Dean Patricia D. White: A Decade of Visionary Leadership


Dean Patricia D. White

Dean Patricia D. White

When Patricia “Trish” White became dean of the University of Miami School of Law in June 2009, she was faced with an unprecedented challenge. It was the height of the recession, and 843 new students had sent deposits for the incoming class—more than double the anticipated 400 enrollees. Fortunately, the new dean was able to come up with an effective solution that allowed Miami Law to deliver high-quality courses without overly straining the school’s resources.

“The first thing I did was send a congratulatory letter to every student who sent a deposit,” White said. “I reminded them about the tight legal market, and suggested that they first do a year of public service, in which case we would accept them in 2010. That brought our enrollment down to 527 students, which we were able to manage by adding extra classrooms and instructors. I wound up teaching an introductory course that fall.”

In the following years, White brought her innovative thinking, intellectual skills and personal compassion to bear on the evolving needs of Miami Law students, faculty and staff. She launched new programs like Legal Corps, which paid to place new graduates in not-for-profit and public sector organizations, and LawWithoutWalls, which links students and faculty from more than 30 academic institutions around the world to examine and develop new solutions to evolving issues in legal education and practice.

Recognizing the community’s growing need for accessible legal services, White also guided the expansion of Miami Law’s clinics, externships and public interest programs, while supporting interdisciplinary learning throughout the J.D. and LL.M. curricula.

“Trish is a visionary and innovative leader,” said Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81, founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, former co-president of Greenberg Traurig, the 2017-18 president of the American Bar Association (ABA), and the chair-elect of the University of Miami Board of Trustees. “Deans throughout the country have looked to Trish for her wise counsel. At Miami Law, she has done a phenomenal job of bringing in new and exciting faculty, and launching innovative programs that will benefit the school for years to come.”

Now, after a decade at the helm of Miami Law, White is looking forward to retiring from her administrative responsibilities in June, while continuing to teach on the faculty and to serve as chair of the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Education, which aims to address new challenges facing the legal profession.

“Ten years is about right,” said White in announcing her retirement as dean. “An institution is seldom best served by having the same dean for more than 10 years. Good institutions must avoid becoming complaisant and they benefit from the challenge of welcoming and confronting new energy.”

“Miami Law is a different place than it was a decade ago. The School is on solid financial footing and is internationally recognized as a leader in innovative responses to a dramatically changing legal environment. Our faculty is intellectually vibrant and committed. We are consistently admitting a strong 1L class, and providing an unparalleled student support model and team,” she said.

In the Forefront

Throughout an academic career that began in 1979 while still a practicing tax attorney, White has been in the forefront of legal education. At Miami Law, she has repeatedly been recognized for her innovative strategies and influential thinking. To take just one example, White was named one the most influential people in legal education in the United States by National Jurist magazine in each of the years the list was published. In 2012, she was named the top woman on that list.

“Trish is one of the most creative people I’ve known in legal academics,” said Peter D. Lederer, an adjunct faculty member who has served on Miami Law’s Visiting Committee for nearly half a century and is one of the co-founders of the law school’s LawWithoutWalls program. He was also one of Baker McKenzie’s earliest partners, opening the global firm’s Zurich office in the 1960s and headed the New York City office for many years.

“The law school has an extraordinary record of women law deans beginning with Minnette Massey in 1962 and Soia Mentschikoff in 1974, and Trish has continued that tradition,” Lederer added. “Along with running the school, she is highly curious about what can be done to make life better for our students. Her willingness to explore new ideas is one of her strengths.”

White’s vision for Miami Law’s academic program has emphasized what she calls the “3 Is”—innovative, interdisciplinary and international. Today, Miami Law has 22 joint degree programs that take advantage of the university’s interdisciplinary resources. Students can take elective courses in fields like medicine, architecture and nursing. One example is a Saturday short course called “The Idea of the Hospital,” that brings graduate students from different schools together to work on collaborative projects.

“We also pay close attention to innovations that affect the practice of law, such as artificial intelligence (AI), e-discovery processes and legal informatics,” White said. “We developed a BILT track within the J.D. program that covers the business of innovation, law and technology.”

Drawing on her background as a tax lawyer, White has also helped Miami Law stay on the leading edge of the master of laws (LL.M.) field. “Our LL.M. programs have been significantly strengthened and enlarged under her leadership,” said Stephen Urice, professor of law and director, Arts Law Track—Graduate Program in Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law LL.M. “Our graduate programs, including our joint J.D./LL.M. offerings, are raising the profile of Miami Law and attracting students with a wide range of interests.”

