Balancing Tradition ...

Balancing Tradition and Innovation in Legal Education | Dean Bobby Ahdieh

June 27, 2024 | by D. Todd Smith

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The legal world is undergoing a seismic shift. Technological advancements and a changing social landscape force the legal profession to adapt, but are law schools keeping pace? In this episode, Jody Sanders and Todd Smith visit with Dean Robert B. Ahdieh of Texas A&M Law School about the state of modern legal education and more. Dean Ahdieh shares his journey from New York City to Fort Worth, detailing his fascinating experiences in Russia and his unexpected foray into legal academia. The conversation explores Texas A&M Law’s impressive rise in national rankings, the school’s innovative approach to legal education, and the influence of Aggie culture. Dean Ahdieh also discusses the future of legal education in the context of rapidly evolving technologies like AI.

Our guest is Dean Bobby Ahdieh of the Texas A&M Law School here in Fort Worth. Dean Ahdieh, thank you so much for joining us.

Thanks so much for having me. It’s a great pleasure to be with you guys.

I think everyone is familiar with A&M but only a few of our Texas audiences are probably familiar with Texas A&M Law School. Tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are, your background, and how you got into law.

I was born and bred in New York City, far away from Fort Worth. Although I tell folks whenever a good Texan asks me after I’ve opened my mouth for 30 or 40 seconds, “Where are you from?” I will always immediately respond, “Texas.” They look at me suspiciously and they ask, “Where in Texas?” I’d say, “Northeast Texas.” After a long pause, I say, “Way northeast Texas, a little town called New York. A suburb of DFW is where I’m from.”

I grew up in New York City to immigrants. My parents immigrated to the United States from Iran, actually for education, my mother for medical school, for her residency, and my father for college and then graduate school. I grew up there and lived in Philadelphia for a time. I studied high school there, and then spent the bulk of my life in the Northeast, between Washington, DC, and Connecticut. I did spend some time overseas, including, oddly enough, becoming an expert in Russian law along the way.

I spent a bunch of time living in Russia in the middle there, a little bit elsewhere in the United States, in San Francisco, and some other places. The bulk of my life was there until I went to Emory Law School in 2000 as a faculty member. I finished law school. I clerked out in San Francisco on the Ninth Circuit for a judge by the name of Jim Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and then I was a litigator in Washington, D.C.

I came to law slightly circuitously. I went through most of my life thinking I would be a math, engineering kind of guy. By the time I was finishing high school and entering college, I had become interested in law, interested in something that correlates to math. It was a system of logical reasoning, organization, and problem-solving. When I realized how isolating math was as a subject of study, it was mostly you sitting alone in a room with a blackboard because I’m old so it’s chalkboards that we scribbled on. I realized that probably wasn’t my calling. Made the flip over to the law and then went from there.

I do want to talk for a minute about the Soviet Union thing, I think it’s super interesting. You met a few people whose names we may recognize. Do you want to talk about that experience a little bit?

The original base of it was in between high school and college. I knew that I would be in some version of the jobs that I have now, not to say a professor, but some professional sitting at a desk kind of thing. I thought, if there’s ever a window of time to do something different, it’s probably now. I’d also read my senior year of high school a book by a guy who had been the president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He was a labor economist and had a leave for a year while president.

He decided to spend the year spending three months working as a short order cook, three months working as a ditch digger, three months in some other manual, and two other manual jobs. Spent his twelve months on sabbatical. As president of the university, he’s a PhD, a member of the Federal Reserve Bank Board, etc., doing these jobs. He wrote a book called Blue Collar Journal that talks about this audience of folks who would never work in those jobs, and what it was like.

I decided to go and volunteer as a janitor for that year. I spent a year between high school and college volunteering as a janitor in Israel. I’m a Baha’i, if you’ve ever heard of the religion we belong to as the Baha’i faith and world headquarters are in Northern Israel. I went and worked as a janitor. I always said, not a celebrity janitor. This was cleaning toilets. It wasn’t fancy and on the tail end of that, it was right when the second wave and the larger wave of Refuseniks, Russian Jews who had been trapped in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev allowed them to leave.

Suddenly overnight, there were initially hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions of Russians were suddenly in Israel while I was living there. They were an incredibly fascinating bunch of people. Well-read, erudite, artistically minded, historically minded, and hyper-educated. I became fascinated by Russia at the end of that year. I went and I spent three months traveling around what was then still the Soviet Union.

By the time I arrived back for college, I knew I wanted to study it. I started studying the language, history, and politics, and in particular, became interested in legal reform issues. The process by which the Soviet Union, and ultimately then the independent republics were reforming their constitution and their Securities Law Systems, their Civil Justice Systems, and the like.

I was back and forth during college between Russia and the US and university. I ultimately wrote my senior thesis, which was then published as a book on Russian constitutional transition but the content of that book, because at the time everything was happening in real time, would be almost as if you were writing a book about the founding of the United States and its constitution in the 1780s, what would you do? You’d say, “Alexander Hamilton, what do you think?”

You go to Thomas Jefferson and say, “Do you get Madison or whoever?” “Do you agree?” “Yes.” My content was I interviewed initially and then ultimately worked for Gorbachev, interviewed Yeltsin, and interviewed various prime ministers and finance ministers. At the time, the leaders were in the privatization efforts. One funny story I’ll quickly tell is about some time ago when I was just a student. I was living in a room in the home of the IMF representative in Moscow.

We were sitting at dinner and I said to the family, “Excuse me, I have to go make a phone call.” I went into the kitchen, which is just near the dining room so they could hear me. I called up someone at home and I said, “Can I come see you tomorrow?” We set a time and whatever it was. I go back to the table and he says to me, “Wait, who did you just call?” I said, “You must know him. This is the Economic and Finance Minister that I just called at home.

