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Kellye Testy

President & CEO

Law School Admission Council (LSAC)

(incoming Executive Director & CEO)

Association of American Law Schools

Washington, DC

From summer associate to the most influential person in legal education

kellye updated

On becoming an academic directly from law school

On how to become an academic after being a practicing lawyer

On legal education being a foundation for many different careers

On what is the role of AALS

On the role of the Law School Admission Council

On technology and the justice gap

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

ex judicata: With us today is Kellye Testy.  She has served as president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council since 2017. She joined LASC after an eight-year term as the University of Washington School of Law’s first woman dean, prior to which she was a professor and dean at Seattle University School of Law, founding numerous programs at both schools while earning recognition as the nation’s second most influential leader in legal education, according to The National Jurist.

During her tenure at LSAC, Kellye has taught law and leadership and other courses at several law schools, including Indiana (Maurer), Villanova, Hawaii, and George Mason.  She will be moving this summer to become the executive director & CEO of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), which I am going to guess will make her the most influential leader in legal education in the US.  We are privileged to have Kellye with us today. Kellye, thank you for joining us.

Kellye Testy:  Neil, Thank you. It’s a pleasure and honor for me to be with you and to be able to talk about law.

ex judicata:  Kellye, why don’t we start by having you tell us about your role as President & CEO of the Law School Admission Council.  A lot of people

 know the name of the organization but may not be fully familiar with what LSAC does.

Kellye Testy:  It’s so true. I constantly meet people who are a little curious about what it is that I do. I’m happy to talk about it.  I’m just completing my seventh year as the president and CEO. It’s been a wonderful journey.  One of the things that LSAC is known for, and probably the thing people most do recognize, is the LSAT, the law school admission test.  So, we develop, administer, and score the LSAT.  But that’s just a small part of what we do.  I like to say that more than anything, we’re the chief cheerleader for legal education.  That is, helping students discover their journey, why they should go to law school and how to do it.  We’re active in opening the doors to the profession and encouraging people to think about law as a career.

ex judicata:  Which is of course, terrific.  Let’s go back, if we could, to your own personal journey?. Did you always want to be a lawyer growing up?

Kellye Testy:  No, I didn’t, Neil.  I’m a first-generation college grad in my family didn’t really know any lawyers other than those playing them on TV.  It wasn’t a pathway I set out to pursue.  In fact, growing up, you’ll laugh at this — I wanted to be a quarterback in the NFL. So, my sweet father broke the news to me one day that he thought I was maybe a little short to play that position.  But, concerning an undergraduate degree, I came to it through athletics.  I loved sports growing up and was lucky to grow up in the same town that Indiana University is in — Bloomington, Indiana.

ex judicata: Bobby Knight

Exactly. Bobby Knight.  He was an iconic figure.  I was a big basketball fan and my friends and I used to sneak into the gym at IU to play against the women’s team and try to get our own game better.  One of the team members at IU said ‘If you’re going to try out for the team you’ve got to be enrolled – are you? And I said, not exactly.  But I found my way to undergrad through athletics and was working as a sports reporter.

So, when the time came to check the box, what are you going to major in?  I picked journalism.  I enjoyed that.  But the real gift of it was I had a communications law class, and they sent us to the law library one day to find a case.  I still remember walking in and just being quite bowled over by the idea that all these stories were in these reporters.  I just felt at home in the law library and loved it instantly.  So that later sparked an interest in going to law school for me.

ex judicata:  What a wonderful story of how the law found you and vice versa.

In reviewing your background, it looks like you were on a traditional path to success as a practicing lawyer including clerking for a judge.  What did you do after your clerkship?

Kellye Testy:  I had worked for about five years in between undergrad and law school. I worked in marketing, public relations and sales.  So, when I started law school, I had a little bit more experience than students who had come to law school right from undergrad.  I like to note my experience here because some people feel like you should go to law school right away after college.  It’s okay to explore some other things for a while first.  In fact, in some cases I think it’s helpful to have a couple of years or more in between.  So, I really loved law school.  I did have the opportunity to clerk for a federal judge on the Seventh Circuit, right after law school.  And during the time I was a 3L and in the summers during law school, I worked for a wonderful firm in Chicago, Kirkland and Ellis. They were terrific.  I loved it.  I learned a lot.