Transforming Student Services

White transformed Miami Law’s student services, adding the unique Student Development Program, the AskUs Fellows initiative, the Mindfulness in Law Program, Academic Achievement Program and the Office of Professionalism to name a few.

“There is no doubt that Trish is one of the most student-centric deans in the country,” said Greg Levy, J.D. ’10, associate dean, Law Academic & Student Services and Strategic Initiatives and deputy director, Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law LL.M. “She has built a wrap-around model that will be part of her legacy here.”

Levy says that White created a chart with students at the center and looked at the various health and wellbeing, academic and career support services for students from admission to graduation and beyond. Then, she brought together students, faculty and staff to look for ways to improve those offerings, while creating a lasting culture of diversity and inclusion.

“It’s been fun working with Trish,” Levy added. “She is constantly trying to be a step ahead of other schools and leverage our assets in unique and different ways as the legal profession evolves at a rapid pace. She is brilliant in thinking about how we should train the lawyers of tomorrow, rather than today.”

White has also been instrumental in fostering a collaborative spirit of teamwork that extends throughout Miami Law’s operations. “Dean White is both a visionary and a great humanitarian,” said Mercy Hernandez-Ojeda, manager, Copy Center. “She takes pride in supporting our staff, as well as the students, faculty and alumni. She takes time out of her day to come around to our various departments, listens to us, and says ‘thank you.’ It’s been a pleasure working for her.”

Guiding the Operations

White says serving as dean of a law school is a balancing act that requires a wide range of business, human relations and professional skills. “It’s a great job because it requires a broad understanding of education, being sociable, having solid intellectual values and understanding the work of the faculty,” she said. “It’s like being a lawyer for a complex, demanding client. My experience as a lawyer has been very helpful for me in my role as dean.”

On the operational side, White has faced a constant series of financial, people and business decisions. “At Miami Law, we operate our own library, admissions, registrar and career services units, IT, counseling, development, as well as communications and marketing programs, along with maintaining close ties with our alumni and the legal community,” she said.

Mark Raymond, J.D. ’83, managing partner, Nelson Mullins Broad & Cassel, and president of the Miami Law Alumni Association, says White’s steadiness at the helm, deep intellect, and pragmatism have resulted in a stronger school of law.

“Few recognize that, as a dean, she is the CEO of a multi-million dollar business,” Raymond said. “She is to be applauded for all of the wonderful things she has done for Miami Law, and her tenure has benefitted our alumni well.”

While White was trained as a philosopher and is very comfortable discussing legal theory, she is also skilled in the practical side of running a law school. Urice recalls serving on a faculty budget committee with her several years ago when applications were declining. “I was able to watch Trish negotiate a budget for Miami Law that was enormously successful in continuing our position as a strong component of the university,” he said.

White has also reached out to alumni and South Florida’s legal community to raise millions of dollars in scholarships for Miami Law students with limited financial means. “Scholarship funding will continue to be a priority, because the need keeps increasing,” she said. “Many well-qualified students would not be able to attend without financial support. Others graduate with large debts that can limit their career choices to high-paying jobs in the private sector, even if they are passionate about public interest work. I believe that our graduates who have benefited from their education at Miami Law should consider giving back to our school to give new students the same opportunity they enjoyed.”

From a broader perspective, White adds that one of the biggest problems facing higher education is the lack of sustainable funding models, particularly for private institutions.

“One of the answers to cost containment in education is sharing resources in a cost-effective way,” she said. “I am a big fan of Florida International University’s College of Law. We needed a first-rate state institution in Miami, and FIU has developed a good program. I am a big believer in collaboration, but it can be hard for private and public institutions to team up due to different cost structures and revenue streams.”

Reflecting on her operational skills as well as her visionary leadership, Jeffrey L. Duerk, Ph.D., executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, said, “As dean, Trish has deftly navigated the challenges facing law schools and higher education across the country. While her expertise is vast, throughout her career she has demonstrated a steadfast focus on four key areas: students, the transformation of legal education, the interdisciplinary role of law, and public service. These longstanding commitments are reflected in many of the innovative programs and accomplishments established during her time at our law school.”

