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Phillip J. Closius: Cheerleader and change agent

Philip J. Closius has a reputation of being direct, even blunt. Mention it to him and he quickly gives two responses: “I’m too old.” (He just turned 60.) “Life’s too short.”

Ask him if his manner has ever been a detriment to his career, and the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law takes only a few seconds longer to respond.

“I have faults, but indecision is not one of them,” he says. “I don’t think you can solve problems until you have honest discussions about what the problems are. It’s a different style than some academics.”

Closius’ style has transformed UB Law since he arrived on campus more than three years ago. Each incoming class has been the school’s best-ever academically, and this year’s incoming class will be the first to use a long-awaited new building in fall 2012.

By that time, Closius believes, UB will be ranked among the top 100 law schools in the country.

Watch video from the Newsmakers interview with Dean Closius

“I don’t know why a lot of my predecessors decided to keep things secret, so some of the things I do are just market-better,” he says.

During a wide-ranging interview last week with The Daily Record, Closius at different times described his role as “change agent” and marketer. But the responsibility he kept going back to was getting his students employed.

“Law school is a professional school. It’s not like you’re going to become an English major because you’ve always wanted to read ‘Beowulf.’ At the end of the day, people come to law school because they want jobs,” he says. “If we can’t get people where they want to go, we’ve failed to a certain extent.”

For Closius, that means a focus on admissions and career services, the “lifeblood” of a law school.

Though Closius didn’t officially start as dean until the summer of 2007, he was on campus once a month after he was named to the position that February so as not to miss out on an admissions cycle.

He also ensured more scholarship money would be available. The school gave out $480,000 when he arrived. As part of his contract terms, the university bumped up that number by $1 million, and the law school now gives out nearly $3 million annually.

‘Track them down’

While job placement may seem a world away from admissions, Closius knows the two stages are related.

One of his early moves was to tell the career services office to find the 61 (out of about 350) recent graduates whose whereabouts were unknown.

“Your Number One job is to stay in touch with people,” he recalled telling career services. “You will track them down, you will find where they are. I don’t care if you have to go door-to-door.”

The staff found 57 of the 61, all but one of whom had jobs. Those numbers, not coincidentally, improved the school’s “practitioner reputation” in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, since the magazine would otherwise count three-fourths of those students as unemployed.

Changes like that have helped lift the school, which was in the magazine’s fourth tier when Closius arrived, rise to its current spot in the third tier.

Closius knows the debate and controversy the rankings cause. His response: so what?

“For good or bad, this is a rankings culture. I can’t fight that aspect. It’s just part of the deal,” he says. “You cannot, in the 21st century, be a dean of a law school and not pay attention to these rankings. It’s just too important.”

And there is at least of kernel of truth to the rankings system, he adds. Closius came to UB after 30 years at the University of Toledo College of Law, including six years (1999-2005) as dean that saw the Ohio school jump from the fourth tier to the second tier of the rankings.

As Toledo was climbing the rankings, the percentage of graduates who passed the bar shot up from the low 60s to the low 90s, and the median LSAT score for incoming students increased eight points.

“Much as we talk about flaws in the rankings, when I see a school improving, they go up, and when I see a school not improving, they go down,” he says.

And then there is the money.

For outgoing students, he emphasizes jobs are available, although with a caveat due to changes in the industry after the recession hit.

“We try to be very candid,” he says. “If you’re coming to law school because you’re going to put your three years in and you want the ‘big hit,’ those days are done for all but probably six or seven law schools in the country.”

The bulk of UB Law’s Class of 2010 started out making $60,000 a year, he says, with a small group making between $80,000 and $90,000 and four graduates making six figures.

What UB does, he continues, is teach students what the economy values — negotiating skills, the ability to read contracts and incorporate law into a business’ broader goal.

“I don’t think my job is all that hard,” Closius says. “I just talk to people who are employers and ask, ‘What are you looking for?’”