I got an offer to go right into academics after law school.  I was very torn at the time because I enjoyed K&E but I did decide to go ahead and accept that offer from academia.  So, I went into teaching one year out of law school.  At the time I was younger than some of my evening students.

ex judicata:   Was that a tough economic decision, Kellye?  Because I would assume the salary at K&E was going to be a good deal better than teaching law school

Kellye Testy:  Yes I think my parents still look at me a little sideways over that decision, But at the time I didn’t have a full appreciation for that trade off when you choose academia over a law firm.  But again, being first generation, both paths looked terrific to me. A funny story.  I remember making a list of the pros and the cons and talking to my father about it.  I said, ‘You know, if I go to a law firm, I have to dress up all the time, like, wear suit.  And that really wasn’t me.  As a professor you can kind of wear what you want.  But then, lo and behold, I ended up becoming a dean where one does have to dress up most of the time.  It just goes to show you the way you think about things at one point in your life, can certainly change later.

ex judicata:  Absolutely. And that’s a large part of what we’re about here at ex judicata. Making a pivot out of practicing law when you determine you really would prefer to be doing something else.

When Kim and I are out talking to our marketplace, to lawyers that would like to make a pivot, teaching law school is brought up a fair amount of the time.  A way to keep a hand in the law while doing a completely different job to make a living.  If someone is interested in leaving law practice to teach what’s the best way to actually get that first job?

Kellye Testy:  Yes, that’s an important question.  I do a lot of work now trying to help make transparent those pathways and encouraging people to pursue academics that may not have thought about it right out of law school.

I would say first, Neil, that there’s really two paths.  There are some people, I suppose, like myself, who know early on they want to go into teaching.  Especially at the law schools where the mentoring that one receives in that direction is really strong.

Those are your typical schools that you would think of as feeders to academia like Harvard, Stanford and Yale etc.  At other schools, like Indiana where I went it wasn’t common for people to go into academics as a career.  However, I had some wonderful people there who helped me understand what that pathway looked like. So, I would say, first and foremost, make sure you talk to people at your school about how they reached that goal, and to ask them to be mentors in the process.

Having that mentorship from the faculty is meaningful.  I want to note here that a couple of people at Indiana, Lauren Robel, who later became the dean and the provost of Indiana, and a wonderful professor, Rebecca Rudnick, who’s since unfortunately passed away were both great mentors to me.  I then also had the great fortune, when I was a student at Indiana, in meeting a professor from Stanford Law School, Barbara Babcock, who was the first tenured woman at that law school.  She and I just hit it off, and she ended up taking me under her wing and helping me find my pathway to teaching.

ex judicata:  Wow, three  mentors. Very unusual, very special.

Kellye Testy:  Now if you’re out of law school a little while and then are thinking about going into academics it takes a few more steps. One of the things that’s so important is staying involved in the academy even when you’re in practice. Maybe serving as an adjunct professor at a university or law school.  Maybe being involved in mentoring students.  Or helping judge moot court teams.  Really, just being an active alum in your law school and staying connected with your former professors and other faculty members.

Another thing that’s important, if I can add one more, is showing that you have had a desire to keep a foot in the academy.  In other words, what people don’t want to hear is: ‘”I just got really sick of practicing law, so I figured I’d try teaching.’  They want to see an arc where there is some kind of connection.  Maybe it’s writing about law even if it’s just Bar journals or what have you. You want to show you have the interest and the capacity to be a legal academic.

ex judicata:  Valuable information. It makes total sense that legal writing of some sort can only help.

Kellye Testy:  Neil, that’s a that’s a point we should emphasize today, because scholarship in the academy is still the coin of the realm. It’s very important to be seen as writing about the law. Writing can take a lot of different forms. The idea is  that the academy is the one place that has the time and the privilege and the position to be able to reflect.  In practice and in business you’re so busy all the time it’s hard to take that little step back that can sometimes help you see patterns. So, we like to see that people that want to be in the academy are continuing, themselves, to learn about law and/or sharing that learning by publishing about it and are thereby advancing the growth of law in disseminating their knowledge.

ex judicata: That makes perfect sense. What if you weren’t at the top of your law school class.  You’re in the middle or even towards the bottom.  Would you still have a shot a teaching law school?

Kellye Testy:  I think there is no question that so many things about hiring and the legal profession still go in kind of a hierarchical way. We see it in the way big firms hire. We see it in the academy.  So, yes, the prestige of the institution you attend, your ranking in the class, the judge you may have clerked for, these are all factors that that matter.

I want to make sure people know that teaching law school isn’t only available to the elite. That pathway may be the deeper groove, but there are many examples where one’s accomplishments as a practicing lawyer can make prior experience as a student less relevant.  So, if you have built up an expertise, in say AI, and you’ve written about it, shared that knowledge with students and become a kind of an expert that’s what is going to matter. It’s about who you are now.  What has been your growth trajectory and why it makes sense for someone like yourself to be in front of a classroom of students.

ex judicata: That’s very good to hear.  That experience can become just as important, if not more so, than your ranking in law school.