A Career in the Law

White was born in Syracuse, N.Y. and grew up in a family that balanced encouraging her intellectual, social and recreational interests, including swimming, tennis and golf. “There was no pressure,” said Esty Collet, one of her oldest friends, in a 2009 article recounting White’s achievements at Arizona State University. “She is one of the most well-balanced human beings I have met. She’s so authentic. I don’t think she’s that much different today than she was at 10 or 8. Her focus, wanting to excel, her love of people, and love of life—I’ve never seen her change those basic human characteristics.”

Growing up in an academic family, White had no thought of pursuing a career in law. She enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1971. “I have always enjoyed thinking about philosophy and normative issues and always expected to become an academic,” she said. In her senior year at Michigan, she married a fellow philosopher.

“We decided that I would go to law school, in order to maximize our career opportunities. So, I went to both the law school and graduate school in philosophy at Michigan at the same time—there were no joint programs at that time so it meant doing two full-time programs simultaneously.

Deciding to dedicate herself to law, White felt it was important to develop some practical experience before moving into the academic world. She began her legal practice in Washington, D.C., at Steptoe & Johnson and then moved to Caplin & Drysdale. Then, in 1978, she joined the faculty at Georgetown University Law, and began teaching students about tax law. “I became a law professor at the same time I was practicing law, and that turned out to be a great combination for me,” she said.

During her career, White has worked in the areas of tax law, torts, bioethics, philosophy of law, and trusts and estates, and has published in prominent law and bioethics journals. She is an elected Fellow of the American College of Tax Counsel.

In 1988, White began teaching at the University of Michigan. She also was of counsel to the Detroit firm Bodman, Longley & Dahling, and served for a year as tax advisor to the Economic Study Commission for Major League Baseball.

In 1994, White joined the law faculty at the University of Utah, and was of counsel to Parsons, Behle & Latimer. After five years in Utah, she moved south to become dean of Arizona State University’s College of Law. As ASU’s law dean from 1999 to 2009, she overcome several challenges, and created new programs like an Indian Law clinic and a collaborative J.D.-M.D. program with the Mayo Clinic.

In 2006, ASU President Michael Crow and White approached retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and asked her to give her name to ASU’s law school, the first law school naming of a living person based on merit and the first law school naming after a woman. “Patricia White has my admiration and appreciation for the wonderful job she has done,” said O’Connor. “It’s hard to be a dean of a law school. You have to balance three major interests: students who need to be satisfied they are getting a first-rate education; the faculty who have very different interests; and the alumni who give their support. She has managed very well in all these areas.”

When she moved from ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to Miami Law in 2009, White left a lasting imprint on her institution. As president Crow said at the time, “Dean White has built a law school with deep intellectual grounding in history, philosophy, science and public service. She brought us to the point where we can grow, evolve and prosper as a community of teachers and scholars.”

Adjusting to a Changing Market

Through the past 10 years, White has guided Miami Law through the ups and downs of a changing national economy and legal market. During the so-called “Great Recession” of 2009-10, she launched the Legal Corps—a first-of-its-kind program that guaranteed Miami Law graduates a six-month position in any nonprofit or governmental agency in the country if they passed the bar.

“We paid for those first six months, so those graduates were ‘free’ to the organizations,” White said. “They were thrilled with our offer and more than 900 organizations sought to hire our new graduates.”

Meanwhile, the new Miami Law attorneys appreciated the opportunity to be gainfully employed at a time when the market was contracting. “Many of our students stayed with those organizations after the first six months, while others drew on their experience to become first in line for positions in the private sector,” White said.

After funding the Legal Corps for three years, the market for law school graduates improved and White brought it to an end. “It was a great program that made a difference for many graduates and won a lot of national awards, but financially it was not sustainable,” White said.

Since then, White has focused on finding the optimum level for student admissions, raising standards and reducing class size to about 250 graduates in 2018. Now, applications are rising again as more young adults look for careers in public service and enrollment is now stable at 330 to 350 students.

“Working with Trish the last 10 years as the chairman of the Miami Law Visiting Committee has been an extreme pleasure,” said Wayne Chaplin, president and CEO of Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, and a member of the University of Miami Board of Trustees. “Her insight in helping to put our law school on solid ground for the future has been truly rewarding. Her long-term vision to rebase the law school by creating a smaller student body and an improved and empowered faculty has left us in a place of strength for years to come. Thank you Trish for 10 great and rewarding years.”

