Steady influence: Book traces history of Wayne Law by focusing on the school's students

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Most histories of law schools focus on the notable deans and professors, and the changes in curricula over time.

In “Detroit’s Wayne State University Law School: Future Leaders in the Legal Community,” author Alan Schenk highlights the students and their influence on the school’s development, character, and employment opportunities.

Schenk, a longtime professor at Wayne State Law School, has devoted his academic career to tax law and is regarded as an expert on value added taxation (VAT). His decision to write a book about the law school stemmed from a question posed by his wife, Betty, in the fall of 2014 when she asked him if he was the longest serving faculty member there.

“When I determined that I was, I started reminiscing about my years at Wayne, my students, my colleagues, and the law school administration,” Schenk wrote in the preface to the book. “I taught at almost a dozen law schools and I always returned to Wayne – for two important reasons. First, I was treated well at Wayne and there is a tendency to return to a place that treats you well. Second, and more importantly, Wayne students were special. I enjoyed teaching them more than the students I taught at other law schools.”

As such, Schenk trained his focus on “the students” when embarking on the book project.

“This is not a typical history of an American law school,” Schenk said in the book’s introduction. “A law school history usually discusses the establishment of the school as independent or as part of a broader university institution, the leadership of the deans, the noted faculty, the influence of their scholarship, and how the school’s programs and reputation may have been influenced by the financial support it received from within the university and from its alumni and outside sources.”

In conducting his research of the law school’s history, Schenk said he “dug into the written records from the school’s archives,” going so far as to comb through the faculty and student meeting minutes.

“Over a five-year period, I videotaped interviews with a broad cross-section of graduates, as well as a number of the school’s deans and professors,” Schenk indicated. “I found that, starting in the mid-1950s, Wayne students and alumni had an outsized impact on the school’s development and reputation.”

Schenk’s book begins by placing the law school in a historical context. Public law schools in major American cities were rare in the 1920s. Wayne State Law School started as a night-only school on the brink of the Great Depression. 

At the time, the school was administered by the Detroit Board of Education’s Colleges of the City of Detroit and was minimally funded out of student tuition and fees. From its opening days, the school admitted students who had the required college credits, without regard to their gender, race, or ethnicity. In that era, many law schools restricted or denied admission to women, people of color, and Jewish applicants. 

The school, Schenk discovered, maintained its steadfast commitment to a racially and gender-diverse student body, though it endured significant challenges along the way. Denied employment at selective law firms and relegated to providing basic legal services, WSU law students pressed the school to expand the curriculum and establish programs that provided them with the credentials afforded graduates from elite law schools, according to Schenk. 

“It took the persistence of the students and a persuasive dean to change the conversation about the quality of the graduates and for law firms representing the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals to start hiring WSU graduates who now heavily populate those firms,” said Schenk, who has taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan law schools. “In the twenty-first century, the school gained strength in international legal studies and established two law centers that reflect the institution’s longstanding commitment to public interest and civil rights.”

Schenk said he received encouragement to write the book from notable Wayne State Law alums Eugene Driker, former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, and then Dean Jocelyn Benson, who helped provide some supplementary research funds for the project. 

“I decided to expand the project to include the videotaped interviews with dozens of alumni, a few deans, and some current and emeriti colleagues to serve as additional background for the book and to become part of a video archive of the law school,” Schenk wrote in the preface.

The book, which is 272 pages in length, is available through Wayne State University Press at www.wsupress.wayne.edu


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