Dean’s fireside chat: A conversation with Angela Onwuachi-Willig

February 5, 2024
Michael Waterstone (left) and Angela Onwuachi-Willig
Michael Waterstone (left) and Angela Onwuachi-Willig

The best thing about running a top law school. Changes and challenges to higher education. The impact of movements to disrupt diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The ongoing importance of speaking truth to power. And … fabulous athletic footwear! When, on January 29, UCLA School of Law Dean Michael Waterstone hosted the first in his series of fireside chats with the most esteemed leaders in the law and beyond, no topic was off limits.

Waterstone and his guest, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who serves as the dean and Ryan Roth Gallo Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law, spoke at UCLA Law before a collection of faculty and staff members. They offered an hour-long discussion that probed many reaches of the most pressing matters that law school deans confront today.

Onwuachi-Willig’s rise through the legal academy, they noted, paralleled that of Waterstone, a longtime friend from when the two were “baby professors” at different law schools. She joined Boston University’s law school as dean in 2018 after having served as the Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

The sneakers worn by Michael Waterstone (left) and Angela Onwuachi-Willig.
Sporting their school colors.

The rise of these forward-looking leaders came at an opportune time when, Onwuachi-Willig said, “people seemed more open to change in the legal academy than they had ever been.” That, she emphasized, is what excited her about taking on the role: a hope to “change the legal academy” for the better. To be sure, when Waterstone asked her what she particularly enjoys about the job, Onwuachi-Willig said, “I love just having a seat at the table” – seizing the opportunity to steer the ways in which lawyers are educated, accredited or supported in serving the community, and, more broadly, taking an active role in the growth of higher education during an especially dynamic moment or even in the city where she works.

“We have huge platforms as academics, I think, but it’s an even bigger platform when you’re a law dean. People listen to the things that deans say. We have access to people, and we can get meetings with people that we otherwise wouldn’t get,” she said, recounting the ease with which she once called an especially senior judge to discuss alternative pathways to legal careers.

But challenges – from the push to diversify the law to managing the steep costs of legal education for students and prospective students – she and Waterstone agreed, abound.

“I think some faculty members would say that preparing our students for what will be a shift that we can’t even predict,” in terms of A.I.’s impact on the law, is a big challenge, she said. Others, she added, would simply point to the consequences of not adapting legal education to meet the times, including demographic shifts in the student population.

The concerns, in other words, were issues that a law school dean in Boston and a law school dean in Los Angeles find to be universal. And it is from her position on the East Coast, Onwuachi-Willig said, that she thinks of UCLA Law as an institution with a “phenomenal” faculty and that leads in important areas including critical race studies and public interest law: “I think of all the people here whom I greatly admire.”

At the end, however, Waterstone and Onwuachi-Willig took a moment to admire something else: their shoes. In a fully unplanned coincidence, both had come to the event wearing sneakers, hers in the scarlet and white of Boston University, and his in the blue and gold of UCLA. It was, many in the room mused, certainly apt – two legal leaders who, quite literally, walk the walk.

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