Uncommon Law

Sam Thompson, hard-charging dean of the University of Miami's law school, has high hopes, strong opinions, and a tendency to attract trouble

The dean's response is characteristic: "I made decisions that I am confident are the right decisions. Can some faculty members disagree with me? Absolutely they can disagree with me."

It was the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania that inspired Thompson in law school, and helped him transform himself from a lackadaisical student who preferred football to an avid scholar in one of the most arcane areas of law. "The teaching was at such a high level," Thompson recalls. "Those guys opened my eyes to something I had never seen before, to the intellectual spirit and a commitment to an intellectual enterprise that I had never been exposed to before. I remember my first day of class, I said I want to be a teacher -- just like that. It was just awesome, the level of professionalism."

The son of a clerk and a midlevel civilian manager in the Department of the Navy, Thompson was reared in a middle-class neighborhood in Steelton, a mill town about three miles from Harrisburg. His father was a graduate of Wilberforce University in Ohio, and his mother insisted that her son also attend college. He did, at Westchester State Teachers College, where he played varsity football.

A Philadelphia school hired him as a teacher in 1965. That same year, on a whim, Thompson made an appointment with an admissions officer at Penn's law school. The young teacher had an unspectacular academic record, and he hadn't even taken the Law School Aptitude Test. Nothing recommended him. But the admissions officer agreed to open the doors. Thompson considers his admission to be an early example of affirmative action.

"Had he turned me off and said there's no way someone from Westchester State could go to this school, I wouldn't have applied, and may not have thought about becoming a lawyer," Thompson muses. "I got a lucky break. I got a lucky break and I took advantage of it." His class of 180 included four black and four female students.

As an undergraduate Thompson had spent summers working for the U.S. Marine Corps as part of an accelerated officer-training program. He deferred his enlistment for a year during law school.

But the Vietnam War escalated, interrupting his studies. He worked mainly in logistics and supply -- far from napalm and machine guns. The loss of officers during the war accelerated his promotion to captain, which brought with it the military's unique lessons in leadership: "Marines are taught that you don't worry about the individual, you respect the rank. I think it gave me a real positive experience in my early adulthood that has carried forward."

By the time he returned, in 1968, ambition had seized him. He enrolled at Penn's respected Wharton School and earned a masters in business and applied economics in 1969. Two years later he also held a law degree from Penn, one of the best law schools in the nation. Thompson immediately got a job with the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

There he met a young lawyer, also an associate with the firm, who would become one of his closest friends and key professional contacts. At the office Christmas party in 1971, Thompson told Richard Hoskins he wanted to be a teacher. The next year, when Hoskins's alma mater, Northwestern University, searched for a tax instructor, Hoskins recommended Thompson. Northwestern hired him as an associate professor in 1973.

For the next 23 years the restless lawyer would alternate between academia and private practice. He helped the U.S Treasury Department's legal counsel prepare the 1976 tax reform bill. He also worked as a lobbyist on tax issues, counting the Chicago Board Options Exchange among his most important clients. "This energy of his also combines with an unquenchable curiosity," Hoskins observes today. "When he's being a lawyer, he's always wondering about the theoretical basis; when he's being a teacher, he's also wondering about the practical."

Working at the Treasury opened new opportunities for Thompson, and the University of Virginia offered him a tenured position in 1977. By that time his friend Hoskins had joined the prominent Chicago law firm Schiff Hardin & Waite. Eventually Hoskins's partners asked Thompson to head the firm's tax department in Chicago. Soon after he started that job, the dean of the UCLA law school began an eight-year recruitment campaign that finally paid off when Thompson joined the school's faculty in 1990.

During his four-year stint there, Thompson published three books and numerous academic articles. In 1993 UCLA students voted him professor of the year. But he was feeling restless again. Thompson's long-time associate Edwin Cohen, a widely respected tax lawyer, was teaching a course at the University of Miami when he learned that the school sought a dean.

After eight years, UM's law dean Mary Doyle had decided to step down. Cohen suggested Thompson. The hiring committee agreed to give him a try. Initially Thompson was reluctant; he had no love for academic politics, and even avoided faculty meetings.

But he was ready to take a job that had a greater impact on a broader range of people. "After having met with everyone, I went back to UCLA," he recounts. "That Monday morning I got a call from Andy Rier, who was president of the [UM] Student Bar Association. He said, 'Professor Thompson, I just want you to know that the students unanimously want you to come.' Then I said, What the heck? The students want me to do it."

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