Thomas Ehrlich—Stanford Law School’s Seventh Dean

Reprinted from the Stanford Law School Journal of January 28, 1971.

When Tom Ehrlich graduated from Harvard Law School in 1959, he assumed he would pursue a career as a practicing lawyer. He had no premonition of the path that would lead him to the Stanford deanship. In fact, it was not until he had clerked for Learned Hand, spent two years in private practice with a Milwaukee firm, and worked in the State Department for another three years, that he became a professor at Stanford. Even as recently as last term, the soft-spoken professor of international law was finalizing plans for a sabbatical leave during the next academic year.

That sabbatical is now very far in the future. The new dean, in addition to his normal teaching schedule, has already become deeply involved in his new office, and he is planning an active spring.

Student Ideas
Dean Ehrlich intends to devote a major share of his energy to learning more about the needs and thoughts of students. He wants to talk with and, he emphasizes, listen to, as many students as are willing and interested. To accomplish this, he plans to have informal gatherings of first and second year students in small groups at his home and in Crothers throughout the spring. Last night’s discussion with students in Crothers was the first step in this communication process. The dean is equally receptive to the ideas of third year students, who although. they might not have the same stake in the future of the Law School, nonetheless have a valuable perspective, and he will meet with all who express interest.

Dean Ehrlich also plans to seek out student organizations, partly for their ideas, partly to gain a better understanding of what they are accomplishing and how they fit into the working of the School as a whole.

Curriculum Innovation
The dean’s interest in student ideas is a reflection of his commitment to innovation in general. In recent years, he has been deeply involved in curricular reform. Many will remember the Ford Foundation-sponsored study of the law school curriculum which culminated in such programs as the externship and joint-degree programs. The impression that the bulk of curricular reform lies behind us is misleading, however. The reverse may be true. Some of the most potentially far-reaching innovations in legal education at Stanford may still lie ahead of us.

In one sense, Dean Ehrlich sees curricular change as a process of selfstudy and improvement. The goal of the 1968-69 curriculum study was to diversify opportunities in the Law School so as to permit students to pursue their interests in as many directions as possible, within practical limitations. The fruits of this inquiry are now in visible abundance. A second phase of curriculum improvement is now under way, headed by Professor Anthony Amsterdam. The focus of this study is the actual substantive content and structuring of presently offered courses what they are about, how they relate to one another, and how they might be beneficially changed to prevent overlapping, tie together related marter, and so forth.

Outside Involvement
But the new dean emphasized that the responsibilities of the Law School are by no means confined to its own previously established territories. The School should seek to involve students and faculty in outside legal affairs, and vice versa. “Law schools have been relatively insulated from the institutions of the legal system,” said the dean, adding that this has been “to the detriment of both.” Anyone who has attended a session of traffic or juvenile court in Redwood City, for instance, must realize that those who administer justice in such institutions have “their backs to the wall.” Ehrlich also used the example of the outmoded probate system, a “terribly inefficient” institution.

The dean believes that the Law School should become involved not just in the recognition and study of the inadequacies of the legal system, but should also be committed to its improvement and
the development of viable alternatives.

At the same time, Dean Ehrlich feels that the School should expand its educational function. It should seek to increase its participation in university affairs, providing legal instruction to undergraduates and members of other graduate departments. The School might also offer the practicing professional an opportunity for ‘a year’s sabbatical here so that he could step back from his specialty and place it in perspective.

Law schools must become aware of their evolving role and changing responsibilities, Ehrlich stressed. People are conscious of tremendous changes going on everywhere around them, said the dean, and increasingly they are looking to the legal profession to structure and order the great transformations which they see occurring with such force and rapidity.

Dollar Problems
If the potential for innovation and improvement of the curriculum is exciting, however, the financial outlook of the School is not exactly so. Speaking of dollars, the new dean warned us from the start, “I have no magic formula for extracting money from any source, including alumni.” He lamented the fact that the School receives so little government and foundation support relative to other graduate departments. The dean feels that although efforts to gain institutional support have so far met with little success, ultimately the School must develop such support. He theorized that as the relationship between the solution of certain societal ills and improved legal education is stressed, the possibilities for institutional support may improve. Another possible approach to the fund raising dilemma is interschool cooperation, but the dean concluded that thus far there has been “very little joint effort” due to a certain measure of “lethargy, parochialism, and competition” among the schools. This too, however, appears to be changing.

Future Plans
Money problems and the thrust of curricular innovations are, of course, long-term concerns which will occupy Dean Ehrlich for years to come. Most of his time in the next few months will be devoted to settling down in his new job. His primary concern this spring will be listening to students. He also needs to acquire a working knowledge of the mechanics of law school administration. Asked how long he expects to remain dean, Ehrlich stated that he had no precise idea. “I’m not one who can make cosmic plans for his life for the next three decades,” he said smiling. He hoped he would not stay so long as to become “ossified” in the job, but on the other hand, he wants to stay long enough to be an effective dean-“certainly more than one or two

And the dean plans to continue teaching, though at a lesser pace. “It may be necessary,” he joked, “in order to maintain one’s sanity in this job.”