Michael Fitts has overseen growth and prosperity at Penn law school

Posted: September 24, 2012

He was the ultimate lawyer role model, a valiant fighter for human rights who battled against steep odds.

The fondest hope of many young lawyers a generation ago was to be like the dashing Gregory Peck as he played Atticus Finch in the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Such was the case for Michael Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, who saw Finch as the embodiment of lawyerly ideals. To Fitts, Finch was a lawyer of incomparable decency, courage, and sure-handedness, as fine a lawyer prototype as you might want.

But these days Fitts is quick to point out the law has evolved in ways that would have been unimaginable to a lawyer like Atticus Finch in the small-town South of the 1930s.

To be sure, there are lawyers who still rush to the barricades on behalf of the dispossessed. But, spurred by demands from clients and wrenching economic changes, the legal profession is changing fast. Legal services are more commodified than a generation ago, and price competition in some practice areas has become fierce.

Clients, meantime, are bringing more work in-house, while telling their law firms not to assign young, freshly minted lawyers to their matters.

This has vastly complicated the task of law school deans such as Fitts, whose focus is trying to ensure that the legal training of Penn students matches on-the-ground realities.

"He was my model," Fitts says of Gregory Peck in the movie. "He could stand up in court and cross-examine witnesses and get to the heart of a problem. But you think about a lawyer today, and that lawyer is not necessarily in a small town. They are dealing with people across the globe, across cultural issues.

"They are dealing with clients who are experts in some other field. Many of these fields did not exist 50 years ago."

Adjusting to these new realities is expensive, and Penn law has been aggressively raising money to keep up. It plans to announce Monday that it raised a record $180 million in its latest capital campaign, begun in 2006. Much of that has already been put to use recruiting faculty, expanding programs, and boosting aid to students.

The school recently dedicated a major renovation, and its legal-education programs span the globe.

One group of students traveled to Uganda with professor William Burke-White, a former State Department official, to participate in negotiations between the government and rebels as part of a class on political reconciliation.

This kind of reach has won the school notice.

Respected legal blogger Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago law school, included Fitts on a list of nine law school deans who had transformed their institutions in the past decade.

Leiter said that Ivy League peers once viewed Penn as a poaching ground for promising faculty, but that the school now successfully fends off such raids.

Actually, it is a bit better than that. Penn has been recruiting faculty from other top law schools, as it did with the hiring of Paul Robinson, a leading criminal-law scholar, from Northwestern, and Cary Coglianese, a specialist in government regulation and administrative law, from Harvard, among others.

Faculty at the school has increased about 40 percent since Fitts took over as dean in 2000 after a long career on the faculty, while size of its first-year class has remained steady at around 240.

That is small compared to Harvard, where the entering class is about 600 students. But Fitts, who counts among his friends Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Yale law school classmate, says the plan always has been to hold to a smaller class size, the better to foster interaction between faculty and students.

Fitts, the man driving these changes is - but for years as an undergraduate at Harvard, a law student at Yale and a young lawyer with the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department in Washington - a lifelong Philadelphia resident.

He was raised a Quaker, is a big fan of the Law & Order television series, and is married with two adult children. He lives in Center City.

His father was on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and was chief of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Fitts' mother earned a graduate degree at Penn. His maternal grandfather was, for a time, dean of Wharton.

You might say Fitts joined the family business.

"I am a local," said Fitts, who went to Friends Select in Center City. "I love this city. I love the diversity and the sense of community. It is big, but not overwhelming."

Pamela Daley, a member of the Penn law board of overseers and senior vice president for corporate business development at General Electric, gives Fitts high marks for his leadership.

"What he has done is, he has transformed our law school," she said.

Under Fitts, interdisciplinary programs have been greatly expanded so that Penn law students do course work at Wharton, the medical school or other graduate schools, and about 50 percent take non-law school courses. It helps, Fitts said, that Penn is a geographically contained campus with Wharton and the other graduate schools only a few blocks away.

"Our ability to coordinate classes and teaching is unmatched," Fitts said. "There is not another university that has so many schools in such close proximity."

Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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