Lawyer Limelight: Dean Ward Farnsworth, University of Texas Law School

In an age of law school malaise, Ward Farnsworth stands out.

He would stand out in any crowd for a dazzling mind that has produced delightfully subversive books on topics including chess tactics; civil liability; classical English rhetoric and metaphor; and, most recently, stoicism, in his book “The Practicing Stoic.”

He was chosen as Dean of the University of Texas Law School in 2012, and has reveled in the post since. To walk the halls with Dean Farnsworth is to see legal education reinvented. He greets every student by name, and pays special attention to how they are doing – whether they are getting the support needed from the school to do well in their studies. He is passionate about Texas, which he considers the best law school in the country, for which he makes a strong case.

Lawdragon:  Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with your alumni and your students. Their morale is higher than most, so I think it must be true:  UT Austin is the best place in the world to be a law student. But why? What’s the secret of the good morale?

Ward Farnsworth:  I’m so glad you see that! We don’t think high morale happens by accident, so we make a priority of it.  We try to put more energy than most schools do into relationships – between students and students, students and faculty, students and alumni.  All of our students get a student mentor. All of them get an alumni mentor. All of them get a faculty advisor.  We put them into societies that do fun things and pro bono projects together. We tell them from the time they get here that good relationships will probably be the story of their careers and their happiness, and try to help make them happen. Being in Austin helps, too.

LD: Do you still learn the names of all your students?

WF: Yeah, I learn all their names, and usually something else about each of them.  I do it to set a tone and an example. The students need to know that we’re focused on them.

LD: You mentioned Austin, which has changed a lot in the last couple of decades.  How is the growth affecting you?

WF:  Austin is a great place to live, so a lot of our students really like the idea of staying here after they graduate.  The development of Austin has made that easier because the job market here is so strong.  It’s the fastest-growing city in the country, and it seems that every year more major law firms open up offices downtown.  And Apple just announced that they’re building a new billion-dollar campus here. That’s going to be a big deal.

LD: But traffic is getting worse, isn’t it?

WF: No question. You have to take the bitter with the sweet, and know the back roads, especially during South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, the Trail of Lights, and the other events that are always going on.

LD: Speaking of Apple, should law students be worried that artificial intelligence is going to make jobs more scarce?

WF: Artificial intelligence is getting rid of a lot of jobs that weren’t very interesting anyway, and that most people aren’t hoping to do when they come to law school.  The jobs that make it interesting and worthwhile to be a lawyer aren’t going anywhere.  The unspoken motto at a good law school should be: We train students to do things that only humans can do.

LD: Do you have thoughts on the cost of legal education?  What are you doing to keep it under control?

WF: We try hard to get the economics right. Our tuition hasn’t gone up much in the last six years, and on average our students have less debt than graduates of any of the other top schools. After they graduate they usually have jobs they like because we’re the favorite supplier to employers in this part of the world and have a good reputation elsewhere. All of this is part of why our alumni tend to be in good spirits.

LD:  What’s going on in the classrooms, at your school and at law schools in general?

WF:  It’s getting more experiential. When I was in school, a few students did clinics. Now most of our students do them. We have 15 clinics – an immigration clinic, a death-penalty clinic, a small-business clinic, you name it. The students really like representing real clients with real problems.

LD:  How about in the traditional classrooms? Are you getting away from the Socratic method?

WF:  No way!  I’m a big fan.  If we get away from it, it won’t be because the Socratic Method was unworthy of us. We’ll have gotten unworthy of the Socratic Method.

LD:  It seems too scary for modern times.

WF: Naw, not if you do it right.

LD: What’s the right way and the wrong way?

WF: For some people it just means asking questions to get to the same point they could have reached faster by lecturing. Or it means grilling the students to make sure they’ve done the reading. None of that is very interesting. But the Socratic Method is a great way to teach students how to talk to themselves better.

LD: You mean talking to each other like law professors?

WF: No, I mean literally – talking to themselves. When you’re thinking about a hard problem as a lawyer, you’re often doing it alone. If the Socratic method is used the right way, it gives you an approach to internalize. So later you know how to keep putting hard questions to yourself and how to think your way out of them. It’s an antidote for cognitive biases. That’s how I explain the point of it to my students.

LD: You’ve written a new book called “The Practicing Stoic.” Do you think that being a law student these days requires stoicism?

WF: Yes, though not so much in the way the word is usually used. Nowadays “Stoic” means putting up with suffering without complaint. That’s not quite what I mean by it. Stoicism represents some of the most useful wisdom of ancient times.  It’s a bunch of lessons in how to use the mind better.

LD: How would you explain why lawyers can find Stoicism helpful?

WF: I recommend that law students read the Stoics because I think there is lot of overlap between the Stoic outlook and the professional mentality of a good lawyer. Good lawyers are very committed to their clients and sympathize with them. But they’re also even-keeled emotionally, and when presented with a conflict they view it from many perspectives. That balance is something like what the Stoics seek in many areas of their lives.  You can think of Stoicism as a way to gain, by the study of philosophy, some of the qualities that would otherwise be the natural result of long experience – the kind of experience that veteran lawyers have.

LD: I sometimes hear complaints about modern law students being less resilient than they used to be. Do you think Stoicism is in decline in that respect?

WF:  I don’t think students here are any less resilient. But making them resilient is part of what law school is for. I tell them that they can’t let themselves get thrown off easily by things that seem offensive or disappointing. When you’re a lawyer and people come to you with their problems, they’re the ones – the clients – who are freaking out. They need you to be above that.  And you have to be able to negotiate comfortably with people you don’t like and don’t agree with about anything.  Some of the opposing lawyers you meet are going to be intimidating, manipulative, offensive, and all the rest. By the time students get out of law school, they can’t be thrown off their game by any of that.

LD: How do you think Texas fares in getting students ready in those ways?

WF: I think we do it pretty well.  I did a survey of our incoming students a couple of years ago.  Half identified themselves as left of center and half as right of center. That’s more balance than most schools have. It means that no matter who you are here, a lot of your classmates agree with you and a lot of them don’t.  Just like in the real world.

LD: Let’s go back to careers. What role do you think judicial clerkships should play in training for lawyers?

WF: A clerkship is a great way to start almost any legal career. For a year or two you get to work on a wider range of cases than is usually possible in the practice of law. And above all, your only job is to try to get the answer right, which is a luxury that most lawyers don’t have.  You don’t need to worry about winning or billing hours. Just get it right.

LD: You clerked for both Judge Richard Posner and Justice Anthony Kennedy. What lessons did you learn from those experiences?

WF:  The comparison was fascinating. Posner and Kennedy were about as different in approach as two judges can be, but there are some interesting parallels between them.  They were law school classmates, which is fun to think about. Neither of them ever bought into a general theory or ideology that made their decisions predictable. So they both infuriated a lot of people. No matter what you thought, each of them probably did things as judges that you loved and that you hated. To me that’s a sign of good health. The judge who always makes anyone happy is probably no friend of the law.

About the Author: Katrina Dewey ( is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools.