Liz Magill likes to run. Not too fast, but steady. It’s a good thing, too. Getting up to speed in her new job as the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School, with back-to-back appointments every day and events on most evenings, will take marathon stamina. She’s trying her best to meet everyone—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—and soon. And she does not like to be late.
“I think I’ll have had over 150 meetings by the end of October, plus student, faculty, and staff receptions—and Alumni Weekend,” she says. “Right now I’m in fact-finding mode.”
Though not overly competitive about running, it has helped her keep fit and has come in handy through the years—sometimes unexpectedly.
Like when she clerked for the so-called “running judge.”
“We ran every day at noon with Judge Wilkinson, sometimes in challenging weather, too—like the extreme heat of the D.C. summer,” says Sri Srinivasan, JD/MBA ’95 (BA ’89), principal deputy solicitor general of the United States. Srinivasan clerked with Magill from 1995 to 1996 for Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “It’s a great way to get to know someone, and Liz and I became good friends during that time.”
Perhaps the judge was trying to instill in his young clerks more than knowledge of the law and the benefits of camaraderie. If all law clerks have something in common, it’s that they are the best in their classes and on the cusp of demanding careers for which they are uniquely positioned to rise to the top. Lessons not only in how to write the best brief but also balance life’s many challenges might come in handy.
Since Magill and her family moved from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Palo Alto in August, she has had to use all of her skills and talents in her new position as the thirteenth dean of Stanford Law School.
As a relative unknown to most faculty, staff, and alumni, her first priority is to get out and about—and to listen. And, of course, she needs to find her way around Stanford’s 8,180-acre campus that includes seven schools and a hospital.
“I’ve been exploring the campus on my morning runs,” she says. “My husband, Leon, is the one who’s usually good with directions, but when we walked from our house to the stadium for the Stanford-USC football game, I was leading the way—I knew exactly how to get there.”
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M. ELIZABETH “LIZ” MAGILL’S TREK ACROSS COUNTRY CAME AS A BLOW TO MANY IN THE TIGHT-KNIT COMMUNITY OF CHARLOTTESVILLE, WHERE SHE WAS A RISING STAR at the University of Virginia School of Law (UVA), having served on the faculty from 1997 and as vice dean since 2009. As vice dean, Magill oversaw the curriculum, student affairs, and the promotion of intellectual life at the 1,100-student law school. And as the faculty member second to the dean, she was a key participant in decisions about hiring and recruiting faculty. For those who have worked closely with her, the move to Stanford Law was right in step with Magill’s career so far.
“I knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” says UVA Dean Paul G. Mahoney. “There was never any doubt in my mind that she has all of the skills necessary to be an excellent dean. So it was bound to become obvious to others.”
There is no formal job description for the dean of Stanford Law, though there is agreement about a few key characteristics required for a dean to excel at the job.
“I think the provost selected her because of her mixture of administrative experience, superb judgment, enthusiasm about her own scholarship, but even more enthusiasm over a wide range of scholarship and a capacity to both appreciate, criticize, and bolster people in their different forms of work,” says Mark Kelman, James C. Gaither Professor of Law and vice dean, who chaired the dean search committee.
“She’s an exceptionally decent person and a trusted friend,” adds Srinivasan. “She has exactly the kinds of qualities you’d want in a dean at Stanford—a highly accomplished scholar, thoughtful, with values and principles in the right place, a great ability to connect with students, faculty, and alums.”
“I think everyone has been telling Liz she would make a great dean since even before she became a law professor,” says Michael Klarman, JD ’83, Harvard Law School professor and a former member of the UVA faculty, who both taught Magill and was her colleague.
