‘A Zealous Advocate’
Sudha Setty wasn’t sure where her initial interest in law would take her — she simply wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Her current role as a professor certainly fits that bill, though it’s not a path she expected to take early on. Now, as she prepares to take over the dean’s chair at Western New England University School of Law, she’s ready to navigate a still-challenging climate for law schools and help other young people achieve their world-changing goals.
Sudha Setty entered the field of law wanting to make a difference, and she has — only, in much different ways than she first imagined.
So she understands the passion of students enrolling in law school today with the same passion and desire to change society for the better, but admitted that all lawyers make a difference, even if it’s for that one individual client struggling with a difficult time in their life.
“Most of the applications we’ve seen are focused on the idea of working on issues people really care about, and how being a lawyer will provide them with the tools to make a difference on a national or global scale, or even helping one person,” she told BusinessWest. “This is something you have to believe in if you want to be an effective lawyer — you have to be a zealous advocate, regardless of whom the client is.”
Starting in July, Setty will bring that spirit of advocacy to her new role as dean of the Western New England University School of Law after 12 years as a professor there. She will succeed Eric Gouvin, who is returning to the WNEU faculty after a five-year stint as dean.
“Professor Setty is a fine teacher and scholar who understands fully the challenges we currently face in higher education and those which we will continue to confront in these times of unprecedented change in legal education,” said WNEU President Anthony Caprio. “Her wisdom, intellect, training, experience, and energy will serve the law school — its faculty, staff, students, and alumni — the university, and the legal community very well for many years to come.”
Setty called the appointment an honor, noting that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole.
“I’m really looking forward to leading a group of faculty so dedicated,” she told BusinessWest. “They impress me on a regular basis, this community of teachers and scholars who really believe in what a law school does. I have mixed feelings cutting back on teaching, which I absolutely love. I’ll miss that aspect of being able to interact with students as a classroom teacher. But I’ll be seeking ways to connect with them and work with them and be an active part of the community that drew me to this law school in the first place.”
Setty planned to be a lawyer from her high-school days, through a combination of extracurricular experiences like mock trials and a deep interest in social justice. But her undergraduate work focused not on pre-law, but on the humanities, with the goal of honing her critical thinking and writing, skills that would serve her well no matter what field she worked in.
After graduating from Stanford University with a history degree, she taught overseas and contemplated different options. When she did return to the States and enrolled in Columbia Law School, it was with the belief that she’d build a career as a civil-rights advocate.
“I recognized the ability of lawyers to speak for people who are powerless, or to work as prosecutors seeking justice for victims. I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, but nothing concrete,” she said, adding that many people enter law school with a different career in mind than the one they eventually pursue.
Graduating with six figures of debt, however, changed Setty’s initial priorities a bit, and she went to work at a corporate firm in New York City, spending seven years at Davis Polk & Wardwell as a litigator in anti-trust disputes, securities fraud, and internal investigations of companies. Meanwhile, she took up extensive pro bono work litigating federal civil-rights cases and mentoring city high-school students.
“I had never envisioned myself doing these various aspects of corporate litigation, but I really appreciated my time at the firm,” she said. “I not only gained tremendous skills, but I was working with people who were really top-notch in terms of demanding critical thinking in representing clients.”
Moreover, she was able to repay her law-school debts, which got her thinking about what the next phase of her career might be, and what options made sense.
“Many friends and mentors at Columbia encouraged me to think about teaching and the idea of an academic career,” she recalled. The interview process for jobs was eye-opening, and during a visit to WNEU, she was impressed with what Gouvin has called “student-centered professional education.”
“During the interview process, you see different approaches to legal education. As a student, you only see where you go to school as evidence of what a law school can be like,” she said, noting that she was struck by how friendly the WNEU professors were and how openly they interacted with students outside of class. “That was not my experience at law school, and I found it very appealing, and a selling point for coming here.”
Setty joined the faculty in 2006, eventually serving as professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life. In the latter role, one goal has been to improve the law school’s scholarly profile, both by helping colleagues to publicize the research they publish, and through workshop exchanges with other regional law schools to present scholarship to each other and get feedback to improve it. “All these help improve the profile of the law school and add vibrancy to the intellectual life at Western New England.”