Selecting the Right Students

With her focus on individuals, it’s not surprising that White has never been a fan of law school rankings as a yardstick for applicants. “Institutions vary in their strengths, their programs and their roles in the field,” she said. “As a result, you wind up with apples to oranges comparisons that sell magazines, but are not necessarily helpful to prospective students.”

Miami Law student Alice Kerr credits White with opening the door to a future career in law. A U.S. Army veteran with a long career in IT, Kerr was the lead project manager for a university-wide technology upgrade. “The IT department was reorganizing,” she said. “My position was going away and I wanted to assure Dean White that the transition to a new manager would be seamless for the law school’s IT department. Without missing a beat, she asked about my future plans and asked if I had considered law school. As I recall, I laughed out loud. Then, our 30-minute scheduled meeting became a two-hour exploration of careers, law, and the possibility of a new career in law.”

Kerr applied and received an offer of acceptance for the class of 2020. “Dean White took a chance on this late-career changing, poor test-taking applicant. Throughout my first semester, she would find me in the library and ask about classes, whether the experience was positive or negative, and whether I had ideas for improvements or changes. I am now in my second semester of 2L year, still enjoying the journey.”

A Parental Perspective

It’s not just students who appreciate White’s personal interest and concern for their welfare. Dr. Richard Axel, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University and a Nobel Prize laureate in medicine, felt an “immediate kinship with her thinking” when he met White at a parent’s reception following his son’s admission to Miami Law.

“I liked her intellect and her recognition of the role that academic institutions play in today’s society,” Axel said. “Along with her scholarship and leadership, she has a deep concern for humanity. She knows that connecting people who are different from ourselves stimulates the imagination. When we can see the world through multiple eyes, we are much better able to integrate and master complex problems, and she has instituted that thinking at Miami Law.”

That humanitarian perspective helped carry Jonathan Axel, J.D. ‘15, through the rigorous Miami Law academic experience, according to his father. “On the morning of his graduation, I asked Jon ‘Where is your robe?’ In the intensity of completing finals and studying for law boards, he had forgotten to get one. But after making a couple of calls Dean White and her assistant took the time to find him a robe and got it to him on a crazy morning. She is truly a great person at every level.”

Serving the Public Interest

Under White’s leadership, the number of clinics at Miami Law has more than tripled, bringing the total to 10. “I am a big fan of legal clinics,” she said. “They provide a great training mechanism to learn lawyering skills, while providing important services to large numbers of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to our legal system. They also help our students understand that the role of a lawyer is often to bring about social justice, as well as helping individuals with a particular problem.”

White also believes that externships, voluntary summer projects—locally, national and internationally—contribute to a well-balanced student experience. “Every year our students and faculty contribute thousands of pro bono hours in service to others,” she said.

Caroline Bettinger-López, professor of clinical legal education and Director, Human Rights Clinic, says she has received tremendous support from White. “When I was invited to join the faculty here in 2010, I looked at Dean White’s record of supporting clinical and public interest programs at ASU,” she said. “We talked about her vision for Miami Law, and she clearly walks the talk. She also served as mentor, helping me understand how to grow our clinical programs, and build their reputation locally, nationally and internationally.”

Soon after her arrival, Bettinger-López became involved in the grave humanitarian crisis in Haiti following the devastating January 2010 earthquake. After initially halting immigrant deportations, the U.S. government announced that December it would resume sending Haitians back to their homeland. “Our students in our immigration and human rights clinics sprang into action,” she said. “We were able to get the federal government to apply a humanitarian balancing test to every Haitian national they were seeking to deport. I credit Trish for providing the time and support for us to engage in this project.”

Miami Law’s clinics have continued to flourish under White, introducing leading-edge community lawyering services, including litigation and advocacy. “We have also launched several practicums under her leadership,” Bettinger-López said. “Their impact will continue to grow in the future.”

Thinking About the Future

Although White is stepping down as Miami Law dean, she will continue to chair the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Education, which aims to identify and influence the dramatic changes expected in the legal profession over the next decade.

Those changes include rapid advances in technology that are reshaping how attorneys and firms practice law and serve their clients. “We need to train our students to be successful in a world that includes artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and other applications,” White said.