He said, “How do you have his home phone number?” I said, “I met him at this conference and I said that I want to interview him for this research I’m doing on constitutional transition in Russia. He told me to call him tomorrow night and we’ll set a time for the next day. That’s why I called him.” He said, “I’ve been trying to get in and see him for the last three weeks and he’s not returning my call.” I respond, “Do you want me to go and call him back?” He goes, “No, I represent the International Monetary Fund. I’m not going to let a nineteen-year-old kid call the finance minister and say, “I got the IMF guy here. Can he come to see you too?” That was how I got immersed myself in Russia.

What an experience as a college-age kid. That’s incredible to live through history like that.

It was. There’s the expression chance that favors the prepared mind. I had done the work of I was studying Russian. I had done the work. I understood some of the politics, some of the history, and some other things. I did the work of showing up at these things and engaging them. We can only tell so many war stories, even for a bunch of appellate lawyers.

The way that I would have worked for Gorbachev was I met him on several occasions and I knew the staff. If you think of all the pictures of Gorbachev meeting with Reagan, in every picture, there was a short bald man with a mustache. Gorbachev’s translator, Pavel Palazhchenko. I am meeting him as well. I am in touch with him and others. This was after Gorbachev left office and is leading the Gorbachev Foundation.

I was in touch with him about coming to Moscow and doing my research while doing work for Gorbachev and the foundation as well. They keep saying, “Great, we’d love to have you, we’d love to have you.” They need to send me an invitation letter but they’re not taking the last step for me to be able to get a visa. I was at the time in college at Princeton, and I saw that Gorbachev was coming to speak at the University of Pennsylvania. I said, “I’ll go meet him there and talk to him directly.”

Again, this is my hubris and stupidity. He’s speaking to 4,000 people. How exactly did I think I was going to be like, “Hi, Gorby, what’s up?” I arrived there. It’s in an auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s a big round auditorium. You come to one end and the stage on the opposite end. I thought presumably he was backstage. I just have to go see him backstage. I ignore the people going to the auditorium.

I start to go down this hallway around the side and then I see a good Philly cop up ahead and I realize he’s not going to let me stroll by. I picked up my pace and as I got close, I started saying, “Where’s Pavel?” The guy goes, “What?” I said, “Where’s Pavel?” He goes, “Who’s Pavel?” I said, “His translator. We need to find him, where is he?” The cop replied, “I don’t know where he is.” I said, “Is he backstage?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I need to check.” He goes, “Go ahead.”

I passed policeman number one. I then broke into a little bit of a jog as I approached the next policeman, I started yelling, “Pavel, Pavel, where’s Pavel?” He goes, “Maybe backstage.” I said, “I’ll go check.” By the time I got backstage, it was dark as it was behind the curtain, and poor Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union, was standing there by himself with a clipboard.

He’s looking at his notes for the speech he is about to give. I ran up to him and I told him, “I want to work for you,” in Russian. He’s looking around thinking, “What kind of a country is this? No security, this random semi-terrorist-looking guy running up to me in broken Russian. He’s muttering about wanting to work for me.” I explained that I was a student.

He says, “Sure, I welcome you, just contact my staff.” I said, “I do. I’ve been in touch with the staff, but they haven’t sent me an invitation letter yet. Could you send me one?” He said, “Sure, just tell them.” I said, “But they’re not responding to that. Can you tell me your fax number?” Remember, this is a window into old age. There’s no email. The fancy people have got a fax machine on their desk. I want that number. The poor guy looks around thinking, “He may do me harm if I don’t.” He wrote down his fax number. A week later, I got my invitation letter and went to work for him.

That’s amazing. I’m picturing the nineteen-year-old you stepping up to world leaders like that. That is an amazing story.

It was an amazing time. I should say also, Jody, you may be too young. You were around, but it was amazing. Those who now say with the benefit of hindsight that they knew the Soviet Union was about to collapse, no one should fool themselves. No one had any idea that as quickly as it did, we would see this seismic transformation and the global order. It was an interesting time.

On the topic of seismic transformations and orders, let’s talk about Texas A&M Law School because I think a lot of our audience who are here in Texas probably until recently didn’t know Texas A&M had a law school. That’s because it didn’t exist. Can you give us a little history of the school and how things have gone over the last decade or so?

The law school originated quite some time ago. In the year 1989, it was established as DFW School of Law. Notably, I’ve never seen this in writing, but I’ve heard it from enough places that I think there’s truth to it that in the lawyerly vein, they initially announced that they were establishing the North Texas School of Law and received very quickly a cease and desist letter from the University of North Texas explaining that you would not be establishing.

Texas A&M Law: Texas A&M Law School originated now quite some time ago, in 1989. It was established as the DFW School of Law.

It became the DFW School of Law pretty quickly. I think for about 2 to 3 years, it lasted as a freestanding Texas Wesleyan University here in Fort Worth, then acquired the law school. It operates in many ways incredibly well. What I always say is, if I think about core values, as we call them at A&M, but the core values of A&M and then the fundamental orientation and values and priorities of Texas Wesleyan, it turns out it was a good fit.

Texas Wesleyan as a university thinks of itself as very much being about serving the needs of the community, connecting with the community, being organically intertwined with the local bench bar, etc. It turns out that’s very much in line with A&M’s perception of its land grant mission, which would say land, sea, and space grant mission to meet the needs of every Texan every day.

Texas A&M Law: Texas Wesleyan is about serving the community’s needs, connecting with the community, and being organically intertwined with the local bench bar, etc.

In many ways, it was a marriage notwithstanding very radically different institutions broadly, in some ways a very natural fit. It works very well at Texas Wesleyan Law School, although we then hit a point when after the great financial crisis, dramatic contraction in the number of law school applications, and much more pressure on scholarship students, it became financially an issue for Texas Wesleyan to sustain the law school.

It’s also the case that Texas Wesleyan recognizes the time that it needs to invest in its campus and frankly, it needs to invest in the surroundings of its campus in a significant way. On the other side of the ledger, meanwhile, A&M had been interested in acquiring a law school for, as I can trace it back at least 40 years. My guess is it goes back even further than that. That union was initiated by a bunch of folks, but among them, D. Kelly Sr. makes the connection of Texas Wesleyan to think about what to do with this law school.

On the one side of the ledger and then A&M in this search for a law school and conversation started I think in 2012. Maybe even 2011, but 2012 probably more so. In 2013, the actual transition happened, it became the Texas A&M Law School. Now again, I talked about the parallels, but also super different. Texas Wesleyan Small Liberal Arts College, A&M massive tier-one research university depending on the year, second or third largest university in the country, and is heavily research-focused.

There then ensues this substantial, unprecedented, probably the more accurate statement, investment initially in acquiring the law school, acquiring those, which I always described from the Fort Worth perspective as a massive win, win, win. Win for A&M in the sense that they got a law school. Win for Wesleyan in that they got these resources they then invested to great effect. You have to give them credit. Fred Slabach, former President, and now Emily Messer as President investing wisely in their campus, and in the surroundings in huge ways.

Huge win for Fort Worth and Tarrant County and the Metroplex generally in terms of the presence of this big pure one research university and what we’re seeing now with this campus they’re building. The last one I’ll say is in case there are any horned frogs in the room. I think a win for TCU as well. There had been a brief window of time when there was talk of TCU acquiring the law school for a variety of reasons, which we can talk about if you’re interested, but it didn’t happen.

What I have been publicly on record as saying is that had there been a TCU law school, I expect there would be no TCU medical school. I’m not sure where there would be a TCU stadium renovation. One way to think about it as well. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think that gravely underestimates how much A&M has invested in the law school to get it where it is. There was the initial acquisition, but not just the initial acquisition.

There was then a massive faculty hiring that we’ve done in the last ten years. We’ve hired more than 40 faculty to the law school. We will hire another 25 to 30, I expect, over the next 3, 4, or 5 years. That alone is a massive expense. We’ve also contracted the size of the student body to right-size it, to recognize that here’s what we think the market can absorb, at least for now.

We’ve invested heavily in programs and have become a leader in intellectual property, ADR, and a few other areas. A&M invested massively in law school, and then that has brought incredible results. We went from an unranked law school to now number two in the state of Texas, and frankly, number two by a pretty wide margin.

Number three is a good clip behind us, although the Longhorns don’t like to hear it. We’re continuing to close the gap in that ranking. It also shows up in the underlying measures of the highest bar passage rate in Texas, the highest at any law school in the last decade in Texas, highest employment rate the year before last in the country. This year, we fell to number two in the country in terms of the employment rate of the graduates.

Highest and incoming GPA of the students coming in. I give A&M credit for this in their almost monomaniacal focus. Now we have a law school, we want to make it a great school. They’ve been prepared to invest heavily in it and have built by every measure. The quality of students, quality of faculty, quality of staff, and quality of programs have built this law school. It’s created by Texas, but frankly, we’re 26 in the country now, and that will continue to rise. I expect we’ll be in the top 25 next year and we’ll continue from there. We will have here in Fort Worth a top 20 national law school within a few years. In Texas, we’ll have another one alongside you too.

That is an amazing art. I remember the days when A&M was attempting to work out a deal with South Texas College of Law in Houston, and that got torpedoed. Logistically and geographically, maybe it made a little more sense because of the proximity of College Station to Houston but as a native of Fort Worth and a TCU graduate, I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen. We’re seeing applicants in our firm here in Austin from A&M who are presenting themselves very well. You can’t help but notice as a lawyer, you watch the school climb in the rankings and the performance on the bar exam and so forth. It is extremely impressive.

I know it’s devil’s talk here in Texas because I wasn’t born here, I haven’t internalized the idea that because your football team beat my football team 42 years ago, I hate you. I still can’t wrap my head around that. What I tell folks is that I don’t think of myself or the school as competing with any other law school in Texas. We’re competing with the state of California. Why? Of the top ten law schools in the country, California has two and Texas has zero.

Top 20, California has 4 schools and Texas has 1. In the top 40, I think it is, California has 5 or 6 and we’ve got 2. That’s a problem. Long-term, if we are to feed the need of your firm, of Jody’s firm, of other firms in Texas, of the bench, in Texas, it is the case that a big and fast-growing state needs more. From my vantage, UT Law should get better and A&M Law will get better because we’re budgeting for it, but SMU, Baylor, Houston, Texas Tech, South Texas and so on should all get better as well.

That’s what’s good for the state of Texas. I can make a joke about a T-sip just as well as anybody because my contract says I have to make it at least once a day. If I’m being honest, the reality is that this is an exercise in adding value to the legal profession and the business community in Texas as a whole.

You see that when I think about what A&M’s presence does as much about the broader campus that A&M is building now in downtown Fort Worth as the law school. When I think about that, what I see is the opportunity to establish DFW as a hub for higher education. That’s not one institution. Even if you think of Boston, sure, you think of Harvard first, but it turns out if Harvard didn’t have MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Suffolk, Northeastern, and Tufts. I can keep going. There wouldn’t be Harvard.

Texas A&M Law: Establish DFW as a hub for higher education.

From my vantage, what I hope we see is that we make DFW this real Mecca, whatever you want to call it, for higher ed, so that companies all over the country say again, with all due respect to Austin, we’re going to go to DFW because we know that into perpetuity, whether it’s the line worker or it’s the double PhD. We can readily find the people that we need there in that community.

For any of our non-Texan audience, a charitable way to describe A&M is that it has a strong culture. Its hub is in College Station, which is about three-plus hours from Fort Worth. How do you bring and meld that strong A&M culture into Fort Worth and a campus that’s very far removed?

I like that. I want to note for the record as your lawyer, that was charitable. I’ll give a stronger version of it. Some universities have a sense of identity and even a physical place. A&M is not alone in that. Notre Dame has that. Few other universities have this strong sense of connection to the physical place that’s there. The way I’ll frame it is when I walked into the law school for the first time, this is now a little more than six years ago, to interview, I got slightly freaked out because I described it to someone shortly thereafter for A&M to accomplish what it wanted from the law school, it will be necessary to recruit as many Longhorns, Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, and so on.

