For Susan Westerberg Prager, taking over as dean and chief executive of Southwestern Law School this fall is "in part a going-home story," she says.
Ms. Prager, who has been executive director of the Association of American Law Schools for five years, grew up on a farm near Sloughhouse, a small community outside Sacramento. Whenever she has worked outside California, as she is doing now in Washington, D.C., "I've always had a feeling after a while that I wanted to go back."
Her new job echoes her earlier life in another way. In 1982 she became the first female dean of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. And now, a generation later, she will be the first female dean in Southwestern's 102-year history.
Southwestern is a private nonprofit institution in Los Angeles with an enrollment of about 1,000 students. It is known for entertainment and media law, and for its longtime commitment to diversity. The school "was enthusiastically training women and students of color long before many others were," Ms. Prager says. Among its alumni is Tom Bradley, who was the city's longest-serving mayor and its first African-American one. He attended Southwestern around his shifts as a police officer.
Ms. Prager inherits one of the most striking law-school buildings anywhere. In 1994, Southwestern bought the Bullocks Wilshire building, a former department store built in the Art Deco style, and restored it over the next decade using original plans and archival photographs. Ms. Prager, who with her husband owns two Victorian houses in Los Angeles that the city has designated historic-cultural monuments, calls the Southwestern building "perhaps the most sensitive restoration in the city."
Ms. Prager's second law deanship comes at a very different time in her career. Now 70, she has held leadership posts for decades. Between her time leading UCLA's law school and the law-schools organization, she served as provost at Dartmouth College and president at Occidental College, among other roles.
One of the qualities that attracted her to Southwestern, its commitment to diversity, has been woven into her own career. In 1972, the year after she earned a juris doctorate from UCLA's law school, she became one of its first four female faculty members. Although that was a heady time for diversification of law-school enrollments, she recalls, "we all had offers from places that had not had a single female professor."
She became associate dean of law at UCLA seven years later, and when she was named dean three years after that, she was one of the first female law deans anywhere in the country. During the 16 years in which she led the school, she oversaw the strengthening of the curriculum in several areas, including environmental, public-interest, and entertainment law; expanded the clinical program; and started the school's first major fund-raising effort.
At Southwestern, she will replace the interim dean, Austen L. Parrish, who has filled in since Bryant G. Garth stepped down last summer after seven years.
Southwestern is facing challenges shared by many law programs, as job opportunities for recent graduates dry up. It is one of many law schools across the country being sued on behalf of graduates who assert that the institutions misled them by inflating graduate employment figures and then burdened them with student-loan debt they cannot afford.
Ms. Prager plainly states that law schools have in recent years become less attractive as springboards to careers. The Law School Admission Council has reported, for example, that the number of applicants has declined in the past few years. As of the end of June, the number of people applying for the fall of 2013 was down 13.2 percent from the previous year.
Ms. Prager believes that with continuing economic uncertainty, prospective students are concerned "about whether it's prudent to incur the cost" of a law degree. At Southwestern, tuition and fees amount to about $45,000 per year. Computerization is changing the practice of law, making superfluous many lawyers who had found work in poring over records and articles relating to statutes and case law.
She says she cannot comment on the suit involving Southwestern but notes that the American Bar Association has taken steps to create "uniformity and greater transparency" in reporting about job placement.
In spite of the shrinking pool of law-school applicants, Ms. Prager remains optimistic about law schools' future. Most traditional law jobs will persist, and new ones will arise, she says. It's not a time for "focusing too much on a narrow view of what legal education should lead to," she says. She would be happy if more graduates considered jobs at public-sector and nongovernmental organizations, she says, even positions "not defined as practicing law," yet ones for which an education in law is valuable.
Ms. Prager says she admires Southwestern for becoming the first law school "to figure out how to effectively put three years of legal education into an intensive, year-round, two-year program." And now it is constructing housing to cut students' accommodation and commuting costs. Finding that Southwestern is "a place that even in these tough times is really showing momentum" was, she says, "the icing on the cake."