As an active scholar herself in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security, she recently published a study called “National Security Secrecy: Comparative Effects on Democracy and the Rule of Law.”
“Through the Bush and Obama administrations, I’ve focused on the notion that we don’t have enough institutional accountability,” she explained. “When it comes to national-security matters, both administrations kept telling us, ‘we know what we’re doing.’ My argument is that we need more accountability measures. Obviously, we don’t want to have classified information thrown out there, but we need the power to push back against the executive branch. We’ve set up a system where the president gets to make all these decisions without oversight, and we’ve been willing to accept that with the last two presidents.”
Some of those same people who accepted that paradigm are worried now that the power rests in the hands of a president who can often seem, well, erratic.
“The thing about setting up systems is they apply to whoever is in office. That’s the situation we’ve created,” she said. “I view many things happening under this administration as unsurprising. But if I can win more people to my views for the long term, and we get better institutional controls in place, that would be great. We’ll see what happens.”
Setty has received numerous awards for her work, including the Tapping Reeve Legal Educator Award from the Connecticut Bar Assoc. and two Western New England University School of Law Professor of the Year honors. She co-founded the School of Law’s Color of Law Roundtable speaker series, bringing attorneys and judges of color to campus to speak about their experiences and career paths. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, the executive committee of the American Society of Comparative Law, and was a Fulbright senior specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.
Making a Case
Even as she amassed those accomplishments and began taking on more administrative responsibility over the past few years, Setty never thought about a deanship at WNEU, simply because Gouvin was entrenched there and doing a solid job. But when he decided to return to the classroom full-time, Setty was approached by several colleagues about the position.
“They said, ‘we’d really like you to apply for this position; you’d be great.’ I gave it a lot of thought, because taking on the responsibilities of a deanship would be a big shift, but at the same time, taking on this responsibility at a school I know well, a place I love, is an exciting opportunity.”
The school conducted its internal search before looking outward, and Setty found strong support through the entire process. But she knows the job won’t be easy. Nationally, law-school enrollment plummeted by nearly half between 2003 and 2014, due in part to a declining job market for lawyers, one exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. By 2012, graduates were finding it very difficult to secure positions right out of school, and that impacted interest in the field.
“The last few years have been very challenging for law schools everywhere,” Setty noted. “They’ve had to examine their budgets and think hard about the choices they’ve been making. In some senses, I think Western New England has been fortunate. We’ve been careful with financial stewardship such that we weren’t trying to expand too very quickly, even when we had very large enrollments.”
Part of WNEU’s strategy focused on giving students more return on investment, including a tuition freeze, instituted during the 2013-14 school year and extending through 2017-18. With the lowered revenues, the school had to keep a close eye on expenses, and it was able to shrink staff through retirements, while avoiding debt from costly capital improvements.
“When times were hard, we had the ability to contract our student body and not have the financial hit be as bad as it could have been, because of our fiscal stewardship and a very careful hand on the budget,” Setty explained. “That’s not to say it has been easy — we’ve seen a lot of colleagues, wonderful teachers, retire and not be replaced, but with the student body shrinking, we could give them the same type of education, offer the same courses, with a smaller cohort of faculty.”
However, she said, an uptick in applications nationally — between 8% and 10%, similar to what WNEU is seeing — is spurring some cautious optimism in law-school leaders, she said, that the field may be turning a corner. “The landscape looks much brighter than it has for a number of years.”
Western New England also benefits from its position as the only accredited law school in the Commonwealth west of Greater Boston, which ensures a broad range of opportunities in the form of internships and clerkships.
The law school also continues to expand its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.
They also provide a social benefit, Setty said, as in the case of the immigration clinic, which helps real-world clients navigate what can be a difficult path in today’s climate.
“It’s a win-win,” she told BusinessWest. “These individuals are in dire need of representation, and they get that representation, and the students receive invaluable experience they can take with them from these clinics.”
Setty recalled her own clinic experiences from Columbia Law School — in landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims court — with gratitude. “The skills you develop from that aren’t necessarily transferable to the corporate-law environment or working as an academic, but it helps build who you are as a lawyer.”
The career Setty has built is, in many ways, different from the one she envisioned as a high-school student with a passion for social justice. But she’s happy to be impacting the lives of hundreds of students preparing to change the world — or, at least, make life a little better for a client in need.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org