Legal Career Spotlight: Supreme Court Clerk to BigLaw Associate to Academia
Published: Oct 01, 2019
David Van Zandt has served as the president of The New School (the alma mater of three of Vault’s editors!) since 2011. After receiving his J.D. from Yale Law School, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and Judge Pierre Leval for the Southern District of New York, earned his Ph.D. in Sociology from the London School of Economics, and was an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP. He then taught at the law school at Northwestern University and became the dean of that institution before becoming president of The New School. David was kind enough to sit down with Vault to talk about his incredible career path, The New School’s Centennial, and the future of higher education.
Vault: What was it that initially drew you to law school?
David Van Zandt: My interest in going to law school started pretty early in life. I came of consciousness during the civil rights movement, and lawyers had a significant impact on that period and the changes underway. I remember in college, most people didn’t know what they wanted to do when they were finished, and law was one pathway people took, so I knew law was an option open to me. I went on to get my Ph.D. in Sociology at the London School of Economics, which was a different route. But I had law in the back of my mind, and when it came time to leave London, I applied to a few schools. With my sociological background I always thought that I would teach law, but I enjoyed a variety of different experiences before that happened. I was a paralegal and later a summer associate at Skadden Arps and a summer associate at Covington & Burling in DC. I worked for Shearman and Freshfields, and I liked that work. I eventually ended up at Davis Polk—it was a very natural step for me. On the other hand, I was always academically oriented, which led to my later career choices.
Vault: Can you tell me a little about what it was like to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and Judge Pierre Leval for the Southern District of New York (now of the Second Circuit)? What knowledge and insights did you gain from that experience?
DVZ: To me it was the ideal experience. Most people who end up at the Supreme Court clerk for a Court of Appeals judge, which is a similar experience, but they have their differences. In a district court, there’s more experience with lawyers representing clients than at the appellate level. My time with Pierre Leval was fantastic. He had only been on the bench for four years at the time, and it’s hard to believe he’s semi-retired now. At the district level, I learned a lot about what motivates people, and it gave me a tremendous insight into the litigation process. I mostly worked on motions for dismissal, motions for summary judgement, and discovery disputes while he was on the bench, though every district judge divides up their work differently.
Justice Blackmun, on the other hand, had been on the bench for a while—he was 77 at the time. That was a very different experience—we interacted less with outsiders, focusing our time and efforts in that chamber with the other eight justices and their clerks. Blackmun knew what he wanted—we’d mostly write memos for him, and he might comment back on them, but he didn’t really ask for our opinions as much. He was a spectacular person. We had breakfast with him every morning at 8 o’clock in the public area of the court. Sometimes former clerks would join us. We didn’t talk about cases—more about current events and the like. It was the second or third year of the Reagan administration, so there was lots of discussion about that. He was just a wonderful man. Blackmun’s chambers were known as the hardest working—partly because his clerks wanted to do everything they could for him. In some cases, they probably overdid it—he’d complain that their memos were too long! Sometimes we would also work on the first drafts of the opinions he was assigned—after every conference he’d bring us all into his office, and he would read from his notes, which were almost a verbatim recounting of everything. That gave us a good sense of the other judges’ thinking on the cases. Sometimes other judges’ clerks would come to us to ask what their judge’s opinion on the case was, that was pretty funny. It was an incredible experience, and afterward, I took six months off to finish my dissertation before heading to Davis Polk.
Vault: You went on to teach law at and eventually become the dean of Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law. What was it about academia and higher education that drew you from the practice of law? How did the transition go for you?
DVZ: I was always oriented towards academics; I knew I was always going to teach, be it sociology or at a law school. I taught for 10 years, and I did the writing for tenure. I enjoyed it immensely but thought I should be doing something else. Then the deanship opened—which I hadn’t thought about previously—and I went ahead and applied. I was fortunate to be selected for the job. I loved the students, and I loved the job. Because of my time in law practice, my 10 years at Northwestern, and my time with a private equity firm (I worked with two great people who started the firm after stints at Boston Consulting Group), I knew about legal services and private businesses, and I thought I could apply that knowledge to the law school at Northwestern. I could see what was happening in the legal services industry. It used to be that if you worked hard and were a good technical lawyer, you made partner; whereas, now it comes down to a book of business. I saw that change happening. One thing we started doing in response to that shift was to initiate an interview process for our law school candidates, as well as requiring candidates to have significant post-college experience. These candidates were very attractive to BigLaw, especially those who participated in our 3-year JD-MBA program, which was about 10 percent of the class. Recruiting partners asked us at the time, “Can’t they make up their minds?” But within five years, these candidates could get a job at any large law firm. It was fun to steer the school in that direction and make it student oriented.
One thing I always told students is that you should look at BigLaw like a training period—you’re learning a lot, and seeing different parts of the world. Go to a large firm for two or three years, meet a lot of people, and if a you end up working for a client, great. Maybe 20-25 percent of associates are cut out to be partners, but for the rest of us—including me—that’s not as compelling, and we’d rather work to make one organization better. I knew so many people who were great as partners and loved that life, but it wasn’t right for me. But BigLaw was a great training period for other opportunities.
Vault: You took over as president of The New School in 2011—what would you say is your greatest accomplishment since entering this role? Has your law background served you in any way?
I had been the dean at Northwestern for 15 years when I went to The New School. It was time to move on; you generally don’t want to stay in these roles for too long. I was told there was this great job in New York. I was aware of The New School for Social Research, the university’s graduate social sciences college, and knew it was smaller than Northwestern; I wondered why I would make the step to someplace smaller. But then I talked with the search consultant and realized The New School was much more, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.
In legal services, the rewards go to people who are highly creative, who could find creative solutions to problems, legal or otherwise. In the past, if you had one skill and did it well, you could go far. Those days are gone, and creative people as a group experience greater career success by almost any measure. Being in a place that mixed social sciences with humanities and design intrigued me. It was also an opportunity to pull things together—to have a strong design school [Parsons, The New School’s college of design] surrounded by social sciences and humanities is unique. Students and undergrads choose The New School because we’re not just a standalone liberal arts school, a stand-alone art and design school, or an independent performing arts conservatory. So I wanted to integrate the different colleges both academically and geographically. Mannes [the college of music] was up on 85th Street, and the School of Fashion was on 40th Street—about 1,000 of our students were not at the campus heart. So we moved those school down to our central campus in Greenwich Village. That was a great opportunity to pull the whole university together.
There is one other thing we do that is unique among universities. Other universities try to find “the best fit,” but we defined that phrase. We seek out students who have tremendous creative talent and who want to use those talents to have an impact on the world. We call these students “engaged innovators.” Many universities think it’s crazy to limit the pool of students we target (they market to all students and then sort through them)—but it’s the same thing I did at Northwestern. And the reality is that the right candidate in the right community will be competitive in that group. So I think bringing the campus together and finding our niche among incoming students are my two biggest accomplishments in my time at The New School.
Vault: This year is The New School’s Centennial—100 years since a group of progressives broke away from traditional academia to found something, well, new—and this week in particular is the Festival of New, coinciding with the first week of classes 100 years ago. Can you speak to the significance of this anniversary, both historically and for yourself personally?
DVZ: I think 100 years is significant no matter how you cut it! The New School was created in 1919 by Columbia faculty who were dissatisfied with the state of academia at the time. What we are today is different than what they imagined, which was a university without degrees, buildings, and certainly no president. And in our earliest years, The New School offered continuing education courses for adults in the social sciences, political science, and the arts—the arts were always important to The New School. Over the past 100 years we have changed in response to the outside world and where the opportunities existed. For instance, in 1933, The New School established the University in Exile, which provