#LegalTechLives with Hari M. Osofsky, Dean of Penn State Law and the Penn State School of International Affairs, and Distinguished Professor of Law

Ava Chisling
February 8, 2018

Hari M. Osofsky is Dean of Penn State Law and the Penn State School of International Affairs and Distinguished Professor of Law, Professor of International Affairs, and Professor of Geography. In her leadership at the Pennsylvania State Univerisity, she is deeply committed to innovating in legal technology and preparing students to lead in a changing society. Dean Osofsky’s over 50 publications focus on improving governance and addressing injustice in energy and climate change regulation. She has received awards from both lawyers and geographers for her scholarship, mentoring, and leadership, and has collaborated extensively with business, government, and nonprofit leaders. Dean Osofsky received a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Oregon.

You are a relatively new Dean. Tell me about your journey to the post and what it means to you to take on the responsibility.

I decided back in my 20s that I only had two career goals: leaving the world a little better than I found it and doing work that felt meaningful. I have assessed every job since against those goals. I became interested in being a dean because of this moment of profound social change we are experiencing. Technology, globalization, and the need for cross-cutting knowledge are transforming legal practice, the need for legal information and services, and the way international affairs are conducted. Legal and international affairs education and research need to evolve to meet this challenge.

I am honored and humbled each day to serve in this leadership role at Penn State, and have never had more professional clarity that I am exactly where I’m meant to be doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. Penn State’s sense of community and collaborative interdisciplinary culture are the strongest I have ever experienced and are crucial to what we are building at Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs. I am so grateful for the warm welcome here.

You studied law at Yale and taught law at the Universities of Oregon and Minnesota, among others. What makes Penn State Law different from other law schools?

I think (and thought even before I became dean) Penn State Law is the highest potential law school in the country; Penn State Law is a young school at a very supportive leading public land grant university during a time of immense social change. Penn State received the ABA’s approval to separate its law schools three and a half years ago, and its last class of unified students graduated this spring. So, I am the very first dean of the fully-separated Penn State Law, as well as the dean of 10-year old School of International Affairs, on Penn State’s vibrant University Park campus.

I had the privilege of joining a law school that already had excellent faculty, staff, students, and programs. We are together exploring how we should innovate to provide legal education for a changing society, and in so doing, build the next great public law school. Our strategic initiatives aimed at achieving that goal include comprehensive mentoring that begins at admissions, a multi-facted technology initiative, and ambitious collaborations across Penn State. We also have the opportunity to hire a number of new faculty members in the coming years, which will only add to the dynamic intellectual culture and support our students.

This is a time of big change: the profession in changing, expectations from clients are changing, even the role of the lawyer him/herself is changing with more services being offered online, and so on. What do you see as your three biggest challenges at Penn State Law, in terms of making sure students are aware of and prepared for these fast-moving changes?

  • Innovating well is challenging. There are a lot of “unknown unknowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. We need to prepare our students not just for today’s changes, but to be able to lead tomorrow’s breakthroughs. I created a new Associate Dean of Technology and Innovation role to help us advance our technology initiative and understand the most innovative things taking place in legal education. Our aim is not to replicate, but to leapfrog — to the “next thing after the next thing,” a phrase the head of World Campus often uses.
  • Creating a culture of innovation is challenging. An extensive scholarly literature documents the importance of having tolerance for failure to achieving success. I talk with our community a lot about the concept of learning leadership. We all make mistakes, and the key question is how we respond to them. Are we resilient and how do we learn and improve? That culture is crucial to preparing our students for success.
  • Preparing students for a rapidly-changing marketplace is challenging. Law school graduates are increasingly using their degrees in new ways, as evidenced by the 14% growth in what are known as J.D. advantage jobs over the last few years (jobs in compliance, investment banking, consulting, tech, etc for which a law degree is helpful but not required). We need to work with students in an individualized way and provide them with strong mentoring to help them launch fulfilling careers.

Those are all important challenges for sure. As you tackle them, what do you hope to accomplish as Dean? What would you consider a slam-dunk absolute success?

I deeply believe in Penn State’s public land grant mission. A slam-dunk absolute success would involve serving our students and society in needed ways through what we build in the coming years.

I believe that law schools, as professional schools, have an ethical obligation to prepare their students to pass their licensing exam and launch fulfilling careers. We improved both bar passage and employment this year, including an over 92% bar passage rate nationally. I hope over the course of my deanship that our mentoring, career services, and innovative programs support our students even better.

Cutting-edge collaborative research and programs are also a crucial piece of what I hope to accomplish as dean. Law schools traditionally are not fully integrated into their universities. We have an opportunity at Penn State to create a model for integrative approaches because of the strengths of this university across so many disciplines and a culture and structure that supports making those connections.

Tell us how you see the role of technology in law schools today, both in terms of how students learn (access to technology, etc) and what students are taught (new research tools, e-discovery, impact of social media, etc.)

At Penn State Law, we have been asking that question and trying to construct programs that both teach students about emerging technology and use technology to innovate pedagogically. The Legal-Tech Virtual Lab particularly exemplifies this. We are partnering with a number of units around Penn State and hopefully ROSSand other companies to create a Lab that will (1) train law students in the technology they will face in practice; (2) expose students across Penn State to the legal issues surrounding emerging technology; and (3) develop innovative immersive learning experiences (e.g., crime scene, courtroom, power plant, etc). We are beginning by looking at artificial intelligence and machine learning, immersive technologies, and 3-D printing, but are open to the idea that there are technologies we are not imagining yet that the Lab might use. The virtual element of the Lab helps with this flexibility – a Lab can be a set of technologies rather than a physical place.

Our online efforts are similarly asking questions about how technology can help legal education innovate in how it serves society. We are partnering with World Campus, Penn State’s online campus, to create short, non-credit courses aimed at nonlawyers who want to know something about law, and to create legal courses for interdisciplinary masters programs. We are using the advanced distance learning technology in our building, designed to connect the two campuses of Penn State’s law schools’ pre-separation, to develop our Externships Everywhere program, in which students can go anywhere in the world and virtually connect to their externships class.

We also are modeling virtual conferencing in workshops and conferences we host, and exploring new international and corporate partnerships that this technology allows. The access to justice possibilities are also exciting; our Entrepreneur Assistance and Intellectual Property clinics, for example, are using this technology to serve rural clients.

“We are excited about using ROSS’s AI research tools at Penn State law, and hopefully beta testing new products in our Legal-Tech Virtual Lab. I think the company’s products, such as its new co-worker EVA, embodies some of the ways in which artificial intelligence can assist with legal research.”

In a related question, ROSS has recently partnered with Northwestern Law and others to bring AI research tools to the faculty. How do you see AI impacting law schools (and beyond).

AI is both a tool for legal practice, and a rapidly developing technology with legal implications. Law schools, lawyers, and non-lawyers interacting with this technology need to grapple with each of these aspects of AI.

Our Legal-Tech Virtual Lab and emerging partnership with ROSS aims to explore how to do this well. We are excited about using ROSS’s AI research tools at Penn State law, and hopefully beta testing new products in our Legal-Tech Virtual Lab. I think the company’s products, such as its new co-worker EVA, embodies some of the ways in which artificial intelligence can assist with legal research. By helping cite check a brief or search cases in a more nuanced way than current search engines, EVA can complement the work of lawyers and law professors and provide more people with access to legal research.

I also see the ways in which AI is increasingly being deployed by leading companies as raising a host of legal issues that we need to prepare our students to address. For example, the ability to search personal information or use data from wearables in more sophisticated ways raises important data privacy and security questions that we are just beginning to grapple with legally. We need to train our students to be leaders in engaging these complex issues.

Dean Hari Osofsky

Dean Hari Osofsky

Your background is quite varied, having studied geography, philosophy, etc. Tell me what you learned from your non-law education that helps you as Dean today.

It took me a while to decide that I was interested in being a law dean. I had to assess whether this role would meet my career goals of contributing to society. But as importantly, I also did not think I was qualified to be a dean because I had not served as an associate dean within a law school.

It turns out, though, that my interdisciplinary leadership and research experience at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere was really important preparation for the kind of dean that I am trying to be at Penn State. I started my geography Ph.D. at the University of Oregon when I was already an assistant professor in law, and finished just after reaching full professor at the University of Minnesota. I really struggled at first to talk about geography with lawyers and about law with geographers. They used words in different ways, and I had to figure out how to get to the concepts they had in common and integrate the ideas in ways that would communicate with both groups. This experience has helped me be more effective in bridging these kinds of differences in the interdisciplinary partnerships I’ve been working to build at Penn State.

In my view, we have an amazing opportunity at Penn State to integrate law and policy into how we address major societal challenges. It was important to me to meet with all of the other deans within six weeks of arriving, as well as participate in interdisciplinary leadership groups, to explore how we could build more systematic collaborations. We are building exciting partnerships in energy, security, health, technology, entrepreneurship, sports, and more, and also aiming to make Penn State the leading place in the country for Law, Policy, and Engineering. For example, our new Center for Energy Law and Policy will be the first in the country to draw from the full breadth of a major research university, with deans representing all of Penn State disciplines, most of its chancellors, and many other university leaders participating in the collaboration.

