‘A noble calling’: Q&A with Dean Michael Waterstone

September 5, 2023
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On Aug. 1, 2023, Michael Waterstone began his term as the 10th dean of UCLA School of Law.

The moment marked a change in leadership at the law school, following the departure of Dean Jennifer Mnookin, who now serves as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the tenure of Interim Dean Russell Korobkin.

For Waterstone, who joins UCLA Law after serving as the dean of LMU Loyola Law School for seven years, the move was a big change, too – but it also marked a return to the university where he earned his undergraduate degree, and which has remained a major part of his adult life. “I am on cloud nine,” he says with a big smile. “I love that I get this opportunity to serve.”

In addition to his service at Loyola, where he was on the faculty for 17 years, Waterstone is a disability law scholar who was a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, a litigation attorney at Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles and a judicial law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Here, we welcome Waterstone with a discussion about what makes UCLA great, the value of lawyers and what he hopes to accomplish as the page turns on another chapter in UCLA Law’s history.

Do you agree that your arrival here is the start of a new era for UCLA Law?
I would approach it with more humility than that. Any leadership transition is a moment for the community, and periods in any law school’s development tend to be marked by who was the dean during that period. That said, if, when I’m done, I look back and say, “Together as a community, we accomplished these two or three or four big things, and we left the various members of our community feeling more invested and better about their ties with the community than we found them,” then I would feel like that was good.

Is it too early for you to know what those two or three or four big things are?
I think it is. The one thing that I feel now that I want to start working on immediately is a sense of rebuilding community. And that’s not a UCLA Law issue – that’s a world issue. The ties that bind us together have been torn and fragmented, coming out of the pandemic and just changes in the world, and I want to prioritize using my office and me as dean to make people feel a new sense of investment and excitement around UCLA School of Law.

Of course, your investment in the UCLA community goes back many years, to when you were an undergrad. Could you talk about your personal attachment to this institution?
I’m happy to be personal on this, because it’s genuine. I applied to two colleges: UCLA and Cal State University Northridge. I’m from the San Fernando Valley and grew up right next to CSUN. But getting into UCLA and coming here altered the trajectory of my life and gave me a life I never could have dreamed of when I was a teen, coming to Bruin basketball camps. I mean, UCLA, when you grow up in Los Angeles and California, is this symbol of excellence. It was always, like, the dream.

And then the dream came true!
It did! I got in, and I remember my parents taking me to move into the Hitch Suites on the top of the Hill. And I absolutely loved college. I got to know professors who really seemed to care about me but also pushed me, I met people from all over Los Angeles, all over the state and probably all over the country and world. It was such a fun, exciting, rich time. I just love this place. I have felt connected to UCLA ever since – even though I’ve lived all over the place and traveled all over the place. I still have basketball tickets with my college friends.

Beyond your personal connection, could you explain why UCLA is such a special place?
To me, UCLA demonstrates what can happen when you bring together a set of talented, diverse individuals from lots of different places and backgrounds, and it really lives out the best of our wonderfully diverse city and state, forming so many talented citizens and leaders. There is also a culture here that I felt as a student and that I am already feeling now, just since I’ve been back: People are nice. Maybe this is a stereotype about Los Angeles or the West Coast, but life is too short to not be nice. It doesn’t mean that you can’t advocate – you absolutely should – and it doesn’t mean that you can’t stake out heartfelt, important positions and advocate forcefully for them. But we can and should treat each other kindly as we go through that. That has always seemed woven into the fabric of this place.

Does that sensibility inform your philosophy of what a dean does?
I think, ultimately, a dean is about providing the space for members of the community to flourish and live out their highest potential. That’s certainly the case for students. It’s the case for our staff colleagues and our faculty colleagues – to really create the conditions for human thriving and flourishing. But, as dean, you realize how little you can do yourself. Unless I am inspiring and motivating others toward a common goal, we’re just going to run into a wall pretty quickly. That starts with my leadership team but then extends out in concentric circles. Making sure that I’m not doing any of this work alone is key, that it is always in a team context.

What are some major challenges that you see your team tackling?
I’m still learning both challenges and opportunities here at UCLA Law. But there are a few big headwinds facing higher education, legal education and public education: the cost of tuition, rapid technological change within the profession that requires us to continue to adapt, and the fact that we’re at kind of a low moment in terms of public perception of the value of higher education in general, which goes along with declining state support for flagship institutions like UCLA. Another challenge that we need to keep our eye on is the evolving regulation of legal education and regulatory changes for the profession. We see a lot brewing at the California level, whether it is the licensing of non-lawyers for some segment of legal practice, or whether it’s outside investment into what were previously just law firms or legal entities. There are big changes coming, and truly grappling with what will be the role of technology and how legal products and services are delivered is something that we will need to focus on.

Why is legal education and being a lawyer important?
I love being a lawyer and teacher of the law. I think serving someone else’s interests, in this case, a client’s interest, is a noble endeavor – we are a service profession, and that is a noble calling, in and of itself. Whatever challenges and opportunities we face as a society, the law is a fulcrum lever to creating any change one wants. So, there is extraordinary value in understanding that system. The way that we deliver legal education is a mode of learning and analysis that has stood the test of time in terms of providing value not just to our graduates but to the world, in terms of producing citizens who are able to work on complex problems and be leaders in society.

As you learn about the history and values of UCLA Law, what excites you?
I’m still learning, but I’m trying to be an active student of our history. I think it is probably three things. The first is excellence. From the beginning, UCLA Law was set up to not just be another regional law school but to be truly excellent and a leader in delivering legal education with a national platform and a national reputation. That excellence has remained and is exciting. The second piece is inclusivity. I think that is a value that certainly exists now, but it didn’t spring out of nowhere, and it is central to how our entire university thinks about its place in the world of higher education. As I mentioned before, the inclusivity of UCLA as a community has had a personal impact on my life. And then the third thing: collegiality. This has always been known, throughout my time as a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles and in legal education, as a place that is collegial. People are kind and treat each other well, and that’s needed in the world that we live in.

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