Harvard grads and UCLA grads as it does Aggies. Far more proportionately. The A&M undergrads represent a small minority of our students. I worried that they would walk into this building and say, “My God, it is a shrine to the color maroon. These people are crazy. There’s no way I’m going to go to school here.” It turns out I was completely wrong. Not slightly wrong, completely wrong. The students who are most keen about that are the non-AGI undergrads. It’s the Longhorns, the Mustangs, the Bears, and the Horned Frog.

Why? They know that one of the benefits, there are other benefits too, but one of the benefits of plugging into the Aggie machine is, this Aggie network that you call someone and say, “I’m a fellow Aggie, I want a job.” They said, “Do you want a kidney with it?’ They worry that here we are 170 miles away from the mothership, graduate school rather than an undergrad, and no football stadium, at least an A&M football stadium in sight.

It’s law school. Am I going to get that same plugging into the network? They come into the building and they say, “These people are all in.” There were maybe 1 or 2 semesters over the last few years when we call the uptake of rings. The percentage of students who are eligible to get an Aggie ring was higher among law students than it was among undergraduates. That was a fluke. It’s not normal. Normally, it’s close, but it’s not higher normally.

What we managed to do is we’ve managed to maintain that connection by physical place and by connectivity. That matters partially for the network piece. If I’m being honest, it matters as much because again, as I mentioned earlier, these core values of A&M are respect, excellence, loyalty, leadership, integrity, and selfless service.

If I have to describe the characteristics of the guy or a woman that I want to hire as my lawyer, that’s a pretty damn good list. We have the students during orientation. They sign a 12th man jersey, all the incoming students. The idea is that they are making a contract with the core values of the university, but also those of the legal profession.

For me, the connectivity is we want them to be part of the Aggie network, but partially it’s we want to instill in them this idea that fundamentally, the law is a service profession. That’s the way we should, whether we are doing M&A work or we’re working in rural legal aid, the way we’re a service profession and those values of loyalty to your clients, to your employer.

Excellence in the work you do, playing a role of leadership, integrity in your values, your morals, your ethics, your sense of responsibility, and then a commitment to service. Those things are central to who our graduates are. It turns out that because A&M wears all that on their sleeve it helps to have that connection there.

You mentioned law school rankings and A&M’s rise in that. It’s been a long time since I shopped for law schools. As a legal employer, I’m generally familiar with them but when I’m looking at law school rankings, what’s it telling me? When you jump up ten spots, as a legal employer, what am I getting from that?

The first thing to say is that there’s the camp that says rankings are the bane of human existence. We should end them so and so forth. I say that you can find rankings of sofas. If we feel the need to rank sofas, I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue to ranking. I say, every Sunday, every good God-fearing Texan, Sunday afternoon goes online to figure out what a bunch of reporters around the country think about their football team.

Given that, I don’t think rankings are embedded in how we approach the world. I’m not in the camp of rankings are a bad thing. That said, of course, rankings can be better or worse. I’ll say the law school rankings have over time evolved in ways that make them better overall. Not perfect, but better in the sense that we’ve washed out some of what we have.

US News has pulled out some of how folks can lie. The room for misrepresentation has been contracted. They’ve pulled out factors that were not meaningful indicators of the quality of a school. There was a brief period when one piece of the ranking was how many chairs you have in your library.

My joke was we’re going to go and home people and buy 3000 folding chairs. I’m going to put them in a closet in the library and say we have 3000 chairs in our library. Anyway, we did not do that. I want you to know for the record. They have pulled out most of that stupidity. Now, the core of the law school rankings and other rankings for business schools and undergrads are different.

The core of the law school rankings is massive weight to success on the bar exam and to employment success. As a student, are those things that are worth considering? Sure. Seems very logical. What about as an employer? Sure, as an employer, the graduates of this school do well in the bar exam and are successful in terms of employment. Those are reasonably good indicators.

Now, are they reasonably good indicators that a school should say, “This kid is awesome, but they went to a school that is ranked 20.” “This kid is mediocre, but he went to a school that is ranked 18. We’re going to go with this one?” Of course not. No employer, at least an employer we are concerned with is thinking in those terms, but broadly that gives them some information.

What else goes into the mix? Quality of the students coming in the door. What was their LSAT score? What was the median LSAT score? What was the median undergrad GPA? Is it something that an employer should be interested in? Sure, because that tells you something about whether I should go X deep in the class or Y deep in the class in terms of recruiting.

If the median at school X is here and the median at school Y is here, it’s probably the case that I can go deeper in the class and still have better students than if I go to that same spot for this school. That’s wrong. They survey law school professors and then employers. That one is a little bit more. One way to say it is that Todd and Jody can come up with their assessment. Why do they need to rely on that?

For the least, the students, that’s not a bad indicator of what outside folks think about the different law schools. Those are some of the things and it’s changing. This past year, there were some small changes and in the prior year, there were pretty substantial changes that made it to the rankings. For A&M, I use A&M as the example because I’m the dean, mostly because it represents why rankings have a place.

It is the case that the quality of students at A&M Law School, forget about the person who didn’t even know A&M had a law school, but anybody who’s looking at the quality of A&M students and comparing them even 3 years ago, let alone 5, 10 or 15 years ago, is relying on bad information. If I say to the average lawyer that we’re a conservative bunch, me too, and so is the result. We’re pretty slow to reset our perceptions.

I see like wait a minute, this school is ranked here, and I thought it was much worse than the school ranked here. Maybe I ought to look a little more closely and it says it. A&M is an example of why I do think rankings have a place because they do allow a school that invests in quality students, invests in quality outcomes, invests in quality faculty to get credit for lack of a better word for that at a more expeditious pace than would be if we just said, “Eventually, lawyers will figure out that these students are better than they thought they were.” It’s a little bit of thought on it.

