Eye to the future


New dean of Wayne State Law to map a 5-year strategic plan

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Back in his home state, after more than two decades of living and working on the East Coast, Richard Bierschbach, Wayne State University Law School’s new dean, has some sage advice for first year law students.

“Law school is going to be the most rigorous and transformative intellectual experience of your life,” Bierschbach proclaimed. “But it also is going to be the most rewarding. Studying and discipline are essential. But so are human skills—professionalism, courtesy, responsibility, ownership, collaboration, respect. Practice and cultivate those skills from the outset; they will take you far.”

Formerly the vice dean at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Bierschbach, who officially begins his duties at Wayne State August 17, replaces Jocelyn Benson, who served as dean from 2012-16.
 The 45-year-old Bierschbach, a graduate of University of Michigan Law School, already is working towards developing a five-year strategic plan that will borrow some ideas from a similar proposal he put forward at Cardozo, while basing the crux of the initiative on the future of Wayne State Law School.

“When I’ve done this before, it’s always been a very iterative and collaborative process, and I think that’s the way it should and needs to be in order to be effective. I’ve got several areas that I’ve already been thinking about as priorities for the first year—new programs to address the changing market for legal education, diversity and inclusion, jobs, increasing the profile of the school. But that’s not an exclusive list, and I’m also new to the institution and the community, and so I’m sure my views will evolve just like everybody else’s,” Bierschbach said. “I’ll obviously want to work closely with our faculty, university leadership, the law school’s board of visitors, community members, and other interested stakeholders to chart a course that we are all excited about and that positions the law school to excel in the years ahead.”

At Cardozo, Bierschbach gained national attention for his scholarship in criminal law and procedure and also led the creation of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that was aimed at providing guidance and support on a number of issues to under-represented students.

“In my view, diversity and inclusion are moral imperatives for every law school, and even more so for a school like Wayne State University that has longstanding and laudable access and social justice missions.  In today’s world, exposure to and competency engaging with issues of diversity and inclusion are also essential skills for effective lawyers and leaders.

 “You also need to provide support and guidance to under-represented, first generation, and other students as they navigate challenges presented by law school and the legal profession; and partnerships with student affinity groups and local and state bar associations, employers, and other organizations to facilitate professional and community engagement around issues of diversity and inclusion,” added Bierschbach, who earned his bachelor’s degree from U-M in 1994.

Wayne Law’s location in the heart of city also has prompted Bierschbach to consider how the school can play a larger part in Detroit’s revitalization by sharing more of its resources to the population at large and encouraging its students to continue to engage through legal clinics and other types of community outreach.

“Our work with under-represented communities is becoming even more important as Detroit continues to revitalize,” Bierschbach said. “I expect Wayne law to continue to play a vital role in the city, and as I get to know the players we’ll see where we can add the most value. It’s good for the city, it’s good for the school, and it’s something we’re already doing a fair amount of through the work of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.”

Coming back to Michigan has benefits for Bierschbach that go beyond his professional life. It was where he grew up, attended public schools, and is where his parents and extended family still reside.

“For me, if it weren’t for Michigan’s public education system I wouldn’t be where I am today. I didn’t feel particularly challenged until I reached high school, then I realized there was a whole new world I hadn’t experienced. I started eating that up,” said Bierschbach, who graduated first in his class at U-M Law School and later clerked for retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor.

“The opportunities that the Michigan public education system provided to me transformed my life, so in a way what we’re doing at the law school, the doors we are trying to open and the impact we are trying to have feels personal.”

What also is important to Bierschbach is the opportunity to be in closer proximity to his mother, a retired teacher, and his father, who retired from Steelcase in Grand Rapids 15 years ago.

“My dad started out building chairs on the line there, working the night shift, and worked his way up to being a plant manager without ever having a college degree. He’s also incredibly intellectually curious and a voracious reader. I think just seeing him as a role model was a big part of what drove my own curiosity and sense if I worked and studied hard I could rise,” Bierschbach said.

“My mom spent her whole ‘life as a public pre-school teacher and her immigrant parents – who were peasant farmers in Russia and Poland with almost no formal education – insisted that she and her three siblings all go to college.”

As he settles into life in Michigan, Bierschbach said he is looking forward to ensuring Wayne Law’s future as a provider of legal education that is responsive to the challenges that new lawyers face.

“Wayne Law is a fantastic school with a lot of impressive assets—it has high-caliber students, it produces practice-ready lawyers that go on to good jobs, it has a dedicated alumni base, and it’s part of an important Carnegie I research university which gives it a lot of room for synergies and collaborations as the market for legal education changes. Its social justice and access missions—and the larger mission of public education—are ones that I believe deeply in,” Bierschbach said.