The law school has seen internships jump from 11 a year ago to 72 today, most of them in Washington, D.C. — an easy train trip because Penn Station is practically in UB’s backyard.

While the internships are mostly unpaid, Closius says interns have the inside track when the agency is looking to fill a position. The internships also enhance the school’s reputation.

“I’m not sure why I’m the first dean who knew where Penn Station was and said we really have got to up our profile in D.C.,” he said.

Building on loyalty

Many of the internship connections were set up through alumni. Judges and lawyers continue to hire UB graduates even though they are getting resumes from big-name schools. Closius recently asked a staffer to put together a mentor program matching first-year associates with alums; nearly 200 alums volunteered in a day and a half.

When other law school deans complain about their alumni, Closius says, he has nothing to add to the conversation. He has never seen or heard of an alumni base as loyal UB’s. He attributes it in part to a student population more blue-collar than the average law school’s.

“A lot of people feel the school gave them what they have, it gave them an opportunity,” he says. “I think that attitude tends to breed a certain amount of loyalty.”

It has also helped in fundraising. Many doubted the school could raise the $15 million in private funds needed for the new law school building; the school’s endowment, after all, is only $6 million. But, largely through donations made by Peter G. Angelos, the groundbreaking for the new John and Frances Angelos Law Center was held this summer.

“I think it’s going to do a lot for the city, I think it’s going to do a lot for Mount Vernon,” Closius says. “I think it’s going to anchor that whole area.”

Closius estimates a quarter of the school’s day students live near the school, a percentage that is growing. He welcomes the development — including The Fitzgerald, a new high-rise apartment building, and condominiums along Charles Street — and insists the neighborhood has not expressed any concerns about an influx of students.

“Law students are kind of the demographic a lot of people he want,” he says, noting the average student is around 26 years old with disposable income. “Anything that makes [the neighborhood] more of a residential area is going to help us.”

While awaiting the new building, Closius makes a point not to forget the more than 1,100 current students.

“You want to keep improving, you want to keep doing things if for no other reason than we have classes of students paying $25,000 a year,” he says. “I don’t want to go to a reunion 10 years from now and hear, ‘We’re the class everyone ignored because everyone was waiting for the new building.’ We’ve got a responsibility to the people who are there.”

Closius has a specific responsibility to 160 students — he’s their professor in constitutional law, a subject he has taught at different levels since coming to UB.

“I’ve seen a lot of deans over my time and almost all deans I thought weren’t very good didn’t teach,” he says.

Like his playing in pickup basketball games every Friday at noon, teaching allows Closius to stay connected with the students in addition to creating common ground with faculty.

Teaching is also his first love. Closius left private practice in New York for Toledo in 1979 because of the opportunity to teach.

“I didn’t get into this to become a dean,” he says. “To me, the teaching is the fun part. When people say ‘Don’t teach,’ it’s like saying ‘Don’t eat the chocolate.’ I can always squeeze in room for the chocolate.”

Closius says he has received calls about openings at other law schools but has no interest in leaving.

“As far as I know, I’m in Baltimore for life,” he says. “I’ll either be dean or on the faculty. My family loves Baltimore.”

Blame and praise

As for the future of the law school, Closius only knows that the school will not expand its enrollment nor reach a top 50 ranking, a status he says would force UB to fundamentally change its mission.

“We talk all the time about what’s going to start limiting our potential, and I don’t know,” he says. “I know we’ll create our own limits much more than other schools do.”

Recently representatives from the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools came to UB for the school’s seven-year site inspection. In an exit interview, he says, they observed that they don’t see many schools where everything is up. We don’t quite know what you’re doing, they told him, but everyone seems happy.

“Sometimes a dean is like being a quarterback. You get too much blame, you get too much praise. A lot of people contributed to what we’re doing here at the law school,” he says. “We’re really playing on the values that the University of Baltimore had long before anyone heard of Phil Closius.”