Texas A&M Law: A&M allows a school to invest in quality students, outcomes, and faculty to get credit at a more expeditious pace.

When Todd and I and probably you went to law school, it was not inexpensive, but it was not quite the financial undertaking that it is now. How do you make the case for law school? I guess who’s looking at law school now? Back when I went, some people maybe didn’t know what they were going to do, but you could get a law degree relatively inexpensively. It’s just not the case.

Many law schools are much more conscious of this and sensitive to it than you might imagine, or that the media would have you believe. I think schools both maintaining and restricting tuition increases, but also in being as generous as possible with scholarship assistance are keenly aware of this. The first thing I always tell people is to be careful about just looking at sticker prices because the overwhelming majority of students are not paying sticker prices. Overwhelming majority.

Now, why is that the case? That’s a product of unfortunate human psychology that it turns out if I tell you this piece of steak costs $3, you are less likely to buy it than if I say this piece of steak costs $30. That says more about the limitations of the human mind than it does about the business that’s selling you the steak. It’s just what we perceive. There is some disincentive for schools to price accurately. They do better to price at level X and then discounting.

Now that also allows more price discrimination. I want these students more, so I give them more of a scholarship. I want these students less, so I do some of it, but some of it is, and we’ve had schools. There are schools over time that have across the board reduced their tuition and five years later doubled their tuition because they realized that it made them look worse to the consumers.

They’re like, “This is a cheap school. I’m not going to go to the cheap school. I want to go to a good school.” There is a little bit of that at work, I would say. That’s piece number one. In piece number two, the variance is massively high. Within Texas, some schools are a third to a half the cost of other schools. I don’t say that as a statement of, therefore, go to the cheap school.

In some cases, paying full freight at the private school tuition level is exactly the right optimal choice but in a lot of cases, it’s not. It’s to go to the places. We’ve maintained our JD tuition. I think it’s now four years, maybe longer than we’ve held JD tuition constant because we recognize that there is this pressure and there are these concerns and worries. That’s against a base that’s a fraction of what you would find at private schools, whether in Texas or elsewhere.

Noting these differentials I think is important. The other thing I’d say is that it is the case that education is a valuable good. The way I always describe it, there’s a thing now that’s out there on Reddit of all things, which if you have had to read, I encourage you not to, the accessibility of human evolution. On Reddit, there’s this thing that says that you should try to get out of law school debt-free, which is an awesome concept.

On the other hand, if one of your children or my children came to me and said, “I’m going to buy my first house, but I don’t want to get a mortgage,” we would tell them, “That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Not because we’re pro debt, or we have stock in the bank, but because we know that it turns out that it’s a good investment to take to leverage some amount of debt to get a house that is in the right location, closer to your work, safer place, has adequate space for you and your family.

If that’s true of a house, it sure is true of an education. Unless you get really lucky, there’s no world in which your house is ever going to generate a tenth of the value of the return on investment that your education gets. I always say that with caution because you could extract the bumper sticker version of what I just said. It is, “Go pay the highest amount you possibly can.”

No, that’s stupid. Just as you shouldn’t with your house, your mortgage broker says to you, “You qualify for a $2.8 million mortgage.” If it’s just you and your spouse, don’t buy a $2.8 million. It doesn’t matter that you qualify for it. The same principle applies here. You don’t have to go buy the most expensive education. This is a broader political and sociological thing happening in the country and there is doubt about if higher education is valuable. Is it worth the investment?

Notably, every piece of data suggests it’s worth the investment. If you look at the negative numbers on higher ed, it’s almost entirely driven by people who get some college education, but never finish their degree. Once you finish your degree, the return on investment dwarfs the cost of your education. Even more so notable is when we see the overall top-line unemployment figures, always click through and look at the unemployment rate for people with and without a college degree.

Most of the decline in unemployment and most of the increases in unemployment are captured by folks without a degree. That’s a long way of getting out. I do think higher education generally and law school education continue to be a good investment, but you have to do it smartly. It shouldn’t be, “I love this school. They’re not giving me any scholarship and they’re a private school, but I’ve always loved them.”

You can love them. Love them from a distance though. Conversely, “I want to be in place X and it’s cheaper to be there, but I’ve always dreamed of being here. I know I want to end up in this location.” Weigh that in your analysis as well. Analysis is a helpful thing for all the Texas Law Schools, not just because the Texans, for the most part, want to stay, but because of the number of folks from all over the country who now want to practice in Texas. They want to practice in Texas, the logical place to go to law school is where in Texas.

I was going to ask a question about where your faculty is coming from and how you recruit faculty. You had the Texas Wesleyan Law School that A&M overtook. You weren’t starting from scratch exactly. What has been the approach? What would you credit as being the reasons for the overall success of the law school when it comes to recruiting faculty?

A couple of things I’d say about that. First, I think more than anything else. We talked about the numbers earlier. It’s more than 40 over 10 years, less than 10 years, and then another 25 or more to come in the next few years. I would say that overwhelmingly 90% to 95% of those are coming because they’re excited about the project.

They’re excited about the idea that they’re going to be part of building something that long after they’re out of the teaching business or out of the living business will be not just a going concern but a top-tier institution. I think good institutions of higher learning in the business of advancing human knowledge in two ways. One is through scholarship and policy reform. The second is through educating the next generation of lawyers and leaders and then others.

Texas A&M Law: Good institutions of higher learning are in the business of advancing human knowledge through scholarship and policy reform and educating the next generation of lawyers, leaders, and others.

The faculty who we’ve managed to recruit are folks who look at this and say, “I want to be part of building that. I’m excited about the work that I do as a teacher and as a scholar and as an influencing policy, shaping policy, and drafting amicus briefs for appellate lawyers. I want to be a part of building this institution.” That’s probably the secret sauce and has been the charm of that to the faculty that we’re recruiting.