A DEAN NEEDS MANY DIFFERENT ATTRIBUTES TO SUCCEED. FOR STARTERS, SHE MUST HAVE A DEEP COMMITMENT TO THE CORE MISSIONS OF THE SCHOOL—TEACHING STUDENTS AND ADVANCING KNOWLEDGE. Key to doing this is possessing scholarly accolades oneself. Magill is an award-winning scholar of constitutional law and administrative law. Her scholarship focuses on the complex relationship between legal doctrine and the behavior of various institutional actors, and she is known for bringing a creative perspective to long-standing issues.
“Her work sheds light on questions of institutional design such as who ought to enforce various legal rights and restrictions, as well as on how constitutional values about the structure of our government actually play out in the modern administrative state,” says Pamela S. Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director, Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
“The rise of the administrative state challenges separation of powers principles, which Liz’s early work focuses on, as agencies often combine legislative, executive, and adjudicative functions in a single governmental institution,” says Daniel E. Ho, professor of law and Robert E. Paradise Faculty Fellow for Excellence in Teaching and Research. “Her work in administrative law develops positive and normative understanding of how judicial doctrines affect agency action, with an empirical and historical recognition of the highly varied nature of bureaucratic institutions.”
But it is the way in which Magill approaches her job— consistently going beyond academic excellence—that put her on a path to Stanford
“She has fabulous academic values—she’s a dedicated and inspiring teacher and a first-rate scholar,” says Klarman. “But she’s also a dream of a colleague, a fabulous institutional citizen, and one of the best people I have ever known.”
Along with being an accomplished scholar and teacher herself, a dean must also be able to nurture that in others. On the latter, Magill’s reputation is legend.
“She seems to get a great deal out of encouraging and fostering the success of others, which is I think a critical thing in a dean,” says Kelman.
“She can see what will be good in an idea often more clearly than the author,” says New York University Law Professor Daryl Levinson, who got to know Magill when they were classmates at UVA and when they both taught there. “And then she gets excited about it, her comments filling up with exclamation points as she gets into it.”
At UVA Magill oversaw a series of “incubator lunches” for faculty where they discussed paper ideas and troubleshot issues with colleagues. “It was a thoughtful way to further people’s interests and make UVA the kind of law school where people would want to work,” says Leslie Kendrick, who earned her JD from UVA and joined its faculty in 2008. For Magill, it was more than a job.
“I really enjoy promoting intellectual life, finding out what new members of the faculty want to do with their scholarship and helping them do that, creating venues for them to present their work,” says Magill. For Toby J. Heytens, associate professor of law at UVA and Magill mentee, her input—and encouragement—helped him to achieve a key career goal.
“I am never quite sure when something is ready to send to a journal,” says Heytens, who was struggling to finish a paper before taking leave to work with the U.S. solicitor general, something he calls a lifetime opportunity. “I was working on an article, but the solicitor general wanted me to start work in just four weeks. I didn’t think I could finish the article, but Liz said, ‘This is how it’s going to be: You will get it as good as it can be and then you’ll send it out. And I think this is better than you think it is.’ ” Heytens took Magill’s advice, and the article was published.
“She is simultaneously compassionate and firm,” says Heytens. “She makes people feel like they are appreciated and at the same time tells them what they need to do.”
“She’s like a builder standing outside a house. She methodically goes through a paper looking at the architecture of a piece and what will make it work,” says Kendrick.
MAGILL SHARES MANY of the overachiever traits of faculty at top-tier law schools, but her administrative and people skills set her apart. “In addition to being a very talented scholar, I think she is someone who has a real talent for academic administration,” says Mahoney. He explains that he asked Magill to serve as his vice dean because she had “the complete confidence of our faculty—confidence in her scholarly values, in her judgment, in her discretion.”
“As implausible as this sounds nearly every one we spoke with on the Virginia faculty described her as a favorite colleague, and most as a best friend,” says Kelman. “It’s astonishing to have someone across methodology, age, gender that everyone thinks of as a central figure—who is the most helpful, and most supportive, and the one most appreciated colleague. That’s a tremendous virtue.”