Kellye Testy:  Exactly.  I like to remind people who maybe weren’t top of the class to let that go and realize that you may be a better teacher than someone for whom it came easy.  Sometimes when things come easily, come almost naturally for a person, it can be hard for them to teach other people how to do it.   Whereas if you’ve had to work hard at something to learn it, you may be better prepared to help students learn the same thing.

ex judicata:  Let’s go back to your background, you become the first female dean at the University of Washington Law School.  How did that come about?

Kellye Testy:  I should say I was also the first woman to serve as dean at Seattle University Law School when I was first appointed there in 2005.

Kellye Testy:  That in some ways surprised me less.  It was a younger law school. It had started out as the University of Puget Sound.  It had been bought by Seattle University, and it was only 30 or so years old.  Versus when I was recruited and joined the University of Washington law school which had been around for over 100 years before naming their first woman dean.

I enjoyed both positions. The schools are very different in terms of their differing missions and university associations.  A law school like the University of Washington, being part of such a big R1 university, has a very global reach and deep alumni base. Many were the real founders of the legal profession in the state of Washington.  Bill Gate’s dad was an alum of our school and had been so influential in the legal academy.

ex judicata:  Yes, Preston, Gates.

Kellye Testy: Exactly.  Many people know him only for his son and Microsoft.  But he was an awesome lawyer and an incredible public servant in the state.  I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of that community and getting to know so many of the alumni who had formational roles in Washington’s legal history.

ex judicata:  And then how did you come to your current role at LASC?

Kellye Testy:  This is a funny one. I had finished eight years at University of Washington, and so I’d been a dean for almost 15 years total. I decided that I was going to step down and take a sabbatical.  I had never done that.  I thought it would be good to reflect for a little bit on what do I want next.   Should I go back to teaching?  Another leadership role?  At that point I was serving as the president of the Association of American Law Schools which is a kind of a one year honorary role in the academy.  I was seated at the president’s dinner next to Susan Krinsky, who was at that time the chair of LSAC’s board of trustees.  Little did I know they had just launched a search for a new CEO. 

It is  ironic to me now, as I get ready to join AALS, that my start at LSAC was also connected to AALS.  I really didn’t know much about LSAC at that point. I had served on its diversity committee. When I learned about its fundamental role opening doors to the profession and especially helping people who may not have had lawyers in the family, who may be underrepresented in law school, I was very interested.

That really appealed to me because equity and opening doors has always been a big part of what I’ve tried to emphasize. I had the honor of being invited to serve and I did a pivot.   A word which I know is central to ex judicata’s mandate of making the most of one’s law school background.

This was a pivot that I would never have expected.  I really enjoyed my time at LSAC and learned so much.  Especially about technology because we also serve as the hub for the technology law schools use in the admissions process.  We develop a lot of technology that helps connect law schools with candidates.

ex judicata:  So now you’re about to begin your role in another law school-related organization that I bet a lot of people are not fully familiar with. The Association of American Law Schools.

Kellye Testy:  Yes, I’m really looking forward to it.  I was president in 2016, in that honorary capacity and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And I had been a member of what they call their executive committee for several years around that time.

So, this is a tremendous honor for me to join AALS as its executive director and CEO.

AALS has a dual role in the academy. This is somewhat unusual in that it is the learned society for law—most any discipline has a scholarly or learned society that brings people together around the production of scholarship and thinking about that field with an annual meeting—and AALS is also a membership organization. An association of law schools.

These law schools agree to be guided by our core values related to excellence in legal education, encouragement of diverse points of view and free expression.  All the things that make for a robust and engaging intellectual life for law faculty.

Kellye Testy:  So, we serve both those roles, membership organization and learned society.  As I prepare for the transition with the current executive director, Judy Arene, I have a new appreciation for AALS’s role a tremendous hub for volunteers.  We have many, of what they call sections, designated for  every area of law you can imagine. Contracts, bankruptcy, civil rights etc. Those are run by volunteer law professors.  And they’re the ones who put together the program for the annual meeting that convenes every January.

This is a large gathering of law faculty and just incredibly vibrant in its depth and breadth.  We’re located in DC as many associations are and so we are also active in the network of associations that serve higher educatiion.

ex judicata:   I know you have taught at George Mason right nearby in Arlington. Will you continue to teach?

