Patricia Erikson Roberts
Dean and Charles E. Cantu Distinguished
Professor of Law
St. Mary’s University School of Law
San Antonio, Texas
Transforming lives through legal education at St. Mary’s
On creating the first ABA-accredited on-line law degree program
On the value of the JD skillset in business
On taking a non-linear path to a career in legal education
Listen to interview:
ex judicata: With us today is Patricia Roberts, who is the Dean and Charles E. Cantu Distinguished Professor of Law at St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio, Texas. Dean, thank you for being here today.
Dean Roberts: Thanks so much for having me.
ex judicata: Our core mission at ex judicata goes to redefining what it means to be a JD in the US workforce. That is, providing lawyers with viable alternatives to the practice of law and making these jobs accessible to many for the first time. As someone who was in private practice for a number of years before transitioning to academia as both teacher, and then leader, you’re an excellent example of one of the many alternative paths available to JD’s.
St. Mary’s came to our attention when we learned that it became the first law school in the US to get its online degree program accredited by the ABA. We’ll talk more about that in a little bit. I know that the online program is just one aspect of the law school. If you could give us a capsule on St Mary’s for those that may not be fully familiar with the law school.
Dean Roberts: Sure. We are located in San Antonio, Texas. We are the only law school in the seventh largest city in America. So that makes this a special place for its students because of the opportunities they have for internships and employment here in town, but also for mentorship. The San Antonio Bar Association is extraordinarily collegial, and we have a tremendous number of alums here who are practicing attorneys or judges who stay involved with the school and the students. As far as the rest of our program, we do offer a full time, three-year in-person program and now have the part time online JD program of four years. We are a majority minority institution and a Hispanic serving institution. We’ve been working hard on our student profile and increasing the metrics of our incoming class. We generally have a class of about 250 students. The students that we admit typically have a tremendous work ethic and are largely first generation. And It’s an interesting mix because we also have students who are legacy candidates who might have several generations of attorneys in their families.
Dean Roberts: And then on the other side of the spectrum, we have so many students who were the first in their family to go through college, and then they’re first in their family to go to law school. So this education and this degree offers tremendous opportunities for those families as well as those students. It’s a very community-oriented institution. We are a Catholic and Marianist Law School, and we take that mission very seriously to serve others, to work towards the common good, and to do so while providing a voice for everyone who has a perspective, knowing that we can solve the world’s problems only with the input from diverse perspectives, from across diverse spectrums and professions.
We also have a Masters of Jurisprudence program for those who want some legal expertise in a variety of areas who are not interested in practicing law, those who have already graduated from college. We have asynchronous online versions to make it very easy to take that program and advance in their chosen profession. And we have an LLM degree for foreign attorneys. Finally, we are advocacy champions. We have an amazing advocacy team here. Over 100 students participate annually, and we’re ranked 11th in the country.
ex judicata: There is so much I want to ask you about the school, but I have to stay on message here. That is talking about your unique career journey from practicing law in a firm to Dean of one of the most enlightened law schools in the US. Starting with your earlier career. It looks like you spent about 8 years in private practice working for a couple of different law firms including one where you were a name partner.
Dean Roberts: Yes.
ex judicata: During this early part of your career and going back to when you were at law school at William & Mary did you think you would one day be a professor in a law school or work in an administrative capacity in a law school?
Dean Roberts: Never. This is the kind of story you probably hear often in your interviews. I didn’t do any of the things that we would tell students to do today if they wanted to go into legal education. I didn’t try out to write on a journal, I didn’t apply for a clerkship, I wasn’t in the Top 10% of my law school class. These are all things that you would try to do if you wanted to teach. I was a teaching assistant in the William & Mary legal skills program while still in private practice. At the end of the day that ended up giving me my opportunity to teach, but it was a very nonlinear, non-traditional pathway to legal education.
ex judicata: After being in private practice for about a decade, you then move to William and Mary Law School, your alma mater, as Director of Academic Support. It sounds like an administrative role, but you’re really teaching in this position, are you not? And if you could tell us how that first job in academia came about.
