Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. And not because of the sumptuous feast, but because of the time to gather with family and friends and express gratitude for our many blessings. I attended the recent Well-Being Conference sponsored by the HSBA Well-Being Committee, among others, and was reminded that focusing on the positives in our lives can greatly enhance our mental health. And while I try to do that on a daily basis, it has sometimes been difficult given the heartbreak of the past few months. But there are still so many things to be grateful for, including:
- Of course, I am grateful for my family (especially my husband), but I do not say that often enough
- I am grateful for our independent judiciary and all the judges and their staff who work hard, day in and day out, to provide access to justice.
- I am grateful for the William S. Richardson School of Law, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and has educated talented lawyers who are in every firm and government agency and courtroom in our state. Please see my interview below with
- Dean Camille Nelson, in which she shares her plans for educating our next generations of lawyers.
- I am grateful for all the legal service providers who work on shoe-string budgets and provide legal representation to those in need, with compassion and understanding.
- I am grateful for the HSBA staff who work tirelessly to help our members and our Board.
- I am grateful for the friendships we develop with our colleagues and the respect that we show one another, even when we may disagree.
- I am grateful for a profession where we try to do the right thing
I am grateful for you and wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.
Interview with Dean Camille Nelson
I had the privilege of speaking recently with Dean Camille Nelson of the William S. Richardson School of Law as the law school prepares to celebrate its 50th Anniversary. I wish everyone had the opportunity to meet and speak with Dean Nelson personally because, despite my best efforts, her enthusiasm for the law school and her passion for her students cannot be captured here. I encourage you to reach out to Dean Nelson to learn more about our law school, its innovative programs, and what you can do to help the law school be even better.
In anticipation of the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the WSRSL, the July issue of the Hawaii Bar Journal featured an historic perspective on the rationale of founding fathers, the late Governor John A. Burns and the late Chief Justice William S. Richardson, for the law school and medical school. It also chronicled the obstacles they faced as they preserved from an idea to welcoming the first graduating class. This interview with Dean Camille Nelson showcases today’s law school and offers a glimpse into its future.
What have you learned about the law school’s early days and the courses that it offered?
I have learned a lot about the founding and Chief Justice Richardson’s vision for the law school as being absolutely necessary. What I have been learning and appreciating and coming to respect and love even more is the absolute necessity for this law school as the state’s only law school.
The incredibly out-sized impact this little school has had in this state and beyond is remarkable.
The focus in the early days was the standard licensure core classes, geared toward accreditation, which was the next hurdle after the funding. And those priorities are still relevant today.
How would you describe your curriculum today?
We are anchored in those core courses required for licensure but have enhanced our programs over the years in areas that speak to the state and the region. We have Academic Concentrations in:
- Business Law
- Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law
- Environmental Law
- International and Comparative Law
- Pacific Asian Legal Studies
That said, this is very much a period of reinvestment in the core, especially as we are in a moment of a bit of transition with professors retiring and replenishing the core faculty.
We want to preserve the excellence of the certificate programs, but we recognize how important the core is.
If your core is strong, then everything else is strong. So you need to have strength in the basics to be excellent in the specialized areas, and that is what we are working to replenish.
Are there other initiatives that you are excited about?
One I am personally involved with is the Island Leadership Lab
launched about 2 years ago, with the generosity of the Hawaii Leadership Forum. This is an immersive leadership experience grounded in a curriculum specifically designed to prepare the next generation of leaders for success. The seminar meets every Saturday for six weeks and features small group meetings with executives and other leaders in our community. You would think it would be daunting, but the students are so extraordinary. There is a waiting list! The intention is for them to start talking about leadership, about difficult conversations that might occur, about what one might encounter once one is in a role where they are responsible for a program, policies, or people, let alone yourself. It is a wonderful opportunity for students to have a mini-fellowship program. Leaders-in-residence locally and nationally join us to share their own journeys – everyone is on a journey and they share their stories, their foibles. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to see that they too can be leaders.
I am also proud of our Business Boot Camp
, which introduces students to basic financial and business concepts to help lay the groundwork for the students’ law school commercial and business courses and to help build financial literacy. Topics range from how to read a financial statement to credit card debt to business entities, real estate finance, non-profits, and more.
We also have an Innovator in Residence
position, which is held by Matt Stubenberg. Professor Stubenberg teaches Coding for Lawyers and Legal Hacking (based on a class taught at Yale), which highlights what lawyers need to know about security. Our law school is providing classes that are being provided at the Ivy League schools and on the mainland.
Finally, I want to highlight the Hawaii Online JD Flex Program
, which is an ABA-Accredited program that allows part-time students to pursue their degrees in an online format, with a hybrid option. I think this program is especially helpful to neighbor island students who can pursue a law degree without having to relocate to Oahu or commute, leave their families, or stop working altogether. This is our way of “meeting our students where they are.”
What do you see as the Law School’s major challenges?
We need to be able to better support our academic community. Hawaii is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. We are only as strong as our people. We need to think about how to retain them, how to support them, how to allow them to be in national and international conversations. We need more gifts like that given by the Cades Foundation to help support and retain faculty who have opportunities elsewhere.
Our school is a very small school. If one person leaves, we do not have a bench. So we need to work hard to retain excellent faculty and strengthen our bench.
What are your top priorities?
Our school has done tremendous work and has had tremendous reach and an outsized impact and one can only imagine what that would look like if we were better resourced. And to me, resources are people and funding.
We need greater support for student scholarships, greater support for faculty and staff, and we need to think about the physical plant. While we have a new clinical building, the other buildings are decades old.
We need a school for the times or ahead of the times.
What can our legal community do to help the law school?
Money obviously, but our students are everything. Our reason for existing is our students. So to the extent people are hiring, I ask that they continue to embrace, uplift, and recruit our students, now more than ever, as we talk about our economy and the impact on our ranking. So much of the law school ranking now is based on professional outcomes, be that licensure or employment 10 months out and so the school can only do part of that. We need partners in the community to continue to recognize the excellence of our students and give them a shot and embrace them, uplift them, and support them. That is the partnership that I think, in Hawaii especially, can be innovative and build tighter connections, and cooperative and experiential possibilities so students are actually pipelined into professional possibilities. We can actually do that in a state like this.
Employment is key.
Another thing I want to share – it is important to me. We have brought more action around well-being. We are all human in these spaces and we all have our professional lives and our personal lives and are trying to take care of the whole person. This is something I have been trying to do more of. We have mindfulness and well-being sessions and focus on lawyers and, of course, with the devastating statistics around lawyers’ difficulties with mental health troubles and we are opening up space for honesty and openness. We have been trying to be more intentional about supporting the whole student, recognizing that people are coming from different places and that people have been through a lot, especially with the pandemic, in a post-George Floyd world, and in an insurrection era with polarized politics. In this setting, not everyone is their best selves, and then you have an exam! So we are trying to help.
We have to think about what we want and why and keep the students at the center of all of this.
We need to think about why having a law school is important, why having a law school that leads into the future is important, and the role of lawyers in these conversations. Everyday – there are many news items that deal with the law, lawyers, policy, and the conversations in which we are engaged are societal conversations that impact us all.
So I think it behooves us to have a robust, energized, resourced center of legal thought because that uplifts the whole space if we care to do so. And even though I did not have the privilege of meeting Chief Justice Richardson, I understand that is what he wanted too. Fifty years ago, the CJ recognized the need for a dedicated law school to train local lawyers who could provide exemplary legal services and leadership to address the unique issues that face our state and our citizens. That is our goal today and I, together with our faculty, am working very hard to continue to fulfill that vision for decades to come.