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Meet the Dean: Michael Simons, J.D.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

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.

What’s been the biggest change in your college since you became dean?
We are a far more global institution than when I became dean.  Since 2009, we established the St. John’s Center for International and Comparative Law, added two Transnational LL.M. programs, added a host of exchange opportunities, and greatly expanded our international law curriculum.  We now have over a dozen partner schools in China, and several more in other parts of the world.  In the past several years, students in our graduate programs have come from 54 different countries.

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.

What’s one thing about your job you’d like to change?
I sometimes long for a world without e-mail.

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?
I am quite handy with a wok, and I can make a mean Kung Pao Chicken.

As dean, how would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered for two things.  First, I’d like to be remembered for proactively leading the Law School through a period of great stress and change for legal education, and having it emerge stronger than ever.  St. John’s Law is on a remarkable upward trajectory, in part because we are relentlessly focused on getting our students jobs.  Second, I’d like to be remembered as someone who loved the Law School, was dedicated to its students, and helped continue our tradition of excellence. We are celebrating our 90th year in 2015-2016 and I want to be remembered as preparing St. John’s Law for another 90 years of success.

If you could live in another time period, when would that be?
I really believe that there’s no time like the present.

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. St. John’s Law really is like a family.

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’ve also made major strides in engaging our alumni in making the Law School great.  The St. John’s Law family is wonderful about supporting, mentoring, and hiring our students.

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?
It was one of my students (one who had endured some significant hardships herself) who taught me about the psychological concept of “grit.”  In the end, resilience, perseverance, and passion for long-term goals are among the most important indicators of success.  Never give up and never underestimate what hard work can accomplish.