The Commercial Appeal
U of M law school ‘wellpositioned’ for future
Incoming dean sees commitment
After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1983, Peter Letsou took the next logical step for someone with a degree in physics. He went to law school. “I liked physics and math an awful lot, and the ability to think critically and analytically and logically turned out to be very good preparation for law school,” says Letsou, the new dean of the University of Memphis law school.
“In math and physics, you read the same pages over and over very carefully until you figure it out and you structure a logical argument. When reading statutes and cases, that style of reading tends to be good preparation. I was used to slogging through material very slowly until it made sense.”
That, however, was probably the last time the Massachusetts native did any slogging.
In quick order he got a law degree from the prestigious University of Chicago, clerked for a federal appeals court judge, served as an associate counsel on the Senate Select Committee on Iran- Contra, and practiced business law in New York before moving into academia.
Letsou, 52, taught busi- Peter Letsou is the new dean of the University of Memphis Law School. “It’s exciting taking on a new job where you’re starting completely fresh,” says Letsou.
ness and finance at law schools at George Mason University and the University of Cincinnati before moving to Salem, Ore., in 2002, where he held a chair in corporate law at Willamette University’s law school and eventually became dean.
“I’ve always been receptive to moving around if the opportunity seems like an interesting one,” Letsou says of the move to Willamette. “I couldn’t pronounce it. (It’s Will-AM-it.) I couldn’t spell it. I couldn’t find it on a map. But there was something intriguing about it.”
This month he took over as dean of the Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in a city he had visited only once before, that being a brief stop at Graceland in 2009 during an ambitious summer drive crisscrossing the country, covering 7,500 miles in just 15 days.
“It’s exciting taking on a new job where you’re starting completely fresh,” says Letsou, who said he’s found strong support for the school in the business and legal community. “If I could pick a law school that is really wellpositioned for the future and that could do some really great things in the years ahead, Memphis really had that over any other place I was thinking about.”
He said a commitment to the future was immediately noticeable in the law school itself, a stately 140,000-square-foot former U.S. Customs, Courthouse and Post Office on Front Street in Downtown Memphis that underwent a $42 million renovation. The school moved to the building in 2010 from the main campus, where flooding of the basement was an annual rainyseason ritual.
“It really is head-and-shoulders above other law schools,” says Letsou of the site. “It’s a great tool in terms of recruiting students and faculty, and it just shows an investment and commitment by the university and state. You don’t make an investment like this without a hope and willingness to see it through.”
He’s pleased that the school’s location places students within easy access to courthouses, law firms and clinics where clerkships and internships can be minutes away.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers, a Memphis law school alum, says he’s counting on Letsou to raise the institution’s profile.
“Our law school is a well-kept secret nationally,” says Childers, who was on the search committee that put Letsou among the final three candidates for the dean’s job. “The one thing we needed is someone to be the face of the law school who is outgoing and has energy to go out into the community to meet the lawyers and the business leaders and be a salesman. It takes time and energy to do that, and he fits the bill. I think we made a great choice. ”
A dean must be a fundraiser, a politician and a diplomat, according to someone who would know.
“A dean wears many hats, which makes the position at once tremendously interesting and tremendously challenging,” says Kevin Smith, the interim dean and dean from 2007 to 2012, who has returned to teaching and research. “It is a 30/7/365 job — or more if it was only possible.”
In a recent interview in his second-floor office, Letsou read- ily acknowledged that there is plenty of work ahead, especially when law-school enrollments are down, here and nationally, and the job market is tight for new graduates.
Memphis law school had 374 students this spring, compared to 419 just two years ago. That’s a decrease of about 11 percent, though the national average is more than 15 percent.
Nearly 85 percent of the 134-member Memphis graduating class of 2012 reported finding jobs, including nine part-time positions, a figure also better than national averages.
“These are obviously tough times for legal education and for law schools, and if you look at the dean positions, a lot of the jobs are just keeping the place afloat, which isn’t very exciting,” says Letsou. “Here, there is tremendous opportunity.
“It’s a state school with lower tuition and more job opportunities. It’s part of a major university, so there’s research opportunities and all kinds of other programs we can partner with. There’s a big business school, a large health-care community, engineering, major corporations with in-house counsel. We need to develop new areas of expertise.”
The law school will begin a new health-law program this fall to focus on an expanding area that is becoming increasingly complex.
“Where the rest of the economy continues to contract, the health- care economy continues to expand,” the dean says. “The legislative developments will mean a lot of work and an increasing demand for lawyers. We also need to encourage scholarship and activities that give our faculty a national profile and exposure. To a certain degree, everything’s on the table.”
Letsou and wife, Felicity, have three children: William, 23, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Cal Tech; Christina, 21, a senior in math and finance at Northwestern; and Ted, 15, a jazz trumpeter who will be attending Lausanne.
“I’ve been telling my daughter that now’s the right time for law school,” quips Letsou, whose father was a physician. “That’s how I know I really believe it. I’m trying to pitch it to my own daughter.”