Meet the Dean: Michael Simons - Informal Conversations with the Deans of St. John's University

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Michael A. Simons, J.D., Dean of St. John’s School of Law and John V. Brennan Professor of Law and Ethics, joined St. John’s in 1998. Like his father before him ( Andrew J. Simons ’65L, Vice Dean Emeritus), Dean Simons came to the University after a distinguished career as a practicing attorney. He has been a federal prosecutor, a criminal defense lawyer and the staff attorney for The Washington Post. He was appointed Dean in 2009.

What was your first career aspiration?
My father was a lawyer, and my mother was a teacher. I always assumed I would become one or the other. I flirted with the idea of a music career when I was an undergraduate. I was having fun experimenting with electronic music — composing and splicing tapes in the studio. But a combination of stage fright and lack of talent soon put an end to that idea.

Do you remember your first day at St. John’s?
Yes, it was in June 1998. That was the day I found out that law professors don’t wear ties in the summer — only deans do.

Describe a typical workday for you as Dean.
Meetings, meetings, e-mails and then, more meetings. One of the wonderful things about being a dean is that I serve a lot of constituencies — students, faculty, alumni, administrators, staff, the broader University community, members of the legal profession and bar exam regulators. The variety of my responsibilities makes every work day interesting.

If you could be or do anything else, what might that be?
I would do research in cognitive psychology — I’ve always been fascinated by how the mind works.

What’s the one thing about you that very few people know?
It’s not quite a secret, but 25 years ago, I asked my high school girlfriend to marry me, and fortunately she said yes. I also don’t think it’s widely known that we rented a house boat this summer for our family vacation in the Thousand Islands.

Recently, with four teenagers at home, I’ve become very conversant with pop music.  I can talk with my daughters about their favorite singers in the boy band One Direction. Or, I can discuss the relative merits of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj with my sons. However, my own personal favorite is, of course, J Cole ’07CPS.

As Dean, how would you like to be remembered?
For proactively leading the Law School through a period of dramatic change due to the impact of globalization and technology. Legal education, like education in other professions, is adapting to new demands and marketplace competition.

One big change is that new lawyers are increasingly expected to be ready to practice law on the day they graduate. We have always been committed to producing graduates who are profession-ready, and that is more important now than ever before.

What five words or terms would you use to describe the School of Law?
Academically rigorous, effective, career-focused, transparent and caring. I am proud that our administration and faculty are so student-centered, and that we provide a family-like, supportive atmosphere.  

What’s your proudest achievement at St. John’s?
We’ve made major strides in becoming more focused on student career development. From the very first day they enter, students take part in a proactive and individualized career-related process that is fully integrated with their academic experience.

We have also gained recognition for transparency. St. John’s was one of only six law schools in the country to be awarded an A+ by The National Jurist magazine for the transparency of our employment outcomes.

What makes a degree from the Law School so valuable?
We have always been known for producing graduates who are well-trained, profession-ready, hardworking, eager for success and willing to put in the effort required to do the best possible job. This is what makes our graduates so attractive and appealing to employers.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give a student?
At Orientation in August, I told entering students to approach their legal education as if they were entrepreneurs. “You are the product,” I said, “and your next three years should be devoted to product development.”

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from a student?
Never give up and never underestimate what hard work can accomplish. When I first started teaching here, one of my students was ranked dead last in her class at the end of her first semester. Many students would have just given up, but she methodically consulted with her professors and changed the way she approached the material and prepared for exams.

Her grades steadily improved, and she ended up graduating in the top third of her class. Today she is not only a very successful lawyer, but she is also an adjunct professor at the Law School.