COLUMBIA — Almost every week, MU School of Law Dean R. Lawrence Dessem has lunch at Shakespeare's Pizza with five students from his civil procedure class.
He asks where they're from, what type of law they're interested in and what classes they're taking — but most of the time, he already knows.
That type of personal touch is characteristic of Dessem, according to students, alumni and faculty who have worked with him.
"He knew something about you," said second-year law student Lauren Collins, who had lunch with him last year. "You didn't have to sit down and explain your story."
After 10 years at MU, Dessem, 60, plans to step down as dean at the end of the semester to return to teaching.
His past few years have been marked by efforts to improve job placement for graduates of the Law School, especially after its rankings in U.S. News & World Report dropped almost 30 spots in one year.
When those rankings were released in April 2010, Dessem held a meeting to hear students express their frustrations. Since then, he has taken bold steps to address the situation:
- The career services office staff has expanded from two to six, and resources and programming have changed in an attempt to be more focused and useful.
- Dessem also pushed to decrease the size of the incoming class from 150 students to 135 to better reflect the job market for law graduates and to help career services focus its efforts.
- Employment rates for MU Law School graduates, which declined sharply from 2008 to 2009, are now on the rise.
Turning degrees into careers
In the past few years, the career services department has reached out to employers and the school's 6,700 alumni to help secure jobs for MU law students, Dessem said.
Students are invited to alumni receptions and other networking events. The department also began using software called Symplicity, which allows alumni to volunteer to review resumes and cover letters, conduct mock interviews or let students shadow them at work.
The software also makes job postings, on-campus interview announcements and job-hunting tips available in one online location. Job postings are searchable by type of law and geographical area.
"We didn't have a way for students to actively search jobs before," said Lisa Key, assistant dean of admissions, career development and student services.
In addition, a teleconferencing center that opened in fall 2011 allows students to talk to prospective out-of-state employers and to record mock interviews for later review.
When she was a first-year MU law student, Collins had minimal experience with the career services department. She found a summer position without seeking the office's help.
"That was in part because I had heard the horror stories about career services," she said.
But she had a positive experience working with the department this year. Director of Career Development Grant Shostak helped her tailor a cover letter and resume, and secure a summer position at the Miami-Dade County Public Defender's Office.
"He connected me with lawyers in the Miami area but ultimately gave me the tools to secure a position for the summer," she said.
Making those connections is at the heart of Dessem's approach to overhauling career services, he said.
He and the career services staff should be proud of efforts to improve the department, said Robert Bailey, assistant dean and director of the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution.
"The career services is now absolutely in first-rate shape," said Bailey, who has worked at MU for more than three decades.
Employment rates for MU School of Law graduates have improved from 78.5 percent employment for the class of 2009 nine months after graduation to 82.3 percent for the class of 2010.
The data for the class of 2011 have not yet been officially released, but the percentage is in the high 80s, Key said.
Dealing with the effects of the recession
When the economic recession hit in the middle of Dessem's tenure, the job market for law school graduates became bleak. The number of people employed in legal services declined 7.8 percent nationally from 2007 to 2011, according to the ABA Journal.
"The challenge has been, in the last couple years, legal employment for our graduates and for graduates across the country," Dessem said.
His excellent relationship with university administration helped him make changes to benefit MU law students, Bailey said.
By gaining the support of Chancellor Brady Deaton and Provost Brian Foster, the dean was able to boost staff in the career services department, adding directors of public service and public interest, professional development and diversity initiatives and outreach.
"Once it was determined that that was an area that needed bolstering, Larry immediately began lobbying central administration," Bailey said.
Dessem also received the university's endorsement on a decision to decrease the size of incoming classes from 150 to 135, starting with the class that entered in fall 2011. MU will cover the reduction in tuition revenues for at least four years, Dessem explained in a letter last year that announced his return to full-time teaching.
The smaller class size is intended to better reflect the job market and to teach topics such as contract drafting and corporate deals in a hands-on way.
"You can't do that if you have 50 people in your class," Dessem said.
A big challenge in the Law School's future will be retaining faculty as the recession recedes and other universities are able to make attractive offers to some MU law professors, he said.
But the small Law School has an atmosphere of collegiality that makes it less likely for professors to take those offers, Dessem said.
"Money is a motivator," he said, "but so is your environment."
Bailey said the good relationship among MU law professors, as well as between faculty and students, is apparent.
"If you walk around the halls, you'll see faculty here, you'll see their doors open," he said.
To Dessem's credit, the current Law School faculty are "astoundingly good," Bailey said.
"I've been here 33 years, so I've seen a lot of people come and go," he said. "One of the things that I can tell you is that our faculty today is as engaged and scholarly ... as in the time I've been here."
A top-notch teacher
Last week, Dessem took a day off — sort of.
Third-year law student Katie Vogt had won the chance to be "dean for a day" through a Women's Law Association auction, so they swapped roles.
While she discussed admissions with another dean and prepared to call alumni for year-end donations, Dessem was holed up in the library in jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap, getting ready to take notes for Vogt in her morning class.
Vogt asked if she could teach Dessem's civil procedure class, but that was one duty he would not trade.
Teaching is one of Dessem's loves, and he is highly regarded as a professor, Bailey said.
"Not only is he knowledgeable about the subject matter, but he is a very energetic, enthusiastic teacher," he said.
When Vogt took Dessem's class, he made civil procedure understandable and gave straightforward exams. He is "a very open kind of professor," she said.
In class, he asks questions of students who are obviously looking at their computers and not paying attention, Vogt said.
"He will rapid-fire call on people," she said.
Bailey said he was on vacation when Dessem called him to say he would be stepping down as dean at the end of this school year.
"My first question was: Will you stay on the faculty?"
Dessem said he would.
'One of the nicest people out there'
The feeling that the Law School is a community is what makes it special, Dessem said.
"It would be very hard to graduate from this law school without other students and faculty knowing who you are," he said.
He gets to know many of his students, remembering details about their lives from those Shakespeare's Pizza lunches years later. Vogt said he always connects her with her home state of Tennessee, where he used to work.
Eric Bohl, a 2006 MU School of Law graduate, visited Dessem in his office earlier this month on a stop in Columbia. Bohl works as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler in Washington, D.C., and said Dessem and his wife, Beth, visit Bohl every time they are in the city.
"They make you feel like a part of the family," Bohl said.
No one has ever complained about the dean except to say he's too nice, he said.
"He's not pretending — he really is one of the nicest people out there," he said.
Dessem said being too nice has never been an obstacle for him as a dean. He has never found a correlation between friendliness and a lack of strength as a leader.
"One can disagree, and one can disagree at a fairly fundamental level and still be quite civil and polite and quite nice," he said.
Working for the students
His favorite moment as dean each year is commencement. He has taught about half of every graduating class, and it makes him proud to see the students walk across the stage as their parents cheer.
A lot of graduates end up in smaller communities, where they get elected to the school board or quickly become state legislators.
"Most of these people are not going to be on the cover of news magazines, but their communities will be better for their service," Dessem said.
He also gets excited when students who have succeeded in big cities come back to visit, as Bohl did.
"This makes it all worthwhile, that we get to train and mentor people who are going to go out and change the world," he said.
Gary Myers, associate dean of research and a professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, will take over for Dessem on Aug. 15.
Dessem said he has loved being a dean, but he will be glad to join a long tradition of MU School of Law deans returning to teaching.
"At some point, you step back, you catch your breath and say, 'I've accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,'" he said.