More Law Students Interested in Public Service, Dean Theresa Beiner Says

More Law Students Interested in Public Service, Dean Theresa Beiner Says
Theresa Beiner (Jason Burt)

Theresa Beiner, during her first four years as dean, helped fund and start the law school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic & Pro Bono Services Center and successfully sought approval and funding for the school’s Center for Racial Justice & Criminal Justice Reform.

She teaches and researches employment discrimination, diversity in the judiciary, constitutional law and civil procedure. Bowen has awarded Beiner faculty excellence awards for scholarship and teaching.

She received a Juris Doctor in 1989 from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and earned a bachelor’s in 1986 from the University of Virginia.

Beiner is the first permanent female dean at the Bowen School of Law.

What are your top priorities as dean?

My top priorities include producing healthy, well-educated, thoughtful and culturally competent lawyers; creating an environment in which faculty, staff and students can help improve the legal system and increase justice and equity; and making certain that the law school has the resources to support its mission.

What trends have you noticed with law school applications?

Law school applications were up significantly during the pandemic and Trump administration. This year, applications and Law School Admission Test takers are down nationally. This is likely due to the availability of jobs and the lessening of the impact of the pandemic. This trend is likely to continue, given that there are fewer high school students going to undergraduate school. I have noticed that we have an increasing number of applicants who are interested in public service and in playing a role in improving our system of justice. 

What do you wish you had learned in law school?

I would have liked to have had an opportunity to practice law under the supervision of a faculty member while a law student. Bowen has seven legal clinics, an amazing externship program and judicial and prosecutorial practica. Bowen requires students to have a real practice experience prior to graduating. Although the law school I attended had legal clinics, there were not enough spaces for everyone who was interested.

What’s the law school doing to encourage diversity in the legal profession?

We have several pathway programs, including agreements with Philander Smith College, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to help bring underrepresented students into the law school community. We have a scholarship program for any student who comes to Bowen from an Arkansas historically Black college or university. Bowen also has an LSAT prep program run through our Center for Racial Justice & Criminal Justice Reform that is aimed at underrepresented students. We have started a partnership with the new Southwest High School here in Little Rock. Studies show that students think about law school early; we want to interest high school students in a legal education. Bowen’s dean of enrollment management also participates in many diversity fairs and visits historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions for student recruiting. 

What’s the future of the bar exam?

The National Conference of Bar Examiners is about to change the bar exam significantly. The NCBE is taking several subjects off the exam and will assess knowledge and skills holistically. These changes are still several years away, so we don’t really know what they will look like yet. One alternative to bar exams is allowing law schools to be the gatekeepers to practice. Wisconsin does with its in-state law schools, but at this point, the Arkansas Supreme Court, which sets our state’s admissions standards, has not shown any interest in shifting this responsibility to the in-state law schools.

What lessons did you learn from dealing with COVID at the law school? 

I learned that the law school’s students, faculty and staff are resilient and can adjust to difficult circumstances. I also learned that it’s important to check in with people — to not just assume they are doing OK if you haven’t heard from them.

You’ve been at the law school since 1994. What changes have you seen in legal education since then? 

Legal education has had changes. While Bowen has always emphasized skills-oriented training, most law schools teach using Socratic dialogue with little training in the types of skills graduates would need in legal practice. Now, the [American Bar Association], our accrediting agency, requires all students to have experiential learning opportunities — either through in-class simulations, clinical or extern opportunities. There’s also an increasing emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. Bowen has always made efforts to diversify its student population. The ABA now requires that “[a] law school shall provide training and education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism.” This is a good thing for the legal profession, future clients and the justice system. Finally, law schools are increasingly addressing student health and wellness. Bowen students have access to a gym and exercise classes.