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‘I will not miss the tyranny of the court calendar’

Bankruptcy judge Rich Leonard discusses his move from the bench to the dean’s office

David Donovan//August 12, 2013

‘I will not miss the tyranny of the court calendar’

Bankruptcy judge Rich Leonard discusses his move from the bench to the dean’s office

David Donovan//August 12, 2013

Even before taking on his latest endeavor, Judge J. Rich Leonard has had a diverse range of interests. A U.S. bankruptcy judge for more than 20 years, Leonard has taken over 30 trips to sub-Saharan Africa as part of U.S. State Department efforts to cultivate judiciaries in emerging democracies and counseled judges in Bhutan, where the country’s chief justice presented him a ferocious mask, at right, that is the symbol of the Bhutanese judiciary. He’s also the author of a children’s novel set in North Carolina during the American Revolution.

Among Judge J. Rich Leonard’s souvenirs from his extensive travels is a mask symbolic of the Bhutanese judiciary, which was presented to him by the chief justice of Bhutan.
Among Judge J. Rich Leonard’s souvenirs from his extensive travels is a mask symbolic of the Bhutanese judiciary, which was presented to him by the chief justice of Bhutan.

This summer, Leonard retired from the bench to take on yet another project as the new dean of Campbell Law School. Leonard discussed his experiences and vision for the future of the law school. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.


What made you want to move from being a judge to be the dean of a law school?

I had always hoped for a career in higher education. When I went to [Yale Law School] I tailored my curriculum in every way possible to take those sorts of courses. I had worked for President [Bill] Friday during law school. I knew President [Terry] Sanford at Duke when he was there, and I originally saw my clerkship as a way to get back to North Carolina so that I could then go find a job I really wanted. And I lucked into the chambers of the phenomenal Franklin Dupree, who’s probably the greatest trial judge who ever lived, and that courtroom was so just so magical, and the power of the place and the level of discourse was so extraordinary that I got hooked, frankly, and decided that if I could stay there, that’s what I would do. But always in the back of my mind, I thought, someday I’m still going to go back to that original vision.


What’s one thing that you didn’t learn in law school that you wish you had?

There was a complete barrier between the court system, which we read about all day long, and the law school. I don’t think I’d ever been inside a courtroom until after I graduated. And we’re trying to change that. I’m taking our first-year class on what we’re calling the first annual Campbell Court Crawl, and we’re going to the Supreme Court to see the chief justice, and to the Court of Appeals to see the chief judge, and to the District Court to see the chief judge there, and to our spanking new [Wake County Justice Center], and to the federal bankruptcy court.

I want these students, from the first day they are here, to physically have an image of what these places are that they’re reading about. I don’t think we’re going to create an observational requirement, although I’ve thought about it, but I do want to encourage students to see what is happening in all these great temples of justice all around us, which is after all what they’re training to do in many instances.


With so many more law graduates now, what can Campbell do to help its graduates find experienced attorneys who can mentor them as they start their careers?

We’ve been working for a while on a first-class mentorship program where we’re going to provide at least our upper classmen with a skilled, committed attorney who is going to essentially be their private cheerleader and advisor for their last two years of law school. And we’ve got well over 60 prominent local lawyers who’ve agreed to participate in our first group. So I’m hopeful that is going to answer that question of how we’re going to embed these students more thoroughly in this city.


It seems like these additions you’re talking about place a priority on making students practice-ready.

I think the skill set you learn in one practice area is going to help you in any other area. If you want to be an [intellectual property] lawyer, it’s still helpful to see what a patent trial looks like because someday that may well be where your client ends up. If you want to be a transactional lawyer and never see the inside of a courtroom, that’s fine, but it probably won’t be a bad idea to have seen a bankruptcy court, because sometimes transactions don’t work and they get unraveled. So I don’t think that exposing people to courts is just a litigation technique. I think it’s a way to make all lawyers understand the overarching rules about our system.


The cost of a legal education has really outpaced inflation. How does the legal community address that?

I went to law school in the 1970s, to the most expensive law school in America, and I borrowed more money than was imaginable to do that, and it took me 20 years to pay that back. It was also the best investment I ever made because it opened all sorts of doors that someone from a modest family like me would never have had open to them. My view is, if we give you the sound skills to be successful at law practice and if our students are still finding those placements at an attractive rate, frankly it’s just not an unfair thing to ask people to invest in their future.

Are we going to have to cap it, or keep it more constant as we go up? Yes. I mean, markets control themselves and if people aren’t willing to pay the price you ask for, then at some point you’re going to have to lower the price.


What do you think about the state of the judicial confirmation process in this country?

It’s old history and I don’t usually revive it, but the public record will show you that I spent about five years off and on pending in the [U.S. Senate] Judiciary Committee with various nominations by President Clinton and where I was never able to get a hearing. That was frustrating. I think the confirmation process in this country is broken. I don’t think it works like the framers intended it to work.

I think the Senate is bordering on unconstitutionality in refusing to do what the Constitution in my view requires them to do which is advise and consent, or not consent, to presidential nominations. But I don’t think it ever anticipated that the president would be completely hamstrung by inaction. Everything for me finally turned out OK anyway, but it leaves any number of qualified, competent, idealistic men and women just twisting in the wind for years and years. That just can’t be the way it was intended to work.


Is there anything you’ll miss about being a judge?

I’ll miss the courtroom. The elegance of the federal courtroom is one of the great achievements of our democracy, in my view. The way in which issues are framed with such thoroughness, the formality of everyone involved, the judges and the lawyers, in almost every instance the courtesy but also the rigor of the debate and the discussion with highly prepared lawyers, it’s just something you can’t replicate anywhere else.

I’ve often said I’d rather try a big case than go on vacation. I just think it’s more fun. There’s nothing more fun than to be embroiled in a juicy piece of litigation with issues popping up all the time and good lawyers on both sides and everybody fighting hard but playing fairly by the rules. There’s just nothing like it. I’ll miss that. But I will not miss the tyranny of the court calendar. I won’t miss my life being organized for months in the future. So there are tradeoffs, and it came to a choice, and I think I made the right one. As my very skilled psychologist wife says, if you weren’t a little bit sad, you would have wasted your adult life.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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