The legal profession is popular. It’s portrayed in film and television more than any other profession. Yet, in spite of this popularity, law schools nationally are having a bit of a problem: The number of applicants is declining.
Along with the obvious financial burden of higher education, an oversaturated professional legal market makes employment and earning prospects look grim to a prospective law student — particularly one whose vision of a legal career follows a familiar law school/law firm/big case/big money/partner formula.
Lee Fisher is assuming a new post as dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in the midst of this challenging moment. His decidedly uncommon career path with the law makes him uniquely suited to meet that challenge.
Private v. Public v. Nonprofit
In the few years after graduating from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 1976, Fisher’s career started on a traditional path in the private sector with the renowned law firm Hahn Loeser Parks. Then, in 1980, he was elected into the Ohio House of Representatives, starting a new career path in the public sector, followed by an eight-year run as an Ohio State Senator then four years as Ohio’s Attorney General. After serving as the Attorney General, Fisher became president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children. During this time, he earned his master’s degree in nonprofit organization in 2004. He was elected for a four-year term as Lieutenant Governor with Governor Ted Strickland in 2006. He also served as the director of the Ohio Department of Development while serving as Lieutenant Governor.
“I’ve used my law degree in every position I’ve held,” Fisher notes upon looking back on his career. Perhaps more than any other post-graduate degree, a law degree brings a versatility that can be applied almost anywhere. “In all cases, my law degree was instrumental in helping me solve problems and develop strategic plans. If I had not gone to law school, I don’t think I could have had whatever success I’ve been able to have in those different careers.”
As the newly minted dean of Cleveland-Marshall, Fisher recognizes the challenges prospective law students face within the job market. While a career as a trial attorney or litigator can bring excitement, drama and — in some cases — a big check, it’s just one of the countless ways in which a law degree can be useful. “It can be used to analyze, persuade, advocate,” says Fisher. “It’s not just about practicing law. There are more and more people getting law degrees who choose either to practice for a while and move on to something else, or not to practice at all.”
Essentially, whether one chooses to practice law or not, a law degree, unlike almost any other graduate degree, empowers someone with a set of communication and reasoning skills that are valuable on almost any professional path.
Fisher asserts that though most of Cleveland-Marshall’s students go on to practice law, the number of applicants solely interested in practicing law has declined. He’s quick to point out, however, “If you want to use your degree for a multiple set of careers, applications have remained steady.”
The Old Curriculum v. New Circumstances
When distinguishing between the law school experience during his days as a student and now, Fisher notices a distinct sense of collaboration among students now more than ever. Law school has always been competitive. “It’s not Kumbaya,” he says. But these days, there’s often more collaboration between students than there is competition, even within the traditional study groups. “That’s not quite the way it was when I went to law school.”
Another obvious difference between then and now is technology, and Fisher can’t stress its importance strongly enough. “No matter what career you choose, technology has changed the legal market.” A law student who doesn’t know how to use technology extremely well to do research and to solve problems “will not end up being a very successful lawyer,” he says, underscoring Cleveland-Marshall’s emphasis on the importance of technology and how it applies to the law.
To support these emerging dynamics, Cleveland-Marshall boasts a beautiful learning commons area in the library that is among the best in the country, expressly designed to encourage collaboration and exploit the latest technologies.
Fisher’s single biggest challenge as the new dean is to be able to raise enough funds to offer students financial scholarships. “Students deciding between two or more similarly ranked schools will likely choose the one that offers the biggest scholarship. Cleveland-Marshall has to stay competitive in that market,” he says. Fisher will be spending a great deal of time and energy raising money to ensure that Cleveland-Marshall can do exactly that and remain attractive to the emerging talent pool.
Cleveland-Marshall v. Cleveland
During his years in the nonprofit sector, Fisher spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what makes cities successful. He learned that the single greatest way to make your city successful is to attract and retain talent. “If you’re producing graduates who move to other cities, you’re exporting your talent dividend,” he says.
The vast majority of Cleveland-Marshall graduates remain in Ohio, with most in Northeast Ohio and many in Cleveland. Many students from other states fall in love with Cleveland and stay, only strengthening Cleveland-Marshall’s strong ties to the local, regional and statewide legal community.
When giving advice to anyone starting out with a law degree, he champions an idea he’s written about in this very magazine by encouraging young people to find a way to work in the private, public and nonprofit sectors by the end of his or her career.
“There’s something special about being at the intersection of those three sectors, because no one sector can solve the complex problems of society. When you are able to leverage the resources, teams and talents of all three sectors at the same time, magic happens,” Fisher explains.
As Fisher sees it, all the action is at the intersection of the public/private/nonprofit sectors and the intersection of generations, i.e. institutions of higher education. “You have young students, experienced professors, dedicated staff and all three sectors impacted by what we do.”
Good Lawyers v. Great Lawyers
To Fisher, the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer is one who can combine the law with one’s life experience and solve people’s problems. Whether through advocacy, persuasion, communication, counseling… “The lawyers who can solve people’s problems, change people’s lives and further a cause are the great lawyers,” he says.
Fisher sees more students embodying Cleveland-Marshall’s motto, which is “Learn Law. Live Justice.” “It’s not just about being a lawyer. It’s also about giving back to your community in your own way — to help those less fortunate, to advocate for social and economic justice.”
Cleveland-Marshall has produced graduates who have gone on to great renown in public service or the nonprofit arena: Congressman Louis Stokes, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, three of seven members of the Ohio Supreme Court, former Mayor Carl Stokes, current Mayor Frank G. Jackson and many others.
The new dean is proud to point out that Cleveland-Marshall’s students graduate with a social conscience on which many other law schools don’t focus.
Enjoyment v. Fulfillment
Fisher began as interim dean in June 2016, when the school was relatively quiet. He was enjoying the new job well enough. But when students and faculty returned for the fall term, he experienced a new level of fulfillment he hadn’t initially realized when he took the job. “Within 30 days after the students arrived, I knew this was where I wanted to be,” he says.
Under Fisher, a new tradition recently began at Cleveland-Marshal in which each admitted student receives a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the inside cover of the book, along with a personalized note from Fisher, is the student’s name, date of his or her admittance and blank fields for the date of graduation and date of passing the bar.
It’s worth noting that Fisher was an adjunct law professor at Cleveland-Marshall in 1978, a little more than a year after getting his own law degree. Since that year teaching law at Cleveland-Marshall, he’s taken his own law degree on a most impressive journey as a lawyer with a prestigious firm, as an Ohio State legislator, a Lieutenant Governor, a Attorney General and leader of several notable nonprofit organizations. On this side of that nearly 40-year journey, he’s back at Cleveland-Marshall as the dean. Looking back on his first fall term last year as interim dean, Fisher remembers: “When the students and the faculty arrived, this felt like the kind of place where I could spend the rest of my career,” he says.
That’s a win for Fisher and for Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.