The new president and dean of Brooklyn Law School discusses his passion for legal education and his vision for the school in the years ahead.
Michael T. Cahill returned to Brooklyn Law School July 1 as President, Joseph Crea Dean, and
Professor of Law, rejoining the school after bidding farewell three years earlier to become co-dean at Rutgers
Law School. Happily, for both Cahill and the Law School, the farewell was far from a goodbye; Dean Cahill
now leads the Law School where he was a faculty member for 13 years (2003–16), during which time he also
served as vice dean (2013–15) and as associate dean for academic affairs (2010–13).
Before entering academia, Dean Cahill was staff director and consultant, respectively, for major criminal code reform projects in the states of Illinois and Kentucky. He received his B.A. from Yale University and his J.D. and M.P.P. degrees from the University of Michigan. After graduating from law school, where he was a note editor for the Michigan Law Review, he served as a law clerk to Judge James B. Loken of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Although his scholarly work focuses primarily on criminal law, Dean Cahill also has written about health law and policy and taught Health Law as well as Property. He has coauthored three books with noted criminal-law scholar Professor Paul Robinson of University of Pennsylvania Law School, and published numerous articles in top law reviews.
Cahill became co-dean at Rutgers, in residence at its Camden location, just a year after Rutgers–Camden merged with its sister law school at Rutgers–Newark. Under his leadership, the unified Rutgers Law School made significant strides in improving student quality and diversity, enhancing alumni engagement, stabilizing revenue, and cementing a shared identity. Dean Cahill recently sat down with Brooklyn Law Notes to share his passion and vision for Brooklyn Law School in the years ahead.
What brought you back to Brooklyn
Many things, but I would emphasize two big ones: the people, and the energy. I have longstanding relationships with faculty, administrators, and alumni, including my former students. In addition to respecting these people as colleagues, I value many as friends, so I was eager to work with and be around them again.
And this Law School has a vitality that’s unusual. Not only does it draw energy from its urban setting, but many faculty and students live nearby, so they are a presence in the building, and there are daily opportunities to engage meaningfully with them.
What led you from your work
primarily in criminal law reform
Even as I entered law school, I thought that teaching would be exciting, interesting, engaging, and fulfilling work, and being a professor was my dream job. I tried to look for opportunities after law school that would eventually lead to a career in academia, but getting to this point was ultimately a combination of planning and luck.
What are your priorities for your first
year as dean?
First, I’m taking some time to get reacquainted with the people and the institution. I don’t want to take for granted my existing relationships with faculty, administrators, and alumni. I’d like to reengage with everyone, meet alumni I don’t know, and get to know better the faculty who’ve arrived since I was here previously.
Second, I’ve undertaken an administrative restructuring. Before I came on board, for example, there were around 15 people who reported directly to the dean, which I feel is too many to be efficient; we’re streamlining reporting lines around shared areas of concern, and that number will soon be down to eight. I want to solidify the new structure, and once strong organizational and managerial practices are in place, we’ll be in a position to tackle longer-term projects.
What are your top two long-term
priorities for the Law School?
My first priority is to explore different kinds of programs we can add to diversify our educational portfolio. As at most law schools, one degree program, the J.D., drives nearly all of our curriculum (and revenue). But unlike most law schools, we’re not part of a larger university that also offers a variety of other educational programs. Reliance on a single program has shortcomings as a business model; moreover, it neglects other exciting and interesting possibilities. Of course, we already have an LL.M. program for foreign-trained lawyers, which has great potential to grow, but there are many other avenues as well. We can pursue ways to offer our expertise to people who might not want to become lawyers, but who are interested in further education that will help them in a law-adjacent career—and in this day and age, legal concerns are relevant to nearly any professional setting.
The second priority for me is fundraising. We need a sustained effort to broaden the number of alumni who give, and to seek out significant gifts from donors who have the capacity to contribute on a large scale. We have a strong case to make: Supporting the scholars and teachers who are shaping our legal world and serving our community, and the students who will make up the next generation of ethical and dedicated lawyers to preserve our economic and political order and promote justice for all, is as worthwhile a philanthropic cause as I can imagine. We’ve had a number of generous benefactors in the past, but there are others whom we can inspire to start giving for the greater good of the school, our mission, our profession, and our society.
Where do you see Brooklyn Law
School’s role in online education?
I think we should explore some form of online education as well as other innovative ways to incorporate technology into legal education. Much of that effort also will intersect with offerings we can provide outside our J.D. programs. We must remain mindful when integrating technology into instruction that the law is an interactive profession, and we must enable students to speak, write, act, and interact as lawyers do—both in person and via technology. So, although portions of the J.D. program could perhaps take place online, there still would be an essential part that needs to be in residence.
What’s the best advice you’ve
received about leading a law school?
That, above all else, it’s about serving students—to ensure they get the training, the support, the encouragement, and the guidance they need to succeed.
