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

Thompson is late for his next appointment -- a student reception at the Hispanic National Bar Association convention, being held at the Fontainebleau Hilton -- but he makes no break in the conversation as he returns to his second-floor administrative suite from the law school courtyard. He hands a research aide his car keys as he walks past her. "I want you to drive," he says as he enters his own office to change clothes.

By the time the aide unlocks the passenger door of the black Buick Riviera, Thompson looks the part of a dean -- crisp white shirt, silk tie, brown wool suit. He settles comfortably into the leather passenger seat and almost immediately picks up the cellular phone.

Thompson's assignment at Schiff Hardin in Chicago had been to turn a moribund tax practice into a vibrant one, says his colleague Wayne McCoy, who still works at the firm. Thompson accomplished it by working long hours and relentlessly driving young lawyers to their limits. The trip to the Fontainebleau recalls that frenetic time. He murmurs directions to the aide who chauffeurs him, and at the same time dials an administrator to discuss the hiring of a new career-placement director.

The law school ranks among those in the so-called third tier, far below Harvard and Yale and the other top institutions, according to a U.S. News magazine survey published this past March. UM is also outranked by the University of Florida and more than twenty other public law schools in other states with lower tuition (Miami charges a whopping $20,712 in tuition; Florida charges $5212 the first year and $3862 each subsequent year).

The higher-ranked schools attract students with top grades and test scores, whom the large law firms cherry-pick for a shrinking number of entry-level positions. UM graduates even find it difficult to compete for local jobs as South Florida law firms also recruit from the top schools. According to the U.S. News survey, only about 80 percent of UM's students find positions within six months after law school. Thompson has promised to change that.

As a condition of his accepting the deanship in 1994, Thompson demanded that career services, which had been squeezed into a tiny office, be housed in an expansive suite. He pushed out two co-directors and replaced them with a director from the top-tier Georgetown University Law School. That director has already boosted the percentage of students who find jobs, but he was recently recruited by another university and is taking his top assistant with him, so the dean must hire new staff.

He has also tried to improve student morale, which had been notoriously low at the time he arrived. Thompson accelerated plans to enlarge and remodel the law student lounge. Glass now encases what was once a dark, dingy room. He also insisted on construction of a snack bar. Though the projects had been previously planned and some of the money raised, Thompson was able to bring them to completion quickly. "He's very much the manager, the chief executive officer type," says constitutional law professor D. Marvin Jones. "He talks about the DEC principle -- dignity, efficiency, and courtesy."

The dean met resistance when he undertook another project designed to boost student morale. He asked professors to submit student grades on time. Besides being an inconvenience, late grades can be an obstacle to students' job searches, a subject of considerable complaint by students. In January 1995, Thompson warned the faculty he would consider their punctuality when making annual salary decisions. He warned them a second time. Then last spring he docked professors $250 for each late grade. The faculty raged. Some criticized the timing, others balked at the idea.

"It wasn't a question of the timing of the warning as much as the preciseness of it," explains a tenured faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "My problem with all this is that it wasn't sufficiently textured. Bad conduct received the same punishment as less-bad conduct. The underlying notion that we have to turn our grades in on time is reasonable. A pretty substantial majority didn't think it was handled very well."

Thompson counters that the professors gave him no choice. "The faculty talks about my listening to them," he complains. "Here I am, a brand-new dean. Before I even get on the premises I ask the faculty members to get their grades in on time. What am I supposed to do, say, 'The faculty is going to ignore me, so I'm not going to do anything about it?' I'm a trustee for the students." His best defense for the new procedure is its effectiveness: "I've finally gotten the faculty's attention, because virtually all grades were on time this past semester."

The head of the law school's alumni association, Jay Martus, a Hollywood attorney, meets Thompson at the Fontainebleau. He's acting as a liaison between the dean and the Hispanic National Bar Association. The dean considers him one of the school's greatest supporters.

As the two men stroll through the kitschy corridors of the Fontainebleau, Martus reports on his fundraising progress. Donations from UM law graduates are on the low side. At the top twenty law schools about 27 percent of alumni annually give an average of roughly $245 each; at UM only sixteen percent contribute, and their average donation is $100.

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