(Ed. Note: In January, Matthew Diller was appointed dean of Fordham Law School, after serving as dean of Cardozo School of Law from 2009 to 2014. His appointment was a homecoming, as Diller taught on the Fordham Law faculty for 16 years and served as associate dean for academic affairs from 2003 to 2008.)
Q: What brought you back to Fordham?
A: Fordham feels like my academic home. It’s where I learned to be a teacher and learned to be a scholar. The faculty has many of my mentors, who’ve had a major impact on my life and my career. Many of the colleagues that I started out with as a junior faculty member are now in senior positions.
Q: What are your top priorities for the school?
A: My priorities are to continuously ask the question ‘How can we better prepare and educate our students to meet the demands of the marketplace of today and of the future?’ One thing that attracts me to Fordham is that the faculty is already deeply engaged with that issue, and [the school]has already undertaken a number of major reforms.
The faculty last year introduced a required mini course in quantitative methods, on the theory that lawyers really need to understand financial concepts in many different forms of practice. The faculty created a new course in regulation legislation as part of the first-year curriculum, which reflects the increasing prominence of the regulatory state in our society. And the school has also created a series of new concentrations, which help our students focus their education on their career goals.
Q: How are changes in the legal field affecting the school?
A: People are looking for education in all sorts of different ways. The JD degree will always be the core of legal education, but there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise in our school that both lawyers and non-lawyers need to know. Lawyers and others will come to us for programs, certificates, and short courses, to pick up legal knowledge when they need to. So one of the things we’ll be focusing on is offering a broader range of programs to the public to meet the demands and need for legal knowledge and skills beyond the basic JD degree.
Q: How has your background in social justice, such as working for the Legal Aid Society, prepared you to be a dean?
A: People turn to lawyers for issues that are critically important in their lives. And therefore the work that lawyers do has an incredibly important impact on people’s lives— in things that are personal to them but also their livelihoods and businesses. The jobs that lawyers do, and the quality of their work, affect people in real and direct ways.
If we can educate and prepare superb lawyers, they will make a positive difference. Great lawyers see solutions to problems that others don’t, and achieve outcomes that other lawyers don’t achieve. I want our students to have that sense of possibility in the law, of the difference that law can make in society, and in people’s lives. And I want them to have that sense whether they’re in private practice or in public service.
Q: What’s one court case that really made an impression on you when you were at Legal Aid?
A: I worked on Jiggetts v. Grinker, which was about the adequacy of public assistance rent grants. We worked with clients who were on the verge of eviction and homelessness, trying to save their apartments. That case brought me into contact with legal aid and legal services lawyers all over the city, and that’s really where I saw lawyers who had the ‘We will never give up’ attitude. They would just say, ‘We will find a solution to this problem, we will save this apartment for this family, and we will find a creative way to do it.’ That really stayed with me as the hallmark of superb lawyering—being able to look at a situation that others think is hopeless and say we’re going to find a solution.
Q: What makes Fordham Law unique among law schools?
A. We provide an incredibly strong foundation that covers theory and practice, critical thinking, writing, and communication. We have a tradition of engagement with the problems and issues of the real world. We’re a law school in the heart of New York City, and while New York City is intensely local in terms of urban issues, it’s also in a national and global center. We embrace all of those issues on all of those levels.
We also set our sights high. If you look at the work of our faculty in terms of their scholarship, and the work of our centers and institutes, we are out there shaping the way people think about problems, and crafting creative solutions. And that approach has a deep impact on the kind of lawyer that we train.
(Interview conducted by Adrian Brune and transcribed and edited by Patrick Verel.)