Dean Roberts: Sure. So, I mentioned I’d been a teaching assistant. The director at the time of the Legal Skills Program, which was legal research and writing, professionalism and skills training at William and Mary, reached out and asked me if I wanted to teach in that program. They had an opening for an extra-large class. He thought of me because I’d been a teaching assistant and was local. I said sure and I became an adjunct during the latter part of my practicing years.
It was great for me because I thought I might just prefer teaching to practice. It turns out that I did. The teaching in that program combined practice and practice experience, bringing it into the classroom and making it accessible for students. I really enjoyed that, so much so that when an opportunity came up to be an administrator, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t leave my practice. And my husband and partner at the time said, ‘How can you not? This is like your dream job’. It’s what you did before. Its administering, which you do well, and teaching. So, I did something most people can’t do. I gave two weeks’ notice to my firm and my clients. My husband absorbed them all. And then I went to work at William and Mary full-time. I loved it and I just sort of kept getting additional assignments.
ex judicata: So, you are advancing up the ranks at William & Mary with a background that normally would not qualify you for these kinds of positions?
Dean Roberts: Yes. I did academic support and internships and summer study abroad in our Madrid program. Then I was Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, helping the Vice Dean on a lot of curricular matters and adjunct faculty training. And then one day when I was Associate Dean for Academic Programs, they asked, because there was an opening, if I would fill in for a year as Director of Clinical Programs. They really wanted me to just tread water and keep it going at a very modest level. First, I said yes, because in all these years I kept saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity. And I’ll say that often to students, say ‘yes’, say ‘yes’.
ex judicata: One of the things which comes up time and time again in our interviews with JDs who transitioned is just that saying ‘Yes’ to new opportunities which may never come around again.
Dean Roberts: Exactly, but then in this case, after further reflection, I wound up saying ‘no’ so I could say ‘yes’ to something bigger.I thought, ‘you know what, I don’t want to just tread water’. If I’m going to do this, I want to really do it. I want to make this program something it’s not now, expand it, and make it more impactful for our students.
My mentor at the time was the Vice Dean. She said, ‘Well, you have to be faculty, clinical faculty, in order to direct clinical programs. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not’. And so, they asked me to formally apply.
ex judicata: Wow, they have you interview as if you were an outsider and you’d been there for 8 years. That must have been very awkward.
Dean Roberts: It was. But ultimately, then I became a clinical professor and Director of our clinical programs.
ex judicata: Dean, it sounds like one of the things that made your transition possible was that you had a spouse that had a good job enabling you to leave the practice for a lower paying position. That is something that comes up a lot in our discussions. Support from either a spouse or family, because oftentimes you will take a financial hit when you transition.
Dean Roberts: Absolutely. I did. I went back to an entry level salary after practicing law for all these years. I was only able to do that because of the support of a spouse.
ex judicata: When I look at your background at William Mary, you held so many different positions at the law school. What most stands out in your mind in terms of accomplishments, things you’re proud of, and what you think were most impactful for your students?
Dean Roberts: The clinical programs grew tremendously in the ten years that I had the privilege of leading them. We started a Special Education Advocacy clinic. We created a program helping many families in their struggles with school districts to make sure that their children with disabilities got the services that they needed. I’m very proud of that. What grew out of that was a Summer Institute where we would have about 75 people from across the country every year come to learn about how to do this in their own communities. I loved the ripple effect. That’s the thing about education that’s so magnificent. We send our graduates out and they do all this good across the world. It was our first in-house clinic at the law school. We ended up starting several more, including a Veterans Benefits clinic.
We also started a National Law School Veterans Clinic consortium which created resource sharing and opportunities for other law schools to start new clinics. And that work remains today with my peers and friends who were doing that work back then.
And its just fun to watch it all develop with the pride of a parent if you will.
ex judicata: That makes perfect sense. Very Special. So, you rise up the ranks at William and Mary. I would imagine that your phone rings a lot or has rung a lot through your entire career. Come here. Come to this school. Come to that school. What was it about St. Mary’s that made you want to take that job as opposed to others you’d been presented with over the years?
Dean Roberts: I’m going to be authentic and vulnerable here. When I was Vice Dean, it was unusual for a clinical professor to be asked to be Vice Dean, which is the top academic officer in the law school. But I’d been there long enough, and the faculty trusted me. And the Dean was gracious enough to ask. So, I had this great experience three years as a Vice Dean, which is honestly the hardest job in legal education. But, recall, I was a very non-traditional candidate, so my phone didn’t constantly ring with headhunters on the line.
