start of Her Second Term

Jennifer L. Mnookin was recently appointed to a second term as dean of UCLA Law. A faculty member since 2005 and dean since 2015, she is the Ralph and Shirley Shapiro Professor of Law, an expert in forensic evidence, the founder and faculty co-director of PULSE @ UCLA Law (the Program on Understanding Law, Science and Evidence) and a newly elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. On her watch, UCLA Law has solidified its position as the preeminent law school in Southern California and among the most esteemed in the nation. Here, she discusses the school’s many successes from her first five years as dean, lessons from living and learning during a pandemic, and her vision for the future.

What initiatives and accomplishments from your first five years as dean are you most proud of?

We have accomplished a great deal – and by “we,” I mean students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, usually in combination. Of our many successes, let me focus on three points of pride.

When I became dean, UCLA Law had excellent programs in areas including environmental law, business law, entertainment law, public interest law and critical race theory. But there were other important intellectual areas where we lacked infrastructure, even though we had tremendously talented faculty engaged there. So I’m proud that we’ve moved forward quite significantly in these important areas. Through the Promise Institute for Human Rights, the Criminal Justice Program, the new Center for Immigration Law and Policy, and our fledgling Institute for Technology, Law and Policy (run jointly with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering), we can make a genuine difference in critical policy areas and do even more to support student learning and opportunities. 

We have also grown our experiential program, a signature strength of ours for 50 years. We expanded our live-client offerings with innovative programs like our Immigrant Family Legal Clinic, Documentary Film Legal Clinic and Veterans Legal Clinic, among others. We’ve thereby expanded our students’ chances to gain real-world experience to become exemplary lawyers – and we’ve expanded the ways our school can meaningfully contribute to the greater community, underscoring our deep commitment to service. We have also increased our offerings in transactional and litigation skills and simulations – and under the A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy, our mock trial team just received the No. 1 ranking in the country! 

Finally, we have seen significant growth in donor support, highlighted by our great success in the recently ended Centennial Campaign, where we raised more than $181 million, far exceeding our ambitious goal. I cannot stress how important this is: As one of the “youngest” top law schools, with a focus on access to students from all walks of life, securing the resources to help us maintain (and further build) our high level of excellence is critical. Gifts allow us to recruit outstanding faculty, attract highly talented and diverse students, and build programs that address some of the day’s most vital issues. I have a deep appreciation for how our entire community has united to move our great institution forward. It’s that collective effort that makes me most proud.

Why has it been important to establish or grow so many new centers and institutes? 

The visibility and dynamism of our centers and institutes allow us to significantly increase our impact on important legal and policy debates and to provide focus, resources and an umbrella structure for our engagement. For example, while our work in international law and human rights has long been strong, the establishment of the Promise Institute in 2017 allowed us to significantly expand our footprint in the field: We’ve grown clinical offerings that allow students to do important human rights work; ramped up our collaborations with impactful global organizations; engaged in important research and policy initiatives; and brought incredible leaders from around the world to UCLA to engage with our community.

You have worked hard to expand access to the legal profession and to diversify UCLA Law’s student body. Why are these efforts so important? 

We are a public institution, and diversity substantially strengthens our school, just as it strengthens democracy and our system of justice. But the legal profession has a ways to go; the top echelon of lawyers still tilts white and male. We want to be a school with a truly diverse population, a place where all students feel included and where they can thrive and flourish while gaining the training they need to become effective and empathetic leaders. I’m particularly proud of our Achievement Fellows program. It provides full tuition for three years to high-achieving students who have faced significant personal, educational or socio-economic challenges. Our first cohort graduated last year, and they were amazing. I can’t wait to see what they will accomplish, and I’m proud that UCLA Law is a big part of their “stories.” At the same time, we can certainly do still more to promote diversity and anti-racism, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and our students to do precisely that.

Do you see any of the adaptations that we have made to persevere amid the COVID-19 pandemic becoming a permanent part of legal education or the UCLA Law experience? 

The crisis has required us to adapt quickly, and I am proud of the incredible efforts our faculty made to adjust their teaching methods and of how our students embraced learning at a distance. The good news is that we have learned that we can teach effectively and meaningfully through Zoom. Legal education depends on direct interaction between students and faculty, and among students, and it’s been remarkable and satisfying to see incredible learning happen in the remote environment. But there’s just no replacement for those serendipitous hallway conversations or the organic-back-and-forth of small groups having lunch in the courtyard. So when we can go back to in-person teaching – yes, we will be absolutely thrilled. But we have learned how to use technology to enhance our pedagogy. To give just one example, it’s a whole lot easier to bring in guest lecturers from far away to speak via Zoom, and that creates some enriching opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Same for alumni: Audiences for our “From the Front Lines” webinar series have been much larger than they would be for similar on-campus events – no one has to face L.A. traffic! 

What is your advice for lawyers who are starting their careers amid a severe economic crisis?

We are living through enormous uncertainty, and there’s no doubt that generates significant stress. As in any challenging market, it is important for students to be thoughtful about what they are looking for, work on their interviewing and networking skills, and seek out advice from mentors. Although I expect the job market to remain stronger than it was during the 2009 recession, I’d also note that having to do a little more soul-searching and active job seeking isn’t altogether bad. When the market is sizzling, students sometimes “fall into” positions that seem appealing but aren’t really good matches for their interests. When the market is a little softer, it invites applicants to think hard about what they are seeking and why – and perhaps thereby to land someplace more likely to be the right fit. At the same time, remember that your first opportunity won’t be your last. Don’t let the dream of the perfect opportunity distract you from the good opportunities before you. Instead, look for roles that connect you with great people whom you can learn from and who will invest in your professional development. And, last but not least, I hope that every UCLA Law alum and friend will hire BRUIN!