Texas can create its challenges around politics and a whole range of other things, but I think a lot of faculty see Texas as a central player in the future of our country. The work you do, whether on the educational side, the teaching side, or the scholarly and policy side matters in Texas differently. My shorthand or bumper sticker version of it is I say, “There is no national problem that if we can solve it in Texas, we can’t solve it in the rest of the country.”

Also, there is no national problem that if we don’t solve it in Texas, we will be able to solve it in the rest of the country. From that vantage, if you’re interested in energy law and policy, if you’re interested in healthcare law and policy, if you’re interested in immigration law and policy, any of them, I can keep going. It’s probably the case that more impactful consequential things are being evaluated, assessed, and played out in Texas than I think anywhere else in the country, even the other big states.

I think that’s been helpful to us in terms of recruiting faculty as well. Those are probably the two biggest ones in terms of what’s made it. You also asked where they’re coming from. It’s all over the country. It is the case that there are folks who have some connection. I was just recruiting a faculty member yesterday who grew up in Arlington. She was excited about the possibilities in that regard and had others who had Texas connections.

Even those oftentimes have not been in Texas for 20 or 30 years and many of them have flown through the airport or been here to get a talk or something like that. That’s true likewise of our staff and our students as well increasingly. We’re bringing in students who look and say they want to be a part of what we call the Texas A&M miracle. In terms of the law school, but also the Texas Miracle more broadly. That’s not to say that it’s an unmitigated shiny object that there aren’t challenges and there aren’t issues, but it’s a hell of a project. Whether you like every aspect of it, some aspects of whatever in between.

I was also curious about clinical programs. You’ve got a wealth of lawyer talent for potential adjunct faculty there in Fort Worth. I was wondering if that was something that A&M Law School was taking advantage of.

The adjunct piece is huge and we’ve got great. We’ve got everything from federal judges to members of the local bar who are doing criminal defense work, who are serving as adjunct faculty. I always think of that as a little bit of the broader frame of it. For appellate lawyers in particular, I think this is a no-brainer, but for many others, I think they struggle with it more than they should. There’s this youth school that teaches theory or practical school.

If you go to a lawyer and they say to you, “I’m just a practical guy, I don’t understand all that theory stuff. It’s all too complicated for me. I make good photocopies. I know my fonts.” Don’t hire them. That is an incompetent lawyer. Turns out legal practice, and especially some areas, but broadly legal practice is about your ability to bounce back and forth between theory and practice. Translating that to the ground of what we do, starting with the adjunct faculty piece, to me it’s a no-brainer. I think it’s a reason why law schools in relatively larger metropolitan areas have an easier time of it.

It is because of the ease with which we can facilitate that the marriage of theory and practice is not greater, it’s exponentially greater. We’ve got a great set of adjunct faculty. We’ve got a great clinical program. We don’t have a very big student body, relatively small. About 125 folks in a class, which as there’s more demand for the students, given ranking and all these things, part of the struggle is big firm will say, “I want to hire five of your students.” I will say, “Go for two, not five.” You’re not going to find five, but two.

Given that size, the number of clinics we have is quite striking. We have 10, 11, or 12, depending on how you do the math, a large number of clinics, but even more notable than the number is. Most schools, most of the clinics are litigation clinics. 70%, or 80% are litigation and 10% to 30% are non litigation. From the beginning, our notion was we wanted the clinical program to be valuable across a wide swath of students.

We have clinics that are more transactional, more regulatory, and more negotiation-oriented to give that breadth of experience to the students. We then do the remaining externship piece. We have lots of in-house places, lots of nonprofits, lots of government agencies, and courts, and we’ve got externship placements.

We also have an externship program that allows students to go either to Austin for a semester or DC for a semester. The idea is those are mostly students interested in legislative, regulatory, and policy work. They spend that semester there, they do some coursework while also doing an externship. We’re also pretty good at what I think of as the simulation course.

A poor man’s version of it is that the professor is the partner of the law firm and then the 8, 9, or 10 kids in the class are associates. The partner comes in not uncommonly at the beginning of the semester with a box and says, “Here’s the case we’ve got and we’re going to spend the semester playing out that case.” That’s a hell of a good way to learn as well. We do that too.

That leads me to one more question I wanted to ask about, but I think this starts to answer it. What you just said. I’m not a big Reddit reader, but I know what you mean and your description of it. There are plenty of other sources online, Twitter, for example where you see this regular grousing on the part of lawyers and law students about, “Law school didn’t teach me how to be a practicing lawyer.” How does it approach trying to impart to its students the skills and abilities of what it takes to run a law practice or practice law in the real world?

I still have a little bit of a litigator in my soul. That has been a long time since I haven’t been in the courtroom. I’m going to respond with a litigator by pushing back first and then flipping to the “I agree with it.” The pushback slightly is this idea that people are graduating practice-ready is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

Nobody was ever practice-ready. None of us were practice-ready. No lawyer graduating 100 years ago was. It was not the case. The nature of legal practice is that you learn by doing in significant parts. They’re ready to learn how to practice or they’re not ready to learn. The idea is that they show up one day and say, “Go off and litigate this case,” you can do it, but you’ll lose. It’s not going to end well.

In one of my early oral arguments that I did in one of my summers, I drafted a brief and they told me, “Now, we want you to do the argument.” I looked at them and said, “Me?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “That’s insane. What are you talking about? I am incompetent to do this.” Their response was, “Bobby, there are two choices, either you do the argument or we default. Unless you think you’re going to be worse than default, then go ahead and do the argument.”

Nobody is practice-ready in that sense. That said, it is the case that programmatically you can do things to get students closer to that and more prepared to learn. Their learning curve and practice are steeper. We start with one piece of that, which is the content piece. What I tell people is that 50 or 60 years ago, even before our time, the notion is what law school does is that it teaches you what the law is. It teaches you how to think like a lawyer.

