Q&A: Nell Jessup Newton reflects on her tenure as dean

Author: Notre Dame Law School

Nellnewton Blsa2018

Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law Nell Jessup Newton will conclude her tenure as dean of Notre Dame Law School on June 30, 2019, after 10 years of service.

Newton assumed the deanship at the beginning of a recession that resulted in diminishing job prospects for law school graduates across the country and a concomitant serious downturn in applications to law schools. Despite these challenges, Notre Dame Law School is thriving, and continues to attract outstanding students and faculty.

She recently reflected on her time as dean by answering a few questions for the 2018 issue of Notre Dame Lawyer magazine.

A decade of highlights

During Nell Jessup Newton’s 10 years as dean, Notre Dame Law School:

What was your relationship with Notre Dame before you became the Law School’s dean?

My brother Rob Mier attended ND on a Navy ROTC scholarship. For a Catholic family of very limited means, attending college was a dream and going to Notre Dame seemed an impossible dream. His great grades and activities at St. Louis U. High resulted in him being admitted, and the Navy made the dream come true. I still remember the long, detailed letter my brother sent me about his first football weekend — the rallies, bonfires, shenanigans, and a blow-by-blow recap of the game. While at ND, Rob founded the ND Rugby Club and served as its first captain. He remains beloved by many of the early players who keep me on their email lists and still occasionally drop by my office to visit. Rob saved enough money to pay for me to come to his commencement, and I will always treasure the moment of seeing the campus for the first time and even meeting Father Ted. These memories are even more tender because Rob died in 1995 of lymphoma caused by his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Still, I feel his presence at the oddest moments while walking around campus.

You make it a point to walk at least 10,000 steps each day. Aside from the health benefits, why do you always make time to take daily walks?

I am a reformed marathon runner, so walking is important for my mental as well as physical health. It’s a great way to encounter students on my way through the Commons or through the library on my way outside. I’m a strong believer in serendipity and these encounters often lead to conversations and connections that yield important insights. Getting my steps in also leads me to walk to colleagues' offices to address questions instead of sending emails that can be misread or cause the kind of confusion that leads to follow-up emails. A walk around the lakes or to the Grotto can provide a moment to be grateful for all the ways that the Notre Dame community has enriched my spiritual and intellectual life.

You continued to teach while serving as dean. You taught the 1L course in contract law twice and more recently supervised and taught in the D.C. semester externship program. What do you love about teaching?

As any 1L professor will tell you, it is a special joy watching students develop in ability and confidence throughout the semester and then following them during the remainder of their time in law school — not to mention keeping up with some of them long afterwards. Through this relationship I learn more about their hopes and fears with regard to their law school experience. This knowledge made me a better teacher and, I believe, a better dean.

One of your areas of focus as dean has been on innovation and adopting new technology. How has technology changed legal education and the practice of law?

I strongly believe that law graduates should have an understanding of the ways in which technology is used in law practice and how it is lessening or even eliminating the need for attorneys to undertake certain repetitive tasks. We offered an innovative course, Law 2.0, designed to teach just that. We also created a program of study in intellectual property and technology law and generally expanded the curriculum and faculty in IP. I am particularly proud of our IP and Entrepreneurship Clinic. It has done great work securing patents for innovators at Notre Dame and working closely with student entrepreneurs, including the award-winning Law School team that created Impowerus, which is an online platform that connects juvenile immigrants with pro bono attorneys. In the classroom, we introduced Zoom technology to enable students studying in one of our off-site programs in Chicago, D.C., or London, to participate actively in South Bend-based courses, and vice versa.

What are you looking forward to next?

Next fall, I plan to take the first of two fall semester sabbaticals. I plan to spend the sabbatical in London at our London Program, and though I won’t be teaching, I will be developing a robust externship program for our London students. I would be lying if I did not admit I also plan to go to the theater and take advantage of all that London has to offer. In the spring semester, I will officially return to work and will be teaching our D.C. externship seminar, visiting placements and placement supervisors, and trouble-shooting with the students. I plan also to begin retooling the courses that I will be teaching when I return to South Bend.