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Schooled, Indebt, Struggling & Broke: There Are Too Many Lawyers. What's One Law School Dean to Do? 

Tuesday, Sep 9 2014
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Frank Wu, the dean of UC Hastings College of the Law, flutters about his third-floor office adjusting things, making sure his emails are answered and his appointments are confirmed for next week. He has the aplomb of an old-fashioned barrister, and the uniform of an aspiring triathlete: long-sleeved yellow athletic shirt, small backpack, running shoes with toes. His assistant sits at a long desk stacked with papers and small curios — including a Frank Wu bobblehead on a motorcycle. Wu's hair is still wet from a faculty ice bucket challenge in Hastings' mezzanine courtyard, soon to be immortalized on the school's Facebook page. Nonetheless, he's ready to brave the summer fog again, during a four-and-a-half-mile walk to his home in Forest Hill. The dean seems most at ease when he's in motion.

"I'm inherently, intrinsically, by nature, a very lazy human being," he says later, plowing across a busy intersection at the Panhandle. "Everyone thinks I work really hard, but do you know why work really hard? Because I'm lazy."

His eyes twinkle saucily. "Here's how it works: I force myself to work really hard by setting up things."

"Setting up things," in this case, means inviting students to ring his doorbell at 6:30 a.m. for a brisk stroll to campus — he can usually clock it at an hour and 15 minutes. He invites curious reporters to join these trips as well, so long as they can keep pace, and so long as he can bring his own recorder as a backup. He is, after all, as punctilious about getting facts right — and about saving ideas that could be blog-worthy — as he is about burning calories.

But don't be impressed, he continues. "Remember, I'm lazy." He pauses for emphasis. "It's very important to me that I come across to you as conspicuously humble."

Wu is not, by most measures, a humble person. But he's definitely conspicuous. He's been featured on the motorcycle website Bike-urious touting his personal collection: a Honda Hawk GT 650 with a British racing green paint job, and a 2001 BMW K1200RS, painted Ducati yellow with a "Peril" decal. (Wu says he's put about 12,000 miles on the "Yellow Peril.") In his spare time, the dean writes lengthy first-person blogs for Huffington Post and his own LinkedIn profile, about everything from his dogs to his parents to his taste for Shakespeare. In August, he penned an essay on LinkedIn called "Why I Might Not Say Hello to You at the Gym." "I don't want my student to spot me naked in the locker room anymore [sic] than I want to glimpse him," Wu wrote.

Wu is, by turns, an eccentric, somewhat endearing, and often polarizing figure — colleagues describe him as a "straight-shooter" with an outsized personality; critics accuse him of bluster. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, though, it's that Wu has a daunting task before him. Four years ago, he took the reins at Hastings, a prestigious institution that's been walloped by the Great Recession.

Now, Wu has a glutted workforce and a lacerated state budget to contend with as he tests new ideas in one of the most brutal legal markets in the country, trying to reverse the university's steady downward swing. Though he says he doesn't have much faith in law schools, Wu believes he can make this one work.

As recently as 10 years ago, law school was the thing you did if you'd majored in literature or philosophy and couldn't figure out how to make money. A student who clawed his way to the top of the class had a good shot at a high-paying job. But when the economy crashed, so did the legal field. Harvard and Yale graduates weren't guaranteed job offers. Big firms were paying their new hires a reduced salary to go away for a year because there was no work for them. And when the year was up, there sometimes wasn't a job to come back to.

All those problems were exacerbated for students at UC Hastings, a 136-year-old public university near Civic Center that had always prided itself on being independent — it's one of the few in the country that doesn't have to answer to a larger institution — and on nurturing a lower-income, multicultural student body. The first law school in the University of California system, it's an ancient, venerable institution in a city that no longer cares about ancient, venerable institutions. San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, and former Mayor Willie Brown are among the school's notable alumni.

And yet traditionally, it's also been a people's school: the perfect institution for single moms wanting a second career, or strivers from farm towns in the Central Valley, or kids who were the first in their family to attend college. Tuition used to be low enough that students could pay their own way working parttime at a local firm. It was the school that offered a solid law education to people who might not get one otherwise.

But now, that's hard to sustain. State budget cuts have hobbled the university; meanwhile, to Wu's horror, law schools keep opening their doors all around the country, minting new would-be lawyers who want to settle in San Francisco and will further squeeze the city's already small legal job market.

And though law schools are ubiquitous, the worthwhile, American Bar Association-accredited ones — places like Stanford, Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, and Hastings — are becoming prohibitively expensive while offering no guarantee of a job.

Hastings, then, despite its well-intentioned faculty and aggressive programming — what other school has a Startup Legal Garage that teaches students how to make it on their own as lawyers in Silicon Valley? — had, just by virtue of being a law school, unwittingly become part of the problem.

Wu is the first to acknowledge that he cannot change the market. But with a little ingenuity, he can change the law school model, making it more interdisciplinary and more pragmatically job-oriented, even if that means slashing enrollment or acknowledging that some students might have to reinvent themselves as small-businesspeople. Lawyering might be an old, feudal business, but law schools won't survive if they don't adapt to the new economy, Wu says. That's the only way to keep Hastings, or any of its peers, afloat.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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