There’s no question. It is valuable to know what the law is, and it is valuable to think like a lawyer. Starting about 40 years ago or so, it turns out there are skills of being a good lawyer that we also need to teach. That’s when clinics become a thing. That’s when externships become a thing. That’s when an increasing number of adjunct professors becomes common, as other kinds of legal skills courses, cross-examination, appellate advocacy, etc. We teach those courses.

In the last 10 or 15 years, the interesting thing is that I tell people we’ve begun to build the third leg of that stool. That’s the non-legal skills of effective legal practice. That’s understanding the basics of accounting. That’s understanding a little bit about project management. That’s understanding a little about management generally, management of other people. That’s a little bit of understanding of the business of legal practice and what it looks like today.

A&M, legal education in general, has been adding more and more courses in that third leg of the stool, so that now a good student comes out, or a good law school comes out with, “I know what the law is, and I know how to think like a lawyer.” “I’ve got those legal skills, but I’ve also got those non-legal skills of being an effective lawyer as well.” It’s all three of those.

We try to be systematic about focusing on those and making sure that the students get them. If there’s any challenge in that, I don’t think it’s coming from the law schools, I think it’s coming from the nature of legal practice. Legal practice has now specialized in a way that was unheard of even when we graduated from law school. Let alone 20 or 30 years earlier.

When the CEO of the company called their lawyer in at the end of the day to have a scotch, they sat there for two hours. First, imagine now how much that would cost. A CEO of a Fortune 500 company can’t afford two hours with the managing partner, the name partner of Sullivan and Cromwell, or whatever else it is. They would just counsel them.

That lawyer was competent to counsel them because the nature of legal practice was broad and thin. Once you have securities regulation, tax practice, ERISA, and so on, that brilliant lawyer that we all fondly talked about in law school and look back on fondly would run out of things to say after two minutes because they took a class in ERISA twenty years earlier, they don’t remember what they learned in that.

In that sense, we should be careful about the illusion of practice readiness, but it is the case that schools should be, and employers should look for schools that prioritize all three of those tools. Not neglecting the third one either because it turns out today, any kid who wants it has access to clinics, externships, experiential learning courses, etc.

Not all schools are aggressive about that last prong. It turns out a lot of lawyers flail at least for the first few years, and sometimes even 10, 20 years into practice, because they don’t understand some of the basics of how to manage a complex case. How do I manage the attorney’s work? They struggle as a result.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about in terms of how legal education is handling it is something that we’ve talked about quite a bit on our show, and you really can’t open up a legal newspaper without reading about it, and that’s AI, artificial intelligence. I’m curious, is there a broader approach among legal educators on how to prepare their students to deal with AI in practice? Do you have any other comments about your own experience in that issue as dean of A&M?

I was just in San Francisco yesterday at an event, the American Law Institute, and the president of Microsoft was a lawyer, Brad Smith, the former general counsel who was speaking. This was the topic. The first thing I want to say is the speed with which it’s moving, even the person who two weeks ago said, “I’m really on top of this,” is not on top of it anymore. It’s evolving at such a rapid pace.

The good news is I think we are mostly past, not entirely, but mostly past the “robots are going to kill us” phase of the conversation. I always draw the analogy to when the recording VCR, not the VCR player, but the recording VCR became widely available when I was a kid. All the talk was no one will ever again make a movie. This is the death of art or even theater because someone will record it and then they can go distribute that recording, so why have a theater production? Why make a movie when someone can just steal it from you?

Needless to say, that is not what has happened in the ensuing 30 to 35 years. I think the same thing will be true here. I don’t think the robots are going to kill us. That said, what is striking about AI is if you look at the number of different sectors of the work we do as lawyers and otherwise, that it’s going to impact, it’s huge.

There are very few that are not going to impact. I do think it’s a structural shift. It’s just not a structural shift that necessarily ends with the end of humanity or whatever else is. One of the things that Brad said in his presentation yesterday was the way they are dealing with deep fakes, a technology that makes someone say something different. The way they’re dealing with it is they are trading programming AI to detect deep fakes because it turns out AI is better.

I leaned over and said, “See? This is how it starts. We’re releasing the robots. We’re building robots to fight the robots we created earlier. One day they’re going to say, ‘Wait, we’re all robots. Can’t we all get along and go kill them?’” At that moment I said to myself, “Maybe we’re all going to die.” What I would say is that as to schools, the analogy with schools is that we’ve moved past the, “Everyone is going to cheat and what are we going to do?”

We have to stop AI because students are going to cheat. They may cheat or they may not cheat, but either way, it is the reality that in practice today and in that same session, a judge was sitting by my side and he was talking about how he’s already using it in chambers to do first drafts of things, to call the record, all this stuff. It’s pervasive. We have to start teaching it.

I would say there are a few schools that are on the bleeding edge of that, maybe too much so in the sense that they’re getting out ahead of it and maybe teaching the kids incomplete or dated information, but there’s a charm to that. You’re trying it at A&M. It’s a slow process but we’re being a little more methodical in the sense that we want to make sure students are introduced to it, but we want to make sure that they’re more introduced to the frame of it than teaching them how to use this particular technology. That’s our competence.

Some of it depends on the law firm you show up at, depending on the chambers you’re in, they’re going to have very different technologies they’re using. That’s becoming more and more true because remember, we started with AI as the same chatbot does everything from writing me a poem so that someone will marry me, to writing me a brief that will win the case.

The idea is that there are no human beings that we would ask to do all of that. Why would we think of the computer? Now we’re evolving. It’s much more microcosm. It’s, “Here are all of my past materials. Using that material, I want you to produce this for me.” That’s going to look different at firm X versus firm Y versus court A and court B.

I think what we want to try and do is make sure students are ready to walk into that employer location and say, “Yes, I understand what this is. I understand broadly how to utilize it and how to up-utilize it. That’s the ethics side of it. Help me understand what you’re using with it so I can get up to speed.” Just specialization in any other area of practice.

