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By Jamie L. Freedman

A new era began at GW Law this August, when internationally renowned civil rights scholar Frederick M. Lawrence took over the reins of the Law School as dean. One of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights crimes, Lawrence was chosen from a pool of more than 175 applicants following an extensive yearlong search.

Stan Barouh

Lawrence’s journey to law school dean began early in life, when he became captivated by both government and law. “Growing up, it seemed to me that lawyers were disproportionately involved in the most significant issues of the day, from politics to the civil rights movement,” he states. “I wanted to be part of that.” Academia was a natural calling for Lawrence. “I come from a long line of teachers,” he says, noting that his mother taught high school English for 40 years and that both of his paternal grandparents were teachers. “I was very much brought up thinking of teaching as a noble profession.”

Born and bred in Port Washington, N.Y., on the North Shore of Long Island, Lawrence earned a bachelor’s degree in political economics from Williams College and a JD from Yale Law School. Law degree in hand, he landed a one-year clerkship with Judge Amalya L. Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and then served as a litigation associate at the Manhattan law firm Kramer, Levin, Nessen, Kamin & Soll (now Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel). In 1983, he was named an assistant U. S. attorney for the southern district of New York, rising to chief of the civil rights unit. “My boss was Rudolph Giuliani, who was then U.S. attorney,” reflects Lawrence, who met with Giuliani frequently and says that he was
“truly terrific.”

At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Lawrence’s interest in criminal civil rights law flourished, ultimately inspiring him to specialize in the field. “When I took over the civil rights unit, I worked on a number of police and correctional officer brutality cases, as well as racially motivated criminal activity cases. I’d never considered focusing my practice on criminal civil rights law until that point, which is one of the reasons I always advise my students not to over plan their careers.” The dean adds: “I just attended a convocation at Williams College, where my daughter is a senior, and the guest speaker advised students to ‘embrace serendipity.’ It seems to be pretty good advice!”

Lawrence looks back fondly on his days as assistant U.S. attorney. “It shaped who I am today in a number of ways,” he states. “The experience of serving the public is very powerful. It certainly influenced me in my belief that part of what you do in your career has to involve public service.”

He reflects that the job also taught him the importance of “thinking broadly about problems and trying to come up with solutions that may not be obvious at first.” One case in particular sticks out in his mind. Lawrence explains: “I was involved in an investigation surrounding a test that police officers had to take to be promoted to police sergeants. The test had a discriminatory pass rate for blacks and Hispanics verses whites. We helped bring together the city and the societies representing the minority officers by getting everybody to agree on who would develop the new test. By getting maximum input at the time the test was put together, which is something that hadn’t been done before, we brought people together while helping to find a viable solution. The test wasn’t challenged again during my tenure there.”

Academia then beckoned and Lawrence answered the call, accepting a position on the faculty of Boston University School of Law in 1988. “I’d been thinking about teaching for a long time, and, after five years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it was decision-making time,” he reflects. “As much as I loved the trial and investigatory work of the job, what I found most rewarding was pondering the hard decisions and finding out what solutions made sense, and that’s what academics do.”

Lawrence quickly made a name for himself at Boston University, teaching courses in civil rights enforcement, civil rights crimes, civil procedure, and criminal law, and receiving the institution’s Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest of the university’s teaching honors. After completing a stint as BU’s associate dean for academic affairs from 1996 to 1999, Lawrence returned to the classroom in 2000 as a Law Alumni Scholar, a prestigious endowed chair. A prolific writer, Lawrence is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and the widely acclaimed Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law (Harvard University Press, 1999), and lectures extensively nationally and internationally about bias crime law. He has testified before Congress in support of federal hate crimes legislation, and, last year, was a member of the American delegation to the meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe on Enactment and Enforcement of Legislation to Combat Hate-Motivated Crimes.

“One of the best ways to get to know a large number of students in a deep and sustained way is by interacting with them in the classroom.”­ —Dean Frederick M. Lawrence

William K. Geiger

A passionate teaching dean, Lawrence has long valued the importance of getting to know his students. “One of the best ways to get to know a large number of students in a deep and sustained way is by interacting with them in the classroom,” says Lawrence, who is currently teaching first-year criminal law at GW. “It’s important to illustrate that as vital as scholarship and expanding the faculty endowment are, the core enterprise of a law school is teaching and training young lawyers. As dean, I feel that it’s important to act upon that.”

