Law School Deans Q&A: Legal Deserts, Diversity and Inclusion, and Technology

Washington’s three law school deans discuss some of the challenges and exciting changes ahead for the state’s legal profession and its future members

Photo © Getty/artisteer

QWhat do you perceive as the biggest challenges facing the legal profession?

University of Washington Law School Dean Tamara Lawson (TL): I think one of the biggest challenges is also fundamental to equitable progress—figuring out how to serve all the communities that need legal expertise and representation. As it stands, there are regions within our state and regions within our country that are without adequate legal services. It is my goal for UW Law to play a pivotal role helping to remedy these shortages and incentivize lawyers to serve these underserved communities. 

Seattle University School of Law Dean Anthony Varona (AV): Access, diversification, and artificial intelligence. First, law school leaders must make legal education accessible and affordable to a broader range of potential law students—especially in legal deserts. Second, we need to intensify our efforts to diversify the legal profession, which remains one of the least representative professions in the nation. Finally, we need to get ahead of the opportunities and challenges posed by artificial intelligence, and its creative disruptions, in the study and practice of law.

Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Jacob Rooksby (JR): As someone who holds an active bar license in Washington, the challenges I see are integration of new technology into all practice areas, embracing attorney well-being, and continuing to build an inclusive and diverse profession representative of society. Our profession has been change resistant, setting unnecessary barriers both to legal education and access to justice. Ritualistic hazing, attorney burnout, and sexist, racist, and classist practices have been common. We have both the opportunity and the moral obligation to do better.

QWhat is your law school doing to address those challenges?

TL: Strengthening programs, both outreach programs as well as clinical education programs, that attract more lawyers who will dedicate their practice to underserved communities. UW Law has deep roots in public interest law and increasing public access to justice—a lot of the passion for that work comes from having unique opportunities and experiences. Our students go to the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso to learn about legal intake services, travel to rural Alaska to help prepare taxes, and pursue prestigious fellowships to advance the cause of workers’ rights. To quote a student, “You learn advocacy by working with impacted community members.”

AV: As a Jesuit, Catholic law school with a justice-rooted mission, access and diversity have always been in our institutional DNA, and we have long been the most diverse law school in the Pacific Northwest. While the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard1 decision has required us to adjust our recruiting and admission process, our nonnegotiable commitment to diversity and access are as strong as ever. Our hybrid-online Flex J.D. Program is attracting diverse/non-traditional students who otherwise would not be able to attend law school, and we are creating a law school presence in Pacific Northwest legal deserts to further attract and support diverse students. We are longstanding co-hosts of a workshop to address diversity in legal education. And we have a leading role in the Washington Supreme Court’s efforts to identify potential reforms to the attorney licensure process. We are at the forefront of incorporating AI topics across our curriculum—including a new Technology, Innovation Law, and Ethics (TILE) Program.

JR: Collaborating with our university, we are building an Institute for Informatics and Applied Technology to study and teach about AI, big data, and the intersection of science and technology across the professions. We have actively embraced law student well-being, eliminating hyper-competitive practices that do not serve our students. And we continue to increase the diversity of our faculty, staff, and student body, celebrate what makes us unique, and work to build inclusive pathways and systems that will outlast us.

QWhat makes you most excited about the academic year ahead?

TL: In my second year at UW, I’m working across the school to connect our planning and strategy to a singular priority: championing student excellence. I am excited to innovate in this area across the spectrum of the UW Law experience, beginning with a prospective student’s initial interest in law school and continuing decades into their careers as UW Law alumni. We’re working to enhance everything from wellness, to mentorship, bar support, leadership skills, and opportunities to explore a wide range of career possibilities.

AV: We are about two months into academic year 2024, and we are firing on all cylinders! In addition to bringing in a history-making J.D. class—with the most diversity in our history and the strongest academic credentials in 13 years—we welcomed the largest class of international LL.M. students in our history and an inaugural class of S.J.D. candidates. We also welcomed six terrific new tenure-line faculty members, exciting new visiting professors, and several new senior administrators. There is a lot of energy and positive momentum at Seattle U Law.

JR: Friday, April 19, when we will hold the first-ever nationwide summit on LGBTQ+ rights advocacy in legal education. The event will draw legal academics, clinicians, and practitioners from around the country. Gonzaga was the first Catholic law school to launch such a clinic, and we are proud of the work we are doing for the LGBTQ+ community across the region. Law School Admission Council (LSAC) CEO Kelly Testy, a trailblazer and friend to many of us in legal education, will be the keynote speaker.

QWhat is something that would surprise established legal practitioners about the next generation of lawyers?

TL: The next generation of lawyers is extremely engaged and connected—advocacy for themselves and others is a high priority. They are interested in individual and structural inequities and how those can be solved. They value flexibility and autonomy, especially when it comes to work/life balance. It shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone established in their legal careers, but maintaining the status quo is not high on the list for this next generation of lawyers.

AV: The next generation of lawyers is comprised of changemakers. They are reinventing the practice of law and law itself and challenging longstanding shibboleths of our profession. In particular, I see in our new graduates an exciting generation of lawyers who are improving our profession and the delivery of legal services by bringing to bear new technologies, a strong commitment to social justice and diversity in law, and the many hard lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. They make me excited about our future as lawyers and legal educators.

JR: Many students expect work/life balance and are disinclined to pursue activities without articulable return on investment. Their time is valuable and gone are the days when students could be convinced to try to do something solely because their professors did it or valued it. Additionally, students are hungry to make change and have a determination rooted in life experience, including living through the pandemic. At Gonzaga Law School, we are encouraged by what we are seeing in our student body.

About the authorS

Tamara F. Lawson is the Toni Rembe Dean and professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. Lawson is regularly invited to speak on issues of criminal justice and race, her work is often cited, and she is the recipient of the AALS Clyde Ferguson Award. She serves on several leadership boards related to higher education and the legal profession.

Anthony E. Varona is in his second year as dean at Seattle University School of Law. A former dean and dean emeritus at University of Miami School of Law, vice dean and academic dean at American University Washington College of Law, general counsel and legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, and associate at Mintz Levin and Skadden Arps, Varona received his A.B. and J.D. degrees from Boston College and an LL.M. from Georgetown.

Jacob H. Rooksby is Smithmoore P. Myers Dean of Gonzaga Law School, where he also is a professor of law and leadership studies. He holds an active law license in Washington and is IP Optimization Strategist with FIG. 1 Patents, PLLC, an IP law boutique based in Spokane. He began his deanship at Gonzaga in June 2018.


1.    See “A Proposal for the Future of WA State Bar Admissions — Working Draft,” at 3, n.4.

2.    Id. at 2, n.1.

3.    Id.

4.    Id. at 2, n.2.

5.    Id. at 2, n.1.

6.    Id. at 2, n.1.