New University of Maine Law School Dean Wants to Help Underserved

Sep 11, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine — Law schools are being forced to change how they prepare the next generation of lawyers, as the profession goes through a period of intense upheaval.

The 47-year-old woman tasked with overhauling legal education in Maine has a diverse personal and professional background.

Danielle Conway, the new dean of the University of Maine Law School, is African-American, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and a scholar with a special focus on communities with limited access to legal services.

Conway has taught at Georgetown University Law Center. She's published regularly in law reviews and lectured all over the world. She's also down-to-earth and quick to poke fun at herself.

"Oh, you found me out now!" she says. "I'm a trekker."

A book case in Conway's office at the University of Maine Law School contains some Star Trek memorabilia, including a miniature model of the USS Enterprise.

"I love everything Star Trek," she says. "A trekker is a more legitimized fan than a trekkie."

While she may be a Star Trek fan, the new dean is not a fan of the way lawyers are portrayed on TV. As Conway sees it, they usually come across as boring, celebrity obsessed or predatory.

"We need to steer students away from this media narrative of what lawyers are doing," she says. "The law is a calling. Serving one's community is a significant and valuable exercise."

Conway says law schools, including UMaine's, haven't been doing a good job getting this message out. It's one reason, she says, why enrollment has been declining in recent years.

UMaine first-year class this fall has 82 students, compared to 96 in the fall of 2010. The high cost of a law degree, despite a recent tuition freeze, and program and staff cuts have also contributed to the enrollment decline.

"Her approach was, 'Bring it on!'" says Maine's chief justice, Leigh Saufley. She believes Conway can attract more students and refocus the school's mission.

"And I'm not sure if part of it is this wonderful military background. She has an attitude of, 'We can do this! We can make the changes that are necessary,'" she says.

Born in Philadelphia, Conway says her mother is her inspiration. She got her law degree at night, while Conway was still in high school, and eventually opened a law clinic in the basement of the family's North Philly home.

An ROTC scholarship paid Danielle Conway's way through NYU. Howard Law School followed.

Conway served in the headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and taught at Georgetown before heading to Hawaii for another military assignment.

"My experience with military really shaped me in terms of discipline and ethics and responsibility and obligation," she says.

With her mom and the military as her guide, Conway devoted special attention to underserved and indigenous communities. Jim Burke, a professor at UMaine Law, says that makes her well-suited to convince more law school graduates to set up shop in small towns.

"There's needs in Maine, huge needs in Maine for lawyers in the rural areas, and to serve a very large population in Maine because law has gotten so expensive," he says.

The need for these kinds of services come at a time when big law firms have been downsizing and outsourcing work. Conway already has several initiatives in the works to attract more students and get them excited about working in some of these underserved areas.

"The first initiative is a pipeline program for high school students, as well undergraduate students, to be immersed in the law in a five-week program, here at the law schools," she says.

Under the program, which Conway hopes will be funded by grants and support from big corporate law firms, the bulk of the work students do will be on behalf of those in those underserved communities in Maine that the law profession is failing to reach.