Lawrence is impressed by the quality of students at GW Law. “GW students are well prepared and very intellectually engaged and I’m enjoying teaching them very much,” he says. “Broadly, they are a very upbeat, welcoming group, who were extra welcoming to the 14 students from New Orleans law schools who arrived at GW two weeks into the semester in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It’s great working with them.”

Teaching, he admits, also provides him with a much-needed sanctuary. “There are some days that I know the only hour of the day that there will be no interruptions, meetings, and phone calls is when I’m in class, and that’s really a great privilege,” he says.

According to Lawrence, it’s imperative for law schools to train young lawyers to be careful and rigorous thinkers, have good judgment, and be honest. “It continues to be a vital function of law schools in America to train attorneys with a deep and abiding sense of personal ethics,” he states. “Just think about the Enron case. How many times has a note or report been passed on by some lawyer who should have said no and didn’t?”

Lawrence is quick to state that GW Law’s world-class teaching faculty does a masterful job. “We have a very well-known, scholarly faculty who, at the same time, are dedicated teachers, which is very important to me,” he says. “I am honored to join this group of distinguished and highly accomplished scholars, who, through their books and articles, TV appearances, and conference presentations, are influencing other scholars and decision-making at all levels of government and around the world on a whole host of pressing legal issues.”

GW Law School, he says, is on “very much of an upward trajectory, which can be measured by the quality of the faculty and student body, our extraordinary alumni base who’ve gone on to all sorts of wonderful things in law and other fields, the physical plant, which has improved so much in recent years, and the U.S. News, where we recently ranked 20th out of some 190 law schools nationwide.”

He hopes to strengthen the mix further by helping to expand faculty endowment and increasing scholarship funds for students at GW. “By expanding faculty endowment, we’ll continue to retain and attract the kind of quality faculty that keep us on top,” he states. Stressing the importance of scholarships, Lawrence says, “We want to see any student who qualifies for admission to our law school be able to attend here regardless of their financial situation. Money should not be an impediment.”

Lawrence greets visitors Oct. 22 at a dinner in honor of the Law School’s reunion classes.

Claire Duggan

As he begins to make his personal imprint on GW Law, Lawrence says one of his top goals is to build upon the positive relationships already in place at the Law School.“I believe strongly in cultivating an open, optimistic, forward-looking, cooperative, collegial atmosphere,” he states. “People ought to feel good about coming to work and students to school every day, and if we’re really doing our job right, after graduation, our students will look back upon GW Law as a place of clarity in a world that all too often lacks clarity in their professional lives.”

Describing himself as a “transparent leader,” he says, “I like for people to know what I’m thinking. They may not always agree with what I think, but I hope they feel they can always bring their concerns to me and that I hear what they say.”

A man of many talents, Lawrence says that before he got “so busy with his day job,” he enjoyed singing with the New York Choral Society, performing at top venues like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “One of my biggest highlights was singing with Peter, Paul, and Mary, who were just as nice in person as you’d imagine them to be,” he reflects. The dean’s other hobbies include reading, hiking, and jogging. Additionally, since 2003, he has chaired the National Legal Affairs Committee of the Anti-Defamation League.

On the home front, Lawrence and his wife, Kathy, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this past summer. Kathy, who has a PhD in American Studies from Boston University, is now an adjunct faculty member at GW, where she teaches Introduction to American Literature and a graduate level course in art history. Their daughter, Miriam, is a senior majoring in English at Williams College and son Noah is a freshman at Yale.

As Lawrence begins this exciting new chapter in his career, he is keenly aware of the power of synergy. “I always tell my students that none of us is as smart as all of us, and boy is that true of the dean!” he exclaims. “I’m lucky to have a great faculty, staff, and students here at GW, and by working together and hearing each others’ ideas, we will reach greater and greater heights in the years ahead.”