Dean Ferruolo Speaks About Job, the School, Dean’s Mixers

He may have 20-plus years of serious legal practice under his belt, but after meeting Stephen Ferruolo, the newly appointed dean of the law school, you cannot help but notice his natural ability as a teacher.  When I sat down with Dean Ferruolo (pronounced Ferrulo) in late August, the meeting felt more like a lesson than an interview.  I expected to walk away from our meeting with more knowledge as to who he was as a person and what he planned to do for the school, but as I bid farewell to Dean Ferruolo and his chipper administrative staff, my head was full of sage advice from the professor-turned-lawyer-turned-dean, and I was feeling strangely motivated as a student (which is hard to come by as a third year).  While nothing he conveyed to me during our interview was revolutionary, his passion for academic excellence and the legal community was infectious.

It should come as no surprise that Dean Ferruolo would have a knack for instruction, before attending law school at Stanford he was a history professor for eight years at the same institution.  His natural charisma and enthusiasm for academia make it easy to see why he won the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service as a professor at Stanford University.  But it was not just Dean Ferruolo’s academic experience that scored him the deanship; his work as a transactional attorney at Heller Ehrman LLP and Goodwin Procter LLP caught the eye of the school.  According to a statement released by USD, “[Ferruolo] is a rare combination – an attorney who has practiced law extensively at the highest levels and who also has a deep understanding of academic excellence and students’ needs.”  Ferruolo himself sees why his background would be a good fit for the Dean position.  “I understand the demands of scholarship and of rigorous academic training,” he says.

While it may seem obvious how someone with his expertise in both fields would make him a good candidate for dean, Ferruolo never anticipated running the law school.  When asked why he made the jump from attorney back to school administration he shrugged, “I’m completely surprised that I’m here.”  After attending a USD Law distinguished alumni event where he sat with several assistant deans, he considered doing some adjunct teaching, but he never imagined he would one day be the boss.  “But things work out,” he says, “because there are a lot of law schools that are looking for deans who have ties into the broader legal and business community.”

So what is it exactly that drew the man to the job?  It was evident during our talk that Ferruolo has a sincere adoration for the school and he was not short on praise.  “This is a great law school,” he says.  “I know this law school because some of the best lawyers I’ve ever worked with are USD graduates.  There’s great faculty, great students, great staff.  There’s a great spirit here.  This is not a nasty, competitive, cutthroat, sharp-elbows place for students.”  Dean Ferruolo also found the “strong foundation” laid by former Dean Kevin Cole appealing.  “Our students are getting that really hands-on practical experience which is an important complement to a very strong academic legal training.  I see my role as really building upon those strengths.”

Surprisingly, Ferruolo had a hard time divulging what he thought needed improvement, “I think things are pretty good.  Kevin Cole did a really good job in terms of building up the administrative support.”  And for those worried about the fate of Cole’s Dean Mixers, have no fear, Ferruolo says they are here to stay.  “Dean Mixers will be happening.  I’m really looking forward to it.  If people have particular views on things we can do to make those mixers better, that would be great.”

But surely the school is not perfect or else it would not have fallen from 56 to 67 in the 2012 US News Law School rankings.  After some pressing, Dean Ferruolo admitted one area that needed serious improvement.  “I think the thing that I would really put at the top of my list is we’ve got to deal with the financial situation of the students.  We’ve got to increase the money for scholarships and we’ve got to build a strong financial support for a loan forgiveness program.”

I agreed that the crippling debt taken on by most law-school graduates was a pressing matter, but what about the notorious decrease in California bar passage rates?  Ferruolo took on a somewhat defensive attitude towards the topic, “a number of programs have been put in over the past couple of years to support students and assist with bar passage.  We need to see what happens with the July bar results, [to know] if those programs are working.  But we’re not going to become a bar passage school.  That is not USD.  This place is academically excellent.  The students here who have a strong academic training and prepare for the bar should do just fine.”  Dean Ferruolo wanted to emphasize that all the responsibility should not be placed on the school.  “My view is that once you have a strong and sound legal education, the key to passing the bar is to take a bar review course and do nothing but study for two months.”

Despite his aversion to becoming a “bar passage school,” Ferruolo does support additional programs to help push students towards success on the bar.  This year the school introduced an Introduction to the Study of Law course, which is required for first year students.  Ferruolo hopes the course will give students a leg-up.  “The introduction to the study of law is to help give people a little bit of a push,” he says, “and a jump start in terms of how to analyze cases.”  He also wants to reinvigorate third-year students and better prepare them for the bar and their future careers.  While concrete plans as to how the school will accomplish this are still in the works, Dean Ferruolo says he wants to find a way to “make [third years] continue to apply themselves with the rigor and the discipline that its going to take to pass the bar.”

In fact, discipline, says Ferruolo, is the key to success in law school, a career, and life.  When Ferruolo spoke to the incoming students at orientation, he made sure to highlight how important it was that law students maintain discipline throughout their law school career.  “As I said at orientation, you have to come in and do the very best you can in all your courses.  Really think about the best courses you can take, the best courses for the kinds of things you want to do and don’t be frightened away from them because they’re known to be tougher or meet at 8:30 in the morning.”  He was also very adamant that students avoid slacking off their third year, which he says “is not good for preparing for the bar and it’s not good for preparing for work.”

According to Ferruolo, balance, in combination with discipline, is also a law student’s best bet for success, not only in school, but also in life.  “You have to prepare for a long life of working, a life where you’re going to change jobs and careers potentially multiple times.  So how do you find the core, strength, stamina to do that?  It goes back to this concept of discipline,” he says.  However, maintaining balance as a student or attorney is very important, “because if you’re completely driven you’ll burn out.  You can’t push yourself beyond where you can sustain it.”

The father of two personally knows how important it is to have balance.  At the moment, Ferruolo is still wrapping up work with Goodwin Procter and continues to serve as the vice chairman of BIOCOM/San Diego, the largest regional life science association in the world according to BIOCOM’s website.  He also remains active with CONNECT, a regional program designed to link inventors and entrepreneurs with the tools to commercialize their products.  On top of all of his responsibilities, he is also a father to daughter Christina, 15, and son Stephen, 13, as well as a husband to his wife, Julie who is also a corporate transactional lawyer.

So how does Dean Ferruolo balance a family, a career, and extracurricular activities?  Between cooking and traveling, he strives to make ample time for his family.  “We love to travel as a family.  We do a combination of pleasure and cultural travels.  We just had three weeks in Italy and Switzerland in June.”  Ferruolo says physical exercise is also important, “I think that you’ve got to stay physically fit.  I talked with the new students about balance; I think physical exercise should be part of that balance in life.  I exercise pretty much everyday.”  It also helps that he shares a career interest with his wife, who will be a supervisor in the Entrepreneurship Clinic here at USD. 

Discipline and balance seem to have worked out well for the new dean.  After almost a decade of teaching and two decades of legal practice, he has found a way to combine the two for what he hopes to be a successful career at the law school.  “I really enjoyed my three years of law school and I really enjoyed 20 years of legal practice,” he said.  “It was a lot of fun.”  But like most teachers, one day he hopes to bring it full circle: “Ten years from now I hope I will be teaching.”

In the meantime, Ferruolo will strive to incorporate his past career experience as dean.  “I understand the academic side of law school and that’s extremely important, but I also understand the changes in the legal marketplace and the need to better educate our students for that legal market place.”

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