Recognizing the importance of sophisticated technology in the design and provision of legal services, White brought MiamiLex to the school in a strategic alliance with UnitedLex, a global provider of legal support and technology services. Since 2014, MiamiLex has provided direct budget support to Miami Law and highly relevant training, including certification testing in e-discovery and litigation management, forensics evidence and analysis, and risk and cost forecasting.

“MiamiLex allows us to expose our students and recent graduates to complex client challenges requiring expertise in state-of-the-art technology and process design,” White said. “It also provides a source of law school funding including scholarship money for our students.”

Looking to the future, White said the ABA commission is focusing on three primary issues. “First of all, the skill sets that lawyers will need in the 21st century are different from the past. That means we should consider new ways to structure and deliver a law school education. Our traditional one-size-fits-all model may not always be the best way to help students develop those new skills.”

A second issue under consideration is changing the current licensure model. “One option would be to design a limited legal licensure regime that would allow paraprofessionals to assist clients in designated ways,” White said. “It’s a licensing model used in the delivery of healthcare services.”

Related to the licensing issue is access to justice—the ABA committee’s third priority. “Access to our court system is not just a problem for the poor,” she said. “Today, most Americans can’t afford a lawyer for anything but the most serious concerns because the costs are too high.”

While financial matters are clearly a practical concern, White can also step back and take a philosophical view of this vital national initiative. “We have started with the foundation, such as the role of law in a democratic society and the role of law schools as stewards of those values. From that, we will be considering the best ways to achieve our agreed-upon goals. Our work is not designed to be directive, but to provide a guidepost for law schools in the next decade.”

A Less Demanding Schedule

White is looking forward to having a less demanding professional schedule. “The dean’s position is a 24/7 job, 12 months of the year,” she said. “You are always on call and always responsible. The average tenure of a law school dean is 3.5 years, so 20 years is a long run!”

Her husband, James W. Nickel, emeritus professor of philosophy and law, agrees. “When Trish stops being dean, she will need surgery to remove her mobile device from her hand,” he said. “We were recently driving back from a grandparents’ trip to Orlando, and she was on her phone for more than three hours.”

Altogether, White and Nickel have five children and five grandchildren. Olivia White, holds a Ph.D. in physics, and is a partner at McKinsey and Company in San Francisco; Alex White, Ph.D. is an associate professor of economics at Tshinghua University in Beijing; Jennifer White Callaghan, J.D., is a lawyer in the Washington D.C. office of London-based Allen & Overy; Jonathan Nickel, M.D., is a physician in Saratoga Springs, NY; and Philip Nickel, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

“Jim and I very much look forward to having the chance to enjoy our new found flexibility,” White said. “These past 10 years have been extremely challenging ones for law schools. I am proud to say that together our law school community weathered the storm and have emerged stronger than ever.”

Noting that Miami Law today is on solid financial footing, with an intellectually vibrant and committed faculty and a strong incoming student class, Provost Duerk thanked White for her decade as dean. As he said, “We are all deeply grateful to Trish for her dedicated service to our students, our law school, and our university.”

Recognition and Awards

Throughout her career, Dean Patricia D. White has won many awards, including the Judge Learned Hand Award for distinguished public service by the Arizona chapter of the American Jewish Committee. She was the first woman law school dean in Arizona and the longest serving one in the history of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Since joining Miami Law, she has been recognized with the following honors:

  • Named one the most influential people in legal education in the United States by National Jurist magazine in each of the years it published. In 2012, she was named the top woman on that list.
  • Cited by University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter as one of the country’s nine most transformative law deans in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • Received the 2012 Equal Justice Leadership Award by Legal Services of Greater Miami. The award recognizes excellence in protecting the rights of South Florida’s most vulnerable individuals and families.
  • In 2011, Miami Law was honored by the American Bar Association Law Student Division with the Judy M. Weightman Memorial Public Interest Award, in recognition of the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center.
  • A special report in London-based Financial Times ranked Miami Law as one of the most innovative law schools in the world in 2015 and 2016.
  • Billboard Magazine ranked Miami Law as a top school for music law in the U.S. in 2017.
  • Under White’s leadership, Miami Law was recognized by Pre-Law Magazine as one the “20 Most Innovative Law Schools” in 2017.
  • Innovation 800, published in 2017 by Cambridge University, included Miami Law as a “Leader in Learning” and one of the most innovative law schools.
  • The Legal Services Innovation Index ranked the University of Miami Law in the top four for law schools delivering innovation and technology programs in 2017.