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Thirty-one years had passed since the last time I slipped into a graduation gown. Last Saturday afternoon, when I participated in the commencement exercises for the Brandeis School of Law’s Class of 2013, I marveled at how much things had changed since my own law class of 1982 graduated. My role was to introduce the commencement speaker, my longtime friend and colleague from The Courier-Journal, Howard Fineman. Howard is one of the nation’s leading journalists, having excelled in 30 years as a top political correspondent for Newsweek, as well as a political commentator on MSNBC. Now he is a pioneer in another field of journalism—online—as editorial director of the Huffington Post Media Group. I think he and I share an admiration for the law school where we were trained over three decades ago, and we’re not embarrassed to tell others about the advances it has made.

Two Great Influences

The University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law (the Brandeis name was added in 1997, during the school’s 151th anniversary year) is remarkable place, and it’s an overlooked treasure in our city. It was established on May 18, 1846, making it Kentucky’s oldest law school and, remarkably, America’s fifth longest in continuous operation. That achievement, in and of itself, deserves more attention. Certainly the fact that two of the nation’s greatest high court justices, Kentucky natives John M. Harlan and Louis D. Brandeis, took great interest in the school has been an advantage. Justice Brandeis not only left the law school his personal papers; he and his wife, Alice Goldmark Brandeis, chose for their ashes to be buried under the steps at the school’s entrance on Belknap Campus. Every first year law student cannot help but feel a spiritual kinship with the great Justice Brandeis by merely crossing the threshold. Justice Harlan, who was the author of the famous “separate but equal” dissent in Plessy vs. Ferguson, also donated his personal papers to UofL.

In the years since I graduated, major changes in legal education, and the stature of the law school, have occurred. As recently as a decade ago, Brandeis law school’s national ranking (according to U.S. News & World Report) hovered around the 100 mark. (There are 203 accredited law schools in the United States.) In a short period of time that ranking has improved substantially, advancing to the 68th position. Interim Dean Susan Duncan, herself a Brandeis graduate, warns against making too much of such rankings, but still, the benchmark is useful and encouraging.

The makeup of the student body has changed a lot in the last three decades, too. The class is much more diverse—geographically and ethnicallywhich has been a priority for the last four deans, beginning with Donald Burnett, continuing with Laura Rothstein, Jim Chen, and now with Susan Duncan. President James Ramsey, who has done so much to expand and improve the facilities and curriculum on Belknap Campus in general, has made the law school one of his priorities. And the results of that effort really show.

Community outreach is now part of the law school’s core mission. This is exciting in so many ways. The law clinic, according to the law school website, “represents clients in Emergency Protective Order hearings, divorce actions and housing cases.” Most clients are referred from the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, and other agencies also refer clients. In 2001, the Brandeis law school began a creative partnership with Central High School’s Law and Government Magnet Program. Students are able to attend moot court competitions and speaker events; they also make visits to the law school and participate in a legal writing competition. The goal is to develop at a young age future lawyers, and in the case of Central High, this means a particular effort to groom future African-American lawyers, whose numbers are growing but who remain underrepresented in the legal community.

An Impressive Class

The Class of 2013 performed more than 7,000 hours of public service. Each student is required to perform at least 30 hours; this class performed an average of over 60 hours per student. According to Dean Duncan, 20 graduates performed 50 or more hours, eight performed 100 or more hours, and three clocked in more than 400 hours. Then there was Ahmen Safeeullah, who performed 469.75 hours; Mr. Safeeulah received the Samuel Greenebaum award for his achievement.

One-third of the students in the Class of 2013 attended undergraduate school outside of Kentucky, another big change reflecting the fact that UofL is expanding its horizons to be much more than a training ground for the local bar.

A Period of Adversity

As I think about the law school’s remarkable advances, I am reminded of a brisk October morning in 1974 when I got a phone call on The Courier-Journal’s city desk from former Mayor Frank W. Burke, who was serving as chairman of a task force that was concerned with the future of the law school and the issue of accreditation. He asked me to come “quietly” to his office where he gave me a devastating report from the American Association of Law Schools, which cited numerous deficiencies with U of L’s venerable legal program. The facilities were inadequate; the administration relied too much on part-time instructors from the legal community, passage rates for the bar were disappointing. In short, it was a major wakeup call, not just for the university, which had entered the state system of higher education just four years before, but for the community that relied upon the law school to provide its supply of attorneys. If things didn’t change, accreditation could be lost.

Mayor Burke began over the next few years to keep me informed of the status of change at the school. He was an unbelievably committed alumnus and supporter, but most of his work has remained unheralded. At some point, UofL should give him a more substantial recognition. For those were difficult times throughout the university. A combination of a national recession in 1974 and the ongoing underfunding of UofL, only complicated matters. (There was a time when I was an undergraduate that the budget was so tight that junior professors were expected to clean the rest rooms.)

But times were about to improve. A young acting dean, Steven Smith, worked hard to make things better, and the next full-time dean, Harold Wren (a former naval officer), made even greater advances. A new wing, doubling the space and providing a handsome home for the law library and the Brandeis papers, opened. In the fall of 1977, I enrolled as a law student myself, and began four years of study, mostly at night. For me, as with most entering law students, it was a heady, sometimes scary experience. I made very close friends, got to know future leaders in the bar and on the bench, and gained a perspective on our nation’s laws that I think has served me well as an editorial writer and editor.

Like the law itself, there is a constant change in legal education. Clearly the University of Louisville is responding to those changes and adapting its law school curriculum, facilities and faculty to respond to all that. There remains much to do, and community support for Brandeis School of Law is imperative. But at this moment, I’m in a mood to celebrate what has been achieved, and to encourage the Class of 2013 to make all they can of their legal training.