It’s super interesting stuff. As we wrap up our tradition typically is to end with a tip or a war story. Normally, we let our guests pick what they want to tell but before we started recording, I requested a specific one from you. The reason is that our podcast started with a joke on Twitter. Here we are four years later, a hundred thousand plus downloads. You have a similar joke on a Twitter story that I hope you’ll share with us as we wrap up here.

I’m glad to share it. The backstory of this that’s important is to say that when I arrived in Texas six years ago, you could have exhausted my knowledge about almost everything Texas, which includes football, rodeos, and guns. All of these you could have exhausted in 20 to 30 seconds. I would have said all the words that I know about any of those things.

Much of my life over the last six years has consisted of a steep learning curve to understand what you do and don’t say at a football game. The difference between this kind of roping versus that kind of roping at a rodeo, etc. In the football context, very steep learning curve. Against the backdrop of that, the audience may know there’s a blog called Above the Law that reports on both legal practice and legal education news. Every year when the rankings come out, they post a story summarizing significant changes or whatever in the rankings.

This was two years ago. A&M jumped from 46 to 29 or maybe it was the prior, 56 to 49, whatever the number was, but it was a jump. When they reported on it, they said the way that Texas A&M Law School is rushing up the rankings, you would think that Trayveon Williams was doing the rushing. From what I just explained at the beginning, I have no clue who Trayveon Williams is. I go to Google and I type in Treveon Williams.

He was a young man who was at A&M a few years earlier, and now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. When he played, he held the rushing record for A&M and the SEC as well that year. Hence, the way they’re rushing up the rankings. I thought I was clever. I should also say when I got here, I knew nothing of social media. I think I vaguely had a Twitter account, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I’m not sure I knew how to access it. I became a dean and they told me this is an important part of being a dean today.

I don’t know. I thought that I was a clever boy, I could post things on Twitter. I went onto Twitter and posted, “Thank you to Above the Law for the outside-the-box thinking, Texas A&M Law School is proud to announce its newest faculty recruit, @TrayveonW.” I put a picture of him. I went away, came back, and picked up my phone again 3 or 4 hours later, and it turns out there’s a crazy number of likes, more than I had from everything I posted previously, been retweeted and liked, and whatever the heck you do on Twitter or X.

I began to scroll down to the comments and first, I came to a comment from a guy by the name of Dan Rodriguez, who’s the former dean at Northwestern Law School and very active on Twitter. He says, “Fellow law professors, see below where an actual NFL star responds to Bobby’s tweet. When I was a dean, I would send my faculty urgent messages and they would ignore me.” He ended by saying, “It’s now Texas A&M’s Law School’s world, the rest of us just live in it.” I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I scroll down to find another reply that says, “Wait, did I miss something?” Laughing emoji @TrayveonW.

I see this and I think to myself, “Oh my God, this guy is an NFL player, whatever. How jackass I am embarrassing him on Twitter.” I direct message him. He’s 24 or 25 years old. I said, “Dear Mr. Williams, I’m writing to apologize for my tweet. I intended to make a joke about the idea of you teaching an NIL course.” He responded and said, “That would be cool.” I was like, “Wait, what would be cool?” Lo and behold, three weeks later, I’m on Zoom with him, as well as a sports agent graduate of A&M who we are arranging for them to co-teach a class.

At some point in the conversation, I said, “Trayveon, you don’t have to show up for every class. It’s great. It’s novel that you’re doing this thing. You can show up 3, 4, or 5 times. It’s enough for the students.” He looked at me with all sincerity and he said, “But I’m the professor. How could I not show up for class?” I said, “Fine.” To drive the point home, he would fly up. He lives in Houston. He did say another thing. I’m sorry, one more piece. He said to me in that conversation, “Although if we go to the Super Bowl, that would conflict with one of the classes.” I said to him, “Trayveon, I think if you’re going to the Super Bowl, the students will be fine having a class rescheduled.” They will spend the rest of their lives saying, “Yes, my class got canceled once because my professor was playing in the Super Bowl.”

He came up to teach one of the classes, but he lost his luggage. The luggage didn’t arrive. He calls my assistant and says, “Jennifer, where can I buy a suit quickly? I need a suit.” Jennifer said, “Trayveon, you don’t have to teach in a suit. A lot of people don’t.” He said, “I’m a professor. I can’t not wear a suit.” He couldn’t even understand the idea. He went and found a suit and he showed up in a suit. He was great. The students loved it.

The notion of it was it was a class about NIL and we had a lawyer giving that perspective, but then we thought what a great idea that the students would get the perspective of the potential client. From the vantage of a client, how would you think about representing them in this? Not just for the graduates who are going to go practice NIL, but anytime you represent a client, I have had a class where the client was sitting right there and you can say to the client, “Is that what you would want? What would you have asked for? What do you want us to do in this situation?” It was great.

I’ll say one last piece for the novelty. Everyone picked it up, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, but CBS Sports ran a story about it. They recorded Trayveon in Kyle Field, walking into the stadium in slow motion with the walk-on music, and then scanning the stadium with the typed-in sounds of cheering, then they came to the law school library here in Fort Worth to record me. I came there, all the equipment was set up. I’m sitting, there’s a chair in the middle.

I said to this young assistant producer, “Do you need my walk-on music now or can I send it to you later?” He said, “What?” I said, “You need it now?” He goes, “I thought you would just sit in the chair.” I said, “No, but when I walk into the library.” The poor kid is freaked out. He called the producer and I said, “I’m kidding, dude. I don’t get to walk on music.” I didn’t get on CBS Sports as it was up.

What a great story and welcome to Texas.

No kidding.

Dean Ahdieh, this has been a treat. We’ve certainly enjoyed hearing about A&M Law School and all the things we’ve covered. Thank you so much for spending the time and visiting with us.

It was my pleasure. Thank you, guys, and thanks for doing this. What a great service you do for the profession and Texas. We’re grateful to you.

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