Magill clearly enjoys the challenges that come with academic leadership. “I like problem solving and getting the right people involved to solve the problem. Even unpleasant problems—I like to solve them well,” says Magill. “I get satisfaction out of doing that as fairly as possible and then articulating the reasons.”
Recruiting and retaining a top-notch faculty is one of the dean’s most important jobs. And this is an area Kelman expects Magill to impact greatly. Noting that a dozen or more of the faculty are currently in their 60s, he predicts that several will retire in the next 10 years.
“As an actuarial matter, and looking at historical practice, it’s a strong possibility,” he says. And that would certainly play to Magill’s strengths. As vice dean at UVA, she was a permanent member of the appointments committee and played a key role in building its faculty.
“At Virginia, the school made sure that Liz went out to dinner with virtually every entry-level job candidate because she has such a warm and appealing personality,” says Klarman. “Liz builds bridges in a way that, in my experience, almost no other law professor does.”
MAGILL WAS RAISED in Fargo, North Dakota, the fourth of six children. The daughter of a trial lawyer who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit when she was in college, Magill did not always aspire to a career in law. She studied history at Yale and had plans to get her PhD in history and teach.
“My father was a very happy practicing lawyer and then a very happy judge,” she says. “He’d talk about cases and juries—particularly the closing arguments and the drama of the trial.” Two of her five siblings are also lawyers, as are two of her siblings’ spouses. And she is married to a lawyer, Leon Szeptycki, who graduated from Yale Law School in 1988. Law was, and is, part of everyday conversation in the Magill household, but she traces the start of her academic interests in law to her time working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Kent Conrad, a position she took in 1988 after graduating from Yale.
“I found the way that Washington works fascinating,” says Magill. While there she focused on the senator’s work related to his assignment on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, diving into research on energy policy and regulation. “I became interested in how government works on a day-to-day basis.”
That eventually became her scholarly focus—and she decided to pursue a legal education and a career in the academy.
As a student at Virginia Law, Magill stood out. “She was certainly regarded as the star of her class and an incredibly brilliant student,” says Mahoney. “She won our highest graduation award, voted by the faculty to honor a student who has distinguished herself inside and outside the classroom.”
“I was intimidated by Liz when we were students because she was so much better at everything than I was,” says Levinson. “She was the best student in our class, the most likeable person, and she seemed mature beyond her years— already married with a house and real furniture and a career in D.C. I felt like a kid around her.” Though, he says, Magill was supportive all the same. “It was obvious that Liz was going to be hugely successful, but she never seemed in any way ambitious or striving. She just loves what she’s doing, and she’s so good at what she does.”
When she graduated, Magill secured two clerkships, including one at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I rarely write letters recommending students to Justice Ginsburg, because I have to be absolutely certain that they will do a first-rate job for her,” says Klarman, who clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from 1983 to 1984 when she was a judge on the D.C. Circuit. “Here’s what I wrote in the concluding paragraph of that letter: ‘I have taught only a small handful of students at Virginia who I would put in Liz’s category in terms of general intellectual and legal analytical capacity. I can think of none whom I would rank above her in terms of the overall package that, for me at least, is constitutive of the ideal law clerk. Not only is she quite brilliant, but Liz is also creative, extremely articulate, mature, reliable, and a delightful person to boot. She will, I am confident, prove herself to be an outstanding law clerk, as well as a fabulous success at all of her subsequent legal endeavors. I give her my highest recommendation.’ ”
When she went on the teaching market, Klarman repeated his praise:
“ ‘This is my tenth year teaching at Virginia. I believe I have taught roughly 2,500 students in that time. … More than any other student I can recall, she is able to wrestle with a professor’s interpretation, think creatively, and come up with her own independent perspective. … And, to boot, Liz is an absolutely delightful person—as good company at a baseball game as in class.’ I wrote those words in the summer of 1996. Sixteen years later, I would still rank Liz among the top five of all the students I have taught in terms of how much fun they were to have in class and how impressive their performance was.”