Kellye Testy:  I’m going to evaluate that.  I always like to take a little time when I first start a new role to just clear the decks and, get in up to my elbows in the new work. So, for the first year I am not going to be teaching anything.  I’ll just be focused on AALS and getting that off to a good start.

ex judicata:   Given your background it is easy to see why AALS selected you to be their new executive director and CEO.  The interview that Kim and I did right before talking to you was with a fascinating woman, April Renee. She is a Harvard-trained lawyer who pivoted to become a futurist.  She speaks at Davos, gives TED talks that kind of thing.  So of course we talked a lot about the future.  What do you see coming down the pike for law schools and legal education as you prepare to take on your new role.

Kellye Testy:  It’s such a good question.  I always think that we have to as leaders kind of keep one eye out on the horizon and one right in front of us.  Looking ahead, I see a time of incredible challenge and change for legal education and it’s why I am really excited.  I’m not really a placeholder kind of person or leader.  I like to be there helping to make change.

I think our future is really exciting.  It’s easy to be somewhat frightened by it.  Technology scares some people.  It doesn’t scare me.  It doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues.  I think technology can play an enormous role in closing the access to justice gap in our world.

Kellye Testy:   Right now, between 70% and upwards of 90% of people that need a lawyer for a serious legal matter don’t have access to one.  or they’re underrepresented in our world.

I think our legal system cannot continue to have legitimacy if it lets that gap persist. I’m always interested in how technology might help us leverage service to more people in more places.  I’m excited by some of the growth of AI and how it can play a role.

I’m a big believer that we sometimes take our legal health for granted.  We don’t invest in it, we don’t pay enough attention to it.  We need to focus more on the rule of law and the service of law to society.  As the main association for legal education, AALS can be a good platform to rally people around that focus.

Kellye Testy:  Law schools, law students, law school faculty, law clinicsall make a contribution to closing that justice gapI want to bring more visibility to that.

In terms of the future, I’m also excited by all you are doing at ex judicata because it connects to my fundamental belief that a JD is basically a degree in complex problem solving.  And if there’s one thing our world needs, it’s complex problem solvers. 

I want us to open up more fully on legal education being the start of lots of different careers.

ex judicata:  That idea has been at the core of why we started ex judicata to begin with.  A JD degree should be a foundation and a door opener for myriad careers.  Law is just one.

Kellye Testy:  Exactly.  And it’s not the way the academy has thought traditionally.  So, we have to build on the idea that there are so many things one can do well with a law degree.  I’m really interested in helping students see that earlier on in law school and getting better support to follow their own pathway because in law school there are just deep grooves which you can fall right into if you aren’t careful. However, here are other grooves which an organization like yours is helping to reveal and broadcast to lawyers and law students.

The third thing that is big on my mind is making sure we have enough data to understand the right ways to move forward.

At AALS we want to advance the understanding of what the legal world encompasses

Who’s in the legal academy? What is the pathway to the legal academy?  What are the various faculty roles and who occupies them?  What are the changing demographics that we need to pay attention to?  Are men overrepresented in some cases?  Women overrepresented in others?  How are issues of race equity working out?  This is where the data comes in.  Making more informed decisions based on facts.

ex judicata: Wow, you certainly have a full plate to start.  Closing the justice gap, expanding the very meaning of a law degree to an education in complex problem-solving education that can be applied to many, many occupations.  Not just law.

And third leveraging data to make more informed decisions regarding the academy..

We always like to end on the same question.  What is the best advice you can give a lawyer or law student considering a pivot away from the practice of law?

Kellye Testy:  I mentioned earlier, I had terrific help from Barbara Babcock at Stanford Law School when I was thinking about how to get from Indiana University School of Law to a legal academic career.  She said to me: “Kellye, you’re a very kind person and you’re fairly modest.  So, I’m going to give you one piece of advice and that is to be slightly bolder than you might otherwise be comfortable being.”  This is what I would say to lawyers considering a new path.  Be bolder than you are comfortable with.  Because I can guarantee if you don’t love what you do in law right now, you’re in the wrong spot. You can find that place where you really fit, where you love what you do, and when you love what you do, you do it better and you’re more fulfilled as a whole person.

There are people eager to help you.  Be bold in reaching out to people that can help you zero in on new opportunities.  I often have people say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to call you because maybe you’re too busy.  I don’t want to bother you.”  No, I want to hear from people and to help people find their own pathway with legal education as a foundation.  Because when we’re really going to see progress for justice is having all these different voices contributing.

ex judicata:  So powerful and just so inspiring listening to you talk about the critical issues you will be passionately working on.  We look forward to seeing all you accomplish. 

If there’s anything ex judicata can do to help AALS particularly where it concerns expanding the definition of the JD degree and it’s application in the world of work.

Thank you again for being here.

Kellye Testy:  My pleasure.  Thank you.

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