September 8, 2008 — Although Paul Mahoney had more than an inkling of what life would be like as dean, he was still impressed by the reality of his new position.
"A lot of things come across the dean's desk in a given day," Mahoney said. "My e-mail traffic has probably quintupled or more since I became dean. The number of letters, the number of decisions to make in a day's time takes some adjustment for someone who's used to being an academic."
Mahoney, who became the 11th dean of the University of Virginia School of Law in July, is settling into a job that is in many ways the culmination of his years at Virginia. He joined the faculty in 1990 and served as academic associate dean from 1999 to 2004.
"It's the greatest honor that I've received in my professional life, and of course it's a tremendous challenge," said Mahoney. "This is a great law school and the task of improving it every day is always on my mind."
After graduating from Yale Law School, Mahoney clerked for Judge Ralph K. Winter Jr. of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He practiced with the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell and became an expert transactional attorney before turning to academia.
He and his wife Julia, a Law School professor, have two sons. Brendan is headed to Dartmouth College this fall and Matthew is a high school sophomore at Tandem Friends School.
Mahoney recently answered a few questions about his life and his new role as dean.
Q. Why did you decide you wanted to be dean?
A. I came to academic administration a little bit reluctantly because being a law professor is the best job in the world, but Virginia has been home for my entire academic career and most of my professional life, and anything I can do to help out, I would like to do. When the dean search began, I started to think about whether this is something that I might be able to do to help the school, and concluded that it was. That made the choice pretty easy for me.
Q. What are your goals for the Law School?
A. My goal is to maintain and, indeed, improve our standing as one of the nation's finest law schools. To make that operational, I'm focusing on two issues. I want every potential applicant to know that you can get a first-rate education here, have first-rate career options, and enjoy yourself while you're doing it. I think that's a package you can't match at any other law school. I think perhaps there are potential applicants who don't really recognize that, and I'd like to get that message out. The second operational goal relates to faculty. We are in an era of what [former Dean] Bob Scott referred to as "faculty free agency," and we need to adapt to that system. Faculty move from one school to another more than they used to. Fortunately, we have always done a great job of hiring rising talent. That's in part because faculty really thrive here. We have a tremendously collegial atmosphere and faculty who come here tend to produce first-rate work, and I think that's something that will serve us well in competition with other law schools for the best faculty.
Q. Has anything surprised you about what it's like to be dean?
A. The thing that is amazing is just the complexity of running any large organization — every day I come away with a renewed appreciation for every one of the many people who work in this building, who keep everything running for us to be successful.
Q. What do you want prospective applicants to know about the Law School?
A. Most prospective applicants already know that our students love it here and that the faculty are famously gifted teachers. What they may not know is how successful our graduates are on the job market. We rank second in placement success among top law firms and third in the number of graduates who are managing partners of those firms. When legal employers are surveyed about where they prefer to hire, we routinely rank from second to fourth.
Our graduates do not just do well in law firms, however. In recent years we've ranked fifth in placement success in academic jobs and seventh in the number of Supreme Court clerkships.
In whatever career you want to pursue, whether at a law firm, clerking, becoming a law professor or going into public service, the Virginia brand name opens doors.
Q. How did you switch from majoring in engineering at MIT to studying law?
A. I ended up realizing that I really enjoyed the intellectual part of engineering, math and science, but I wasn't either especially good at or especially interested in actually being an engineer. So I, like so many other students, came to law school somewhat by default. I was sure that I wanted to try something different, and I wanted to try something that had more of a human element to it than what I was doing in engineering, so law seemed like an interesting thing to try. I really loved it right from the start, so it was a very lucky career move for me.
Q. What did you do as a practicing attorney?
A. My practice was transactional, so I focused on helping clients, most of whom were underwriters of securities or companies trying to raise money through securities issuances or other financing devices. I did some work on mergers and acquisitions, but all of it was transactional and most of it involved the public or private securities markets.
Q. You've also worked abroad on legal reform projects. How did that happen, and what did it teach you about law?
A. I started that work at the same time I was making the transition to be a law professor. My primary research methodology is law and economics, and I got to know some economists who work in development. Some of them were putting together development projects after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.
I ended up working on a number of projects, mostly funded by USAID, which is the main foreign aid agency in the United States, to provide assistance in developing a legal system that will work for a market economy. I spent time in places like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Nepal and advised those countries on developing a modern legal system.
What I learned from that is just how hard it is to change a legal system. It is embedded in so many cultural, economic and political facts about the country that you can't just drop in a new statute or a new regulation and expect behavior to change. You really have to change a lot about the society at the same time in order to get the legal system working the way you want it to work.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I enjoy a lot of different things. I'm fond of 19th-century novels, English and Russian in particular. I'm now working my way through the new [Richard] Pevear and [Larissa] Volokhonsky translation of "War and Peace." I love both chamber music and opera. I enjoy cooking — Julia and I like to do that together and we enjoy things that are a little off the beaten track. We try different Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American recipes.
I'm a huge college sports fan. I try to make as many of the Virginia football and basketball games as I can, and also make it over to Klöckner [Stadium] to some soccer games.
We go out hiking in the Blue Ridge pretty regularly. If I'm in a hurry, Observatory Hill is very near our house and there are lots of nice trails there. We walk there a lot. Sometimes during the summer we manage to make it up to Maine, which is where Julia's family is originally from. There are all kinds of great places in Maine and New Hampshire, particularly the White Mountains, where we take hikes.
Q. What's your favorite thing about being dean so far?
A. My favorite thing so far is meeting alumni and realizing just how deep their affection is for the Law School. It never ceases to amaze me that when I go to an event, someone I've never met before will come up to me and say "I'm a graduate from the class of…" and they immediately begin talking about what a wonderful time they had at the Law School and ask me questions about how things are going today, and remarking on how things have changed but stayed the same in important ways since they were in law school. We really do inspire a tremendous loyalty and affection from our graduates, and that makes being dean a lot of fun.