Magill accepted an offer from UVA in 1997 and made it her home. During her years there she mentored dozens of students and junior faculty, while teaching 10 different subjects, including administrative law, constitutional law, food and drug law, and advanced seminars in constitutional law and administrative law. Along the way, she became synonymous with the place. That may be because of what comes naturally to her as a colleague.
“I like to draw people into the school, make them feel part of it,” says Magill. This, says Kelman, came out in the dean search. “One wants a dean who will love the school, and she was a central figure at UVA. She loved that school,” he says.
“She’s very beloved in Charlottesville,” says Dahlia Lithwick, JD ’96, a Supreme Court correspondent for Slate and lecturer at UVA. “She’s the one who would show up at the bris and the birthday celebration and in an emergency.” Stories of Magill’s strong sense of community abound.
“Both with regard to students and to colleagues, she treats people as a whole. She’s a wonderful reader but also realizes that our scholarship is a product of everything in our lives. And if something is off in your life, that will affect your work,” says Kendrick. “As a junior female member of the faculty wanting to start a family, I was very lucky to have someone like Liz mentor me.”
“Not only was she everyone’s favorite colleague—the person who read your draft within a day and gave you the most thoughtful and supportive comments—but she was also the one you called in the middle of the night when you had an emergency,” says Levinson.
Lithwick recounts a particularly trying time when she had broken her leg. “I was reporting on a story at the Supreme Court, and my small baby was colicky and fussy, and my leg was in a cast. Liz showed up with lunch and helped me while I finished the story.” Lithwick adds that Magill was the first person in Charlottesville to suggest that she teach at UVA and that Magill has earned a reputation for nurturing careers.
Magill also met with students considering UVA and mentored many once they chose the school.
“She was one of the people I met at UVA who made it an easy decision to study law there,” says Kendrick.
Kendrick earned a master’s and doctorate in English literature at the University of Oxford, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar and found the first year of law school challenging.
“I was having a hard time figuring out what law was about, so I spoke to Liz. She then wrote me a note suggesting that I look at the rhetoric of Supreme Court cases to find a way to apply English to the law. That really touched me, that my professor would expend that amount of attention on one student.”
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THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE AUGUST 1L ORIENTATION IS A RECEPTION WITH THE DEAN. This year, students got a double feature—with both the incoming and outgoing deans on hand. Just two weeks into the handover and days away from her official start date, Magill stood firmly at the podium in Crocker Garden—laughing off the introduction from Larry Kramer. “Larry, I think the rumor about my judicial appointment was always just that, a rumor,” she said.
Transitions are opportunities to invite comparisons—and to look for connections. On first glance, Stanford Law School’s new dean has little in common with her predecessor. Magill’s favorite band is Wilco; Kramer loves the Beatles, and so on. But scratch below the surface, and similarities emerge. Both are constitutional law scholars—a common thread for the past five Stanford Law deans. While the two had never spoken before her arrival on campus in August, after spending two weeks meeting regularly during the handover, they are already friends. Both hold dear their families and colleagues, taking the time to nurture relationships. And both clearly enjoy wrestling with the challenges that come from being at the helm of one of the world’s top law schools.
Magill is settling into her new role and getting to know the Stanford Law School community. “This university is extraordinary, and the many changes initiated here are important for our students and legal education generally.”
While Stanford Law has undergone tremendous change during the past 10 years, Magill is busy finding out what is next. “She may be dean for a very long time, and it’s hard to predict what the legal profession and the law school may face in five or seven years. So it’s hard to guess what her legacy will be,” says Kelman. “We have gone through a lot of change, but if people have good ideas I’m sure we’ll move forward.”
Liz Magill and Larry Kramer at the new student orientation
For now, she is listening. “I want to find out what people here hope for the future and try to make that happen,” she says. “This is an extraordinary law school—we should be proud of that, but we shouldn’t stand still either.” SL