But I started to think – I don’t have the pedigree, but I have this wonderful experience under my belt. Maybe I could be a dean. I went to a couple of conferences.
One was to advance diversity in Deanships put on at Villanova and then I went to one at University of Virginia, which was encouraging women to pursue leadership positions in higher education. After networking with the presenters and talking to a headhunter about my CV I thought I could, in fact, be a candidate.
Originally, I was only going to apply in the Southeast, close to home. Then I saw St. Mary’s. I read the position description and I thought what a perfect fit. They were talking about the values that I’ve been bringing to the profession that I wanted to train students to have. There was also the commitment to my faith which could merge with my professional identity. I thought I could really do some good at the school. I asked my husband, who was actually my second husband, my first had passed away, if he would consider Texas. He said sure.
So, this is the vulnerable part. I applied for the position as Dean. I had to get my confidence up to apply. I didn’t have the typical background for this kind of job. Over the years as Vice Dean at William & Mary I’d occasionally get emails about this job or that job. But I was on nobody’s short list. So, I did the application based solely on reading a job description. This wasn’t St. Mary’s reaching out to me with ‘we think you’d be perfect for this job as Dean.’ Now, I had an advantage because I’m pretty confident that God had a hand in all of it, and that’s why I ended up here. But I just want people to know that they should throw their hat in the ring. And sometimes it means just saying ‘Hey, look at me, I can do this’
ex judicata: What a wonderful point. And, again, going back to our mission at ex judicata we are talking about helping JDs realize that their skillset makes them a fit for a host of nonlegal positions they’d have never considered because their background wasn’t traditional. One of my favorite stories involves an attorney we interviewed a few months ago.
At one time he was a very junior lawyer. Something like a year in private practice and then a year in the law department at Procter & Gamble. He wanted to go into brand management even though he had zero marketing in his background, nor did he have management experience. But he had the JD skillset of analytical thinking, issue spotting, problem solving, effective at communicating both verbally and in writing etc. He gets the job on a major brand and becomes a star.
All because like you he knew he could do the job even though his background wasn’t a fit at all on paper.
ex judicata: I know you are modest, Dean but I’ll tick off some of the things you have accomplished at St. Mary’s in less than 3 years:
Average LSATS and GPAs have increased. Applications to the school reached a record high. Earlier we spoke about first generation students. St. Mary’s ranks #3 for Hispanic enrollment and 12th in diversity nationwide. And, then there is the first ABA accredited online program. I know a little something about the history of online law degrees, and to have gotten the program through the ABA is an extraordinary accomplishment. How did you do this?
Dean Roberts: Well, certainly not alone. When I came on board, like many deans I am thinking, how can we diversify revenue streams? Where is legal education heading? Not everybody wants the degree to practice law. They want alternative careers or legal expertise, but it’s got to be accessible. I also was meeting alumni and students who were from southern parts of Texas. We are the southern most Texas law school. Further south from us is the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. These are areas where students typically don’t want to leave home. But we’re 3-4 hours away from a lot of these locations. It’s also expensive for students. We do have a large Hispanic population, a population that’s very family focused, family centered. And so oftentimes you have people who might want to go to law school or get a legal degree that are taking care of multi generations and/or want to be close to their family members. I kept hearing we needed to do more. So, I said to my faculty, look, a lot more schools have hybrid JDs now. We should look at doing a hybrid because then we can help meet students where they are. It’s consistent with our mission of increasing access to and providing opportunity for a legal education.
I asked the faculty Committee to look at a hybrid law degree. A few months later they come back and said “If we’re really talking about access for those who have socioeconomic and location issues, we think we should offer an entirely online degree.”
I pointed out that this wasn’t allowed by the ABA. They, wonderfully, said “Well, somebody’s got to be first.” I agreed. We put some materials together and needed to convince some faculty members who weren’t keen on the idea. This was in the midst of the pandemic, and some are thinking this is Zoom law school.