There are many different roles for lawyers these days: some become entrepreneurs in the legaltech space (like ROSS’s Andrew Arruda), others go on to code or enter the media, and so on. How do you see the role of the lawyer evolving?

This connects to the trends I was describing around J.D. Advantage jobs, but also what I am hearing from lawyers about the preparation needed for traditional legal jobs. They want lawyers with substantive knowledge to complement their legal knowledge, technology and business skills, and high emotional intelligence. And for the jobs that you are describing, law students need to graduate with skills beyond just the ability to analyze law and think like a lawyer.

The exciting challenge for law schools is how to make sure that we provide our students with core legal training, and also prepare them for the evolving roles that lawyers play in our society. I think we need to both create programs within law schools and use the interdisciplinary resources that the broader university provides.

Mentoring programs like the one we launched at Penn State Law are crucial because they can help connect students to people who have taken the path that they are aiming for in places that they want to work. All of our admitted students received mentors this year and I hired someone whose full-time job is to make sure this program serves our students well. As of 2016, the Penn State Alumni Association had 176,427 members. By tapping into the broader Penn State family, we can help our students develop fulfilling careers in a changing market in an individualized way.

Experiential learning (EL) became extremely popular in the past decade or so. How does Penn State handle EL? What program has had the most success?

Penn State Law provides experiential education through its very strong and innovative clinics, externships, practice-oriented courses, legal research and writing program, and extracurricular advocacy opportunities. I’m proud of the ways in which we’re innovating to enhance our students’ educational experience in all of these areas. For example, I already discussed our Externships Everywhere program, which uses technology to broaden student’s externships opportunities.

I am particularly excited about the fact that many of our clinics serve our clients better, and enhance our students’ learning experience, through interdisciplinary partnerships. For example, our Veterans and Service Members Legal Clinic collaborates with the College of Nursing to integrate legal and health support for veterans. Our Entrepreneur Assistance and Intellectual Property Clinics play a crucial role in Penn State’s university-wide Invent Penn State effort. Our Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic serves clients, and also plays a crucial outreach role on this campus and in the community.

Between schools, bar studies and training, how will we know students are being prepared for how law is practiced today and tomorrow?

The key is integrated partnerships and treating each student as an individual. For example, Penn State Law provides bar preparation that supplements the commercial courses our students take, and that combination has improved our bar passage rate significantly.

We need to work with and listen to legal employers so that we train our students in what they are actually looking for. It’s why I spend a lot of time listening to members of the bench and bar, but also leaders in a wide range of other fields. Especially with law students embarking on increasingly diverse careers, we need to partner with many types of clients they will be serving.

Partnerships with undergraduate educators are also crucial so that undergraduates understand the ways in which a law degree can open up career pathways. For example, we have developed partnerships with Commonwealth Campuses and with STEM-oriented Colleges at Penn State to enhance the advising that students receive.

Of these famous people, pick your favorite Penn State alumnus from the list below – and tell us why. And yes, you must pick only one.

  1. Gene Kelly
  2. Keegan Michael-Key
  3. Mark Parker (CEO Nike)
  4. Ty Burrell
  5. Lara Spencer
  6. Chewbaca

That is a tough one. The whole list is terrific and one of my favorite parts of being a dean at Penn State has been getting to meet our amazing alumni and hear their Penn State stories.

But if I have to choose one, especially in this context, I’d go with Mark Parker for the innovative way in which he is leading Nike. In his annual letter to shareholders this year, he said for example, “We know that external forces do not control our destiny – we do. That’s why, over the past year, we’ve reimagined our entire business – from design, to merchandising, to marketing – to serve every consumer completely.”

In this time of immense social change, imagining and reimagining is critical. That is certainly what we need to keep doing in education, and in particular, in legal and international affairs education.

And finally, the one question we ask everyone we interview: What is the one non-work related thing not yet invented you’d like right now?

This is a work one, but I would like someone to invent a more effective email management system than those currently available. So many people I know are drowning in email – it’s one of the parts of my job I struggle to get a handle on – and it seems like maybe artificial intelligence could be helpful in this arena.

On the non-work front, I’d love to have low-cost artificial skiing surfaces. I very much enjoyed competitive rowing and cross-country skiing before taking this job, and the lack of snow cover both in Minnesota and here in Pennsylvania has made skiing regularly difficult. My final year in Minnesota, a race that I was doing to raise money for a local bipartisan climate change effort ironically was canceled due to unseasonably warm weather ruining the course.

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.