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Provost Lisa Kloppenberg: Innovating for the Future of Law

Lisa Kloppenberg is the provost at Santa Clara. As provost, she is in charge of all academic affairs including all undergrad and graduate schools and on-campus centers.


Prior to her role as provost, Lisa served as dean of the School of Law at Santa Clara. From 2001-2011, Lisa was the dean of the law school at the University of Dayton in Ohio where she received national recognition for her lawyer-as-problem-solver curriculum.


Lisa received her Bachelors's and JD from USC. After graduation, she clerked for Judge Dorothy Wright Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals who was one of the pioneering women in the field of law.


In this conversation, we discuss how Lisa prioritizes her time to be congruent with her long-term goals, and what students can learn from alternative dispute resolution. We also touch on some larger philosophical questions around how the law needs to adapt to keep pace with changes in our modern world, and how Santa Clara’s law program is helping to innovate toward a more just and fair society.

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What does your job as provost entail?


Lisa Kloppenberg: I think most people don’t know what the provost does—even my family doesn’t always get what I’m doing. I’m in charge of the academic side of the house, so all graduate and undergraduate programming. All the schools on campus, on-campus centers like the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship—all those groups report to me.


GC: With so many potential projects, how do you decide where to focus your time?


LK: Some of it is set: meetings with trustees or faculty or academic affairs. I keep a copy of Fr. O’Brien’s four priorities for this year on my desk so that every day as I file papers and pull files out for meetings I can be reminded of them. I also have my goals statement on my desk.


And about once a month I think about the big things I need to think about for the future. I always try to match up my list of what I need to do with my goals and priorities.


GC: What can students learn from adaptive dispute resolution?


LK: I think there are some general principles that apply. The biggest skill for conflict resolution is active listening. You’re trying to listen both for what the person says as well as the emotions behind it. What did they say? What did they not say?


Then you repeat it back to them, but not in a condescending way. You let them know that you heard them. The goal is to get people to de-escalate.


I’ve seen so many situations where people had built up enmity and aggression over the years. If they had only talked to each other or had a neutral person find out what they really wanted and cared about, it could have saved a lot of time, money and grief. 


GC: What are the key skills for future lawyers?


LK: When I was dean at Dayton in Ohio, we did a “lawyer as problem solver” curriculum. The idea was to give everybody some exposure to skills around active listening, problem-solving with clients. Everybody did an externship and got out in the real world, which shows you what you do or don’t want to do. My externship at CBS showed me that although it was an interesting and high-profile life, it wasn’t a good fit for me.


One reason why I love being at a Jesuit law school is that we train the whole person. We talk about the head, the hands, and the heart. The analytical skills they learn a lot in the first year. The hands are the clinics and externship experiences. The heart is the formation of identity, judgment and ethical reflection.


GC: How would you say that the profession of lawyer is changing?


LK: Here in Silicon Valley, people want to get the deal done. They want to be quick; they don’t want to waste time on litigation. 


You’ll always need litigators for criminal court and select areas of practice. But I’d argue that almost all business cases would have been better if they had been resolved by the parties earlier on, or by a mediator. Those people could be developing the next iPhone, but instead, they’re talking with lawyers with what is happening in the past.


There are so many emerging areas now. One area at the intersection of business in law is called legal operations, and it advises big companies on how to spend their legal budget. We have a grad running legal ops at Facebook and we have a lot of people going into that area.


More and more people go into privacy and compliance. You see the impact that privacy policies have on people’s lives and the disruption they can cause.


In compliance, for us as a Jesuit institution, there are lots of ethical issues around supply chain, diversity and leadership issues.


Even things that you wouldn’t think of like criminal law, contracts or torts have areas that need to be updated to keep up with the pace of modern life. We have an expert who writes on estate and probate issues for gay couples—things that never would have been dealt with and aren’t dealt with even now. All of that is changing and evolving, and that’s why it’s so exciting to be a law professor. 


GC: How do you balance staying true to the constitution versus reforming it?


LK: That’s very much a value-driven personal choice. Whether you think the status quo should be maintained, or whether you’re looking towards the future—and I would hope a more just future. People have preferences.


I’m more a believer in a living constitution. I look back at the first constitution and women were not included, African Americans were not included—it was really for property-owning white males. The framers gave us some beautiful ideas at the 30,000-foot level. How do you make them concrete? You have to take into account the circumstances of the day.


To keep the law relevant for people, to make the world continually evolving to be more just, we have to take that approach. But that’s all influenced by my experience growing up and as a woman in the field.


GC: What would you say is the biggest strength and weakness of the current U.S. justice system?


LK: The two biggest problems are that the legal system is too expensive and too slow. What that means is that most people can’t get access to justice, and the burden falls disproportionately on those who are poor. Even most middle-class people can’t afford a lawyer.


Strengths? There’s a lot of stability and predictability. That’s helpful to guide conduct. It helps to have a set of laws that help predict behavior and risk.


GC: What are some ways we can expand access to legal services?


LK: The courts have gotten better about putting more free information online. There’s a whole movement within dispute resolution called “online dispute resolution” that can resolve a lot of situations like divorce online.


There are many needs in society but we’ve totally underfunded the criminal justice system. The Northern California Innocence Project at the law school has now exonerated over 20 people. They were serving sentences and they’re totally innocent. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the criminal justice system to take out all our biases, make it better funded and make it fair.


GC: Santa Clara is huge on social justice, but oftentimes, people don’t think about going through the traditional systems and more think about starting a new project. But the structure can make a really big impact.


LK: I’m so proud of all our programs at the law school that do things for human trafficking, domestic violence, representing workers who have been cheated, and for those who have been wrongly convicted.


I find that inspiring, that despite the problems in the system, there are some really good, smart people committed to making it better.


GC: If you could send a message to everyone in the United States, what would you want to say?


LK: Can we work together to create a more peaceful and fair society for everyone?

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