UNLV law dean: Goal is to be a significant regional player

Getting past the fact that UNLV houses the only law school in Nevada, its dean, John Valery White, is one cool character (with an astonishing résumé). Just how did he land at our doorstep?

One of many problems with rankings is that they ask you: ‘How much like Yale are you?’ That’s not always appropriate. Yale is one of the handful of schools that can have any student they want.”

Fifteen years ago, Las Vegas didn’t have a law school. Nevada didn’t have a law school. All legal talent was imported from other states.

In 1998, UNLV opened its William S. Boyd School of Law. In a self-proclaimed libertarian city where just two in every ten people have earned a college degree, UNLV Law School Dean John Valery White is an obvious stand-out—and he hopes to make many of his students stand-out citizens, too.

After graduating from Southern University and Yale Law School, White worked at Human Rights Watch in New York City and at Louisiana State University as a professor before taking the top job at UNLV’s School of Law in 2007. His expertise? Civil rights, human rights, discrimination cases and racial law.

White says he’s a great fit for Las Vegas, and in particular, for the students at UNLV. The dean sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss what UNLV’s law school means to our business community, and his goals for his still-fledgling law school.

What’s the benefit of having a law school at UNLV?

It gives an opportunity to Nevadans to stay in-state to get an excellent legal education. Our students are very, very active. From the very earliest days, our students are getting to know the legal community here. Even if you have a student who may go off and practice patent law or corporate law, they still have a sense of what the community here is like. They have to know the problems that are out there.

What percentage of UNLV law students work in Nevada after graduation?

About 90 percent of our students take the Nevada Bar when they come out, which would mean they have some intent of staying. Probably 80 percent of them practice here for some period of time.

UNLV is the only law school in the state. It seems like Las Vegas would have to import most of its lawyers.

The legal community here was growing very rapidly even before we were open. People were coming to Nevada from other places and, naturally, Nevadans who had gone away for law school, were coming back and setting up practices. The difference is that we stopped as many people from leaving the state as possible. But then also, we place those students here, where, as I mentioned before, they’re getting involved in the community. We’re substantial. No school has as many students taking the Nevada Bar each year, but our students are still less than half of the law graduates taking the Nevada Bar in any given year.

How do you think the high volume of imported talent imapcts our legal climate?

It raises the question about their knowledge and their commitment to the community. But an attorney can move here from somewhere else and be as committed as anyone else. The more important thing is the value of our institution to our students.

What do you think UNLV saw in you?

I’m not really sure (laughing). I think they saw somebody who’s enthusiastic and committed to the values that were built into the school from the beginning. And they wanted someone who was familiar with the complexities of a public school. At least, that’s what I told them I could bring.

Your background seems unique for someone in Las Vegas’ legal community.

I wouldn’t say so. Legal education is its own universe. Most law professors are hired from a national market, and most deans are hired when they’re professors. It’s not unusual for someone to move clear across the country. If you’re in the market to be a dean, it’s important that you find a school that matches your values as an educator.

How did UNLV match your values?

What I’ve done from the beginning is emphasize skills a young lawyer will need: Professionalism along with traditional, rigorous, analytic training. I wanted to do so in a place that also emphasized legal scholarship heavily. For me, it was that combination. It was also important to me to be at a school that cared about the community it was in. In that sense, my background in human rights and civil rights is consistent with my current job. Our students are encouraged to be involved in their community, and to pay attention to the things they care about.

What type of law do most of your graduates practice?

This is a legal market that’s characterized by small law firms. Our students are typically doing general practice when they start, then concentrate as they move along.

What would entice someone who attended Stanford, to come to UNLV’s law school?

I think it’s our reputation as an up-and-coming place. We’re a place that emphasizes skills and professionalism along with rigorous scholarship. An interest in being in Las Vegas for a period of time, if not settling in Nevada. Our goal is to be a significant regional player in short order. Our ultimate goal is to be an excellent national law school. I think the city would benefit immensely from us achieving those goals.

Is UNLV Law a significant regional player?

Yes. I think we’re among schools in the region that everybody considers. Our students who are committed to being in Nevada have unparalleled access to courts and other political leaders here. We have a faculty that’s extremely well regarded, so you’re not going to lose anything by coming here. We’ve used these things to not only attract faculty, but also to bring in an ever-improving student body. Right now our student body is up there with all of the regional schools of significance: Utah, San Diego, Arizona State or the University of Arizona. If you looked at the entering data on our students—such as LSAT scores, undergraduate GPA, schools attended—it’s commensurate with those schools. I think that’s in large part because we’ve become the school of choice for Nevadans, as we should be. We’re below truly established places like UCLA, which I wouldn’t say we compete with.

Do you think having a law school here is important for the business community?

Yes. I think that our students, in addition to knowing what kinds of social problems exist in the city, get to know the business culture in the town. I think that’s an irreplaceable head start that our students have. Building those contacts early on has been crucial, especially as the city has grown.

You think it’s mutually beneficial.

Yes. Absolutely.

Compare where you went to law school, Yale, with UNLV.

One of many problems with rankings is that they ask you: “How much like Yale are you?” That’s not always appropriate. Yale is one of the handful of schools that can have any student they want. That allows them to create a school that’s heavily about policy that has an elite faculty. Our focus is to develop lawyers who can work in Las Vegas, Elko, Reno and in cities like those in the region—St. George, Phoenix and so on. The experiences that lawyers will have in those places are different from what most of the graduates from Yale will encounter. We want to give them a great education while exposing them to the kinds of challenges that people in this community and communities like it have. This isn’t to say we don’t believe in excellence. We want to build a school that’s appropriate for Las Vegas.

Do you think your experience of Las Vegas is different because you’re a person of color?

No. I think in my job, at least, I’m out in the community quite a lot. I have uncommon access to people in the community. I don’t know that I’ve seen that. Having come from a town less than half the size of Las Vegas, Baton Rouge, I’m not surprised by it.

Are UNLV Law graduates able to find jobs in Las Vegas?

Nobody can find jobs easily. The market here has been better here for our graduates than it has been in other cities. If we can continue to produce excellent students who are focused on their craft, people will take notice. One thing firms here don’t want is for people to work here for a bit and leave. With our graduates, there’s no question. That’s a substantial advantage we have in this community. We’re tied to the fate of this community.

Have the NDA, LVCVA or business-development organizations contacted you?

No, but I’d be happy to talk with them.

How have budget cuts affected the law school?

The most obvious consequence is that the cost of going here has gone up a lot.

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  1. Good luck. Given the republican war on education and teachers - this is a goal that might prove lofty.