First year-- UDM dean highlights curriculum, creating student value as primary goals

By Mike Scott

Legal News

Lloyd Semple was having a great time serving as a professor at University of Detroit School of Law for nearly five years. Little did he know that at the age of 71, his role would significantly expand.

It has been more than a year since Semple was named the dean at UDM School of Law in April 2009, replacing Mark Gordon who left to become president at Defiance College in Ohio.

Semple accepted the position of distinguished visiting professor because he admits that he was not ready to stop working. As part of his teaching responsibilities, Semple taught a practical course that helped third-year students get ready to become practicing attorneys.

But now Semple is dealing with such issues as facility expansions and capital projects, both of which require fundraising. And that remains just as important as focusing on curriculum and enrollment.

Before his current role Semple spent more than 40 years at Dykema Gossett, including nearly seven years as chairman and CEO. In retirement from private practice, he found teaching at the law school to be a perfect fit. Now Semple understands both the challenges and opportunities he is faced with at UDM. And more than one year after taking over the law school's top position, his enthusiasm remains as high as ever.

"I accepted the position because I believed I could enhance the law school's reach and make a difference for the students and faculty," said Semple, who admits with a laugh that he did have to "negotiate" with his wife before making the final decision. "I was a non-traditional selection because I didn't grow up as a lawyer in the academic world. As a Dykema partner and chair of The Detroit Medical Center I had a different background."

What Semple quickly found, and something that didn't surprise him, is that serving as dean requires a significant time commitment. He continues to learn on the job each day. One of his current projects is working to upgrade and modernize the law school's facilities and classrooms. In the coming weeks UDM will begin to raise funds for a multi-million dollar campaign to update heating and cooling infrastructure around the downtown campus.

That fundraising will move forward now that the law school has decided to remain downtown rather than moving to UDM's McNichols campus adjacent to the Southfield Freeway, an option that was considered until very recently.

"We had to put the modernization plan on hold until we decided what to do with the campus," Semple said, referring to a topic that preoccupied a good portion of his time over the last several months. "We're going to be reactivating our fundraising efforts this fall."

In addition UDM recently hired a new information technology director who is in the process of making some recommendations to Semple and other administrators what the law school needs to maintain a high-tech profile.

"We know we have to improve there and not stand still with technology," Semple said.

Besides capital improvements and fundraising, one goal that he has stands out above all others as Semple is into his second year on the job.

"We have groundbreaking ideas to move our curriculum forward and that is really what we want to market," Semple said.

That groundbreaking curriculum as Semple calls it, includes a robust clinical program, legal services and courses that allow students to be prepared not just for the lawyering side of the profession but the practicing side as well. UDM School of Law will continue to grow its reach into such specialty courses as immigration, healthcare, arbitration and mediation, mortgage and foreclosure work and more, he said.

The school's externship program, which allows students to work for prosecutors, private firms, within judicial offices and more allow these students accessibility to a wealth of experience before the take the bar exam. And UDM's Law Firm Program for third-year law students gives them exposure in what their jobs following school will be like in a real-life way.

"This program is taught by practicing lawyers who are experts in their field and very well respected," Semple said. "Because of that our students are treated exactly as they would as an associate at a firm. They aren't just reading cases and working out of a book."

The school's Veteran's Clinic, known as Project Salute, helps veterans around the state pursue their government benefits. In fact, students even go around the country to help veterans who otherwise would find it difficult to understand how best to pursue their rightful benefits.

Those types of curriculum programs are why UDM stands out, and is a reason why Semple took the position, and still is in it today, he says. The quality of these programs also helps to balance out the challenges of recruiting top-flight professors and instructors to the school.

"We are not immune to some of the recruiting difficulties that the private sector is experiencing here in Michigan," Semple said. "But the innovative curriculum helps because good lawyers want to teach at great schools. We are able to recruit not just talent but students from out of state largely because of our externship and internship programs."

One of the other big challenges that Semple faces is ensuring that law school students achieve a measurable return on their investment, a financial cost that averages to about $100,000 over three years.

Much of that cost is funded by personal debt, something that may be difficult for the average student to amortize upon graduation, particularly in this current economy and difficult job market.

"We need to make sure that a (law) degree from UDM is recognized as having value," Semple said. "That's why relationships with alumni, law firms and having a strong career services office are all so important."

Semple also recognizes the importance of marketing UDM's benefits as the competition from other in-state schools has risen. The University of Michigan Law School, Semple's alma mater, remains one of the top law schools in the country. Wayne State, Michigan State and Cooley have engaged in aggressive marketing efforts to attract students, and are targeting students with a variety of backgrounds, Semple said.

But that doesn't mean that UDM will take any and all students. Semple wants to make sure that students who do come to the law school are likely to be successful.

"I could fill my first-year classrooms if I wanted us to take students' money," Semple said. "Because classroom sizes are larger for first-years, it is a more profitable type of course for the law school. But I have a moral responsibility to invest in students we believe will (graduate),"

There are many similarities to being the dean at UDM School of Law and Semple's previous role as managing partner at Dykema. Both types of organizations can be "flat," Semple said, meaning that various stakeholders want access to the main decision-maker. At law schools, that also includes alumni and other influential donors.

"At Dykema I worried about marketing and strategy," Semple said. "Here it's more about fundraising. But in both roles I am responsible for helping people to deal with various issues. It is a people business."

Published: Thu, Jul 15, 2010