Anybody who has done online teaching understands that pandemic teaching is nothing like actual online instructional design that’s done in accordance with best practices in learning theory. We were confident we could do this because we already had been offering this kind of experience to those in our Master of Jurisprudence program. We had, and have, a great academic technology services center here, and during the pandemic they trained every one of our professors to teach online in the manner that is most effective.
We were inspected by the ABA over several months, and I gave a formal presentation to the Council. The ABA agreed to accredit our online law degree. We were thrilled they were willing to give us a chance. We knew we’d be the first, but not the last. Our first class is very close, much closer than you would think for an entirely online program. But it’s small. The cohort is only 26 students. That makes a huge difference. The regular assessment that they get, the assessment work they have to do every week keeps them understanding the material at a pace and at a depth that is really fantastic and very effective because of the way that it’s designed to engage them.
We had a 9% acceptance rate for this program which Law.com said was akin to Yale Law School’s acceptance rate. That was last year. And we’re running way ahead in total number of applications for the online program this year. It’s exciting but we want to keep it limited so that we can continue to offer an outstanding opportunity. I’m very excited about how the program is progressing, and how the students are responding. Yesterday, we were announced as one of the ten finalists for innovative programs at law schools by Bloomberg Law for 2022.
ex judicata: That’s amazing. I would imagine as word gets out, people from around the country, prospective students, are probably looking at this and thinking about applying. My guess is right now the focus is really on people in south Texas for the online program?
Dean Roberts: Yes, the focus is Texas but we have a number of states represented
ex judicata: You mentioned technology a little while ago. I know that you have had a podcast for the last couple of years. If you could talk about that a little bit.
Dean Roberts: Sure. This is another example of sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. When I got to St Mary’s, a lot of the things that you talked about as being impressive characteristics of this law school are things that were already happening. I was building on a very, very strong foundation when I got here. But nobody was telling the story. I wanted people to learn more about St Mary’s University School of Law and the incredible students we teach and the community that we build here and the services that they provide in their home communities.
I didn’t see any podcasts where people were talking about the future of legal education. It is changing tremendously. I started this during the pandemic. Now it’s the Wild West. So many things are changing. In creating the podcast I thought I’d like to talk to law school leaders about the evolution of legal education and what they think is coming. And I could ask other deans if they want to talk about their law schools, because we all love to talk about our law schools.
So, I went to my interim Provost at the time and he’s like ‘Okay, come up with a business plan’. I wasn’t seeking to create a podcast business, I just wanted to get the word out about St. Mary’s. I saw that Ed Upwas doing exactly what I wanted to do with presidents of colleges. I wrote to them on LinkedIn and asked Ed Up about doing a similar program with law school leaders, and they said ‘sure’. They gave me a bit of a
primer on podcasting and before I knew it, I had in 18 months recorded 75 episodes. I’m hardly an influencer but it was getting to students who are interested in law school, other professors and other deans who were learning about the things that my very cool guests were sharing. So that was exciting. It has transitioned now over to Aspen Leading Edge, part of Aspen Publishing.
ex judicata: Dean, where can people find your podcast?
Dean Roberts: They can find it on Spotify, Apple and a number of other channels.
ex judicata: One last question, Dean. We had the chance to talk with Harvard Law School professor Scott Westfahl a little while ago. He’s a big supporter of what we’re doing in at ex judicata because of his strong belief in the JD degree being a launching point for all different types of careers, not just the practice of law. If you could speak about that.
Dean Roberts: The great thing, whether somebody goes to law school at St. Mary’s or any of the other nearly 199 law schools, is that it’s not about what can you do with the law degree, it’s what can’t you do with a law degree? The sky’s the limit. We get so many skills from a legal education. Your communication skills are improved orally and in writing. You understand judgment. Your persuasion, your ability to isolate problems, to issue spot, to solve problems becomes honed so much that some of your family members will say, ‘enough, I just want you to listen, not solve my problems!’. The way that we’re able to see solutions and see different pathways, no matter what problem is thrown at us, is just still unmatched in any other kind of education.
I think no matter what the field, all those skills, the analytical, the reasoning, the problem solving, the communication skills, are what employers want to see in their top performers and leaders.
ex judicata: That’s a perfect place to leave it. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. It will be wonderful to share with our community.
Dean Roberts: Thank you.