Professor Emeritus Joseph Crea ’47
recently passed away at the age of
104. What does it mean to you to hold
the dean’s title in his honor?
I’m so thankful to have known Joe, and I spoke to him within 48 hours of accepting this position—to express my gratitude for having a title that included his name. He was completely devoted to teaching and helping his students and colleagues, and he also remained devoted to continuing to learn throughout his life. And, on our call, at the age of 104, he did most of the talking. Joe was an important person to me personally, and as important a person as there has been in the history of this Law School.
My title, in his honor, is also a significant reminder to me of the centrality of our faculty. I think it’s important to remain conscious that I hold three titles: president, dean, and professor of law. So, among other things, I still am a faculty member, just like my colleagues. And it’s still my dream job!
Considering the many law schools in
New York, why should a prospective
applicant choose Brooklyn?
Of course, Brooklyn itself is a reason to come here. In the public sector, as the only law school in the city’s most populous borough, we have our own set of courthouses, government offices, and agencies, all within walking distance. In the private sector, the borough of Brooklyn, even more than Manhattan, now leads the innovation economy in the city and, in turn, the U.S. And of course, it’s a cultural hub. Regardless of the kind of law you want to practice, this is a great place to live and work.
And Brooklyn Law School is a great place to study and grow. Although we’re a relatively big law school in a big city, we’re able to create the feeling of a small, close-knit community. We pride ourselves on training government and public interest lawyers, as well as business and private sector lawyers. So, no matter what area you want to pursue, our size, location, and breadth of curriculum make us well positioned to provide a legal education that’s tailored to your needs. The opportunities are as far-reaching as you could want, but you’re never lost in the crowd here, and you’ll get to know your classmates and professors.
How do you plan to build on the
Law School’s legacy and areas
Brooklyn Law School has always been a place that excels at preparing practice-ready lawyers, and it has always been a place of innovation. Our students benefit from a faculty of outstanding scholars who are nationally and internationally recognized for the excellence and impact of their work. In fact, in terms of how frequently their work is cited by other scholars, we are ranked as one of the top 40 schools in the nation. They bring this depth of expertise to the classroom and offer superb instruction in a variety of subject matter areas. We have tremendous opportunities to build on our faculty strength going forward.
Historically, we’ve been known for providing access to legal education, and, in turn, access to justice in the community, city, and region. We have long welcomed women when other schools did not. This year’s first-year class is 58 percent women. We have a long record of admitting students of color and members of religious minorities, dating back to the early 20th century. This year’s incoming class is 34 percent students of color. Our diversity and inclusiveness are a significant component of who we are.
We remain committed to these proud traditions. At the same time, we’re committed to doing even more and doing even better. We’re continuing to transform our skills-based and experiential education to meet the needs of the next generation of lawyers. We’re implementing the dramatic revision of our legal writing curriculum, which was led by my predecessor, Interim Dean Maryellen Fullerton, along with Legal Writing Director Heidi Brown. We’ll continue to expand our clinical offerings, not just in quantity but also in type, so we’re not only providing litigation experiences, but also opportunities to counsel clients, represent and advise businesses, and draft essential documents. We have a very exciting future ahead.
What are the biggest trends in the
legal profession affecting law schools
now, and how is Brooklyn Law School
We must provide students with quantitative skills: the ability to read, understand, and analyze complex aggregated data. Training lawyers who are comfortable with sophisticated statistical and computational models will be a crucial part of legal education, regardless of whether our students practice in business or other areas. Nowadays, successful professionals of all varieties, including lawyers, must both make and understand data-driven decisions, and they must also be able to translate numbers into compelling narratives and arguments. It’s a crucial part of the job for professionals with significant managerial roles.
How is the Law School positioned
to thrive in response to shifting
demographics and demand for
We need to stay ahead of the curve, because there’s no assurance that the recent positive trajectory will sustain itself. The long-term demographic trend starting five or six years from now is that there will be fewer college-age students, and accordingly, fewer recent college grads seeking to enter law school down the road. Meanwhile, the cohort of people in their late 20s to mid-30s will increase. Therefore, we need to provide a variety of educational opportunities for various kinds of professionals. And in turn, having other complementary programs will enable us to be deliberate, rather than reactive, in contemplating the future of the J.D. program and making sure it continues to deliver the skills, knowledge, and values essential to the practice of law in the 21st century.
Amid the 24/7 news cycle, political
turmoil, and social media, how can
students and lawyers uphold their
core ideals of character, fitness,
From what I see, this generation is as engaged and committed to confronting and overcoming social issues and injustices as any generation that has preceded it. For all of social media’s flaws, students are finding positive uses for these outlets and finding their voices. They see their own and our country’s problems as global in scope, and they want to solve those problems. It’s part of our role as legal educators to channel that passion while keeping it alive, and to remind our students daily about, and offer a model of, the honorable work that lawyers do and their true potential for making a difference in the world with their legal education.
—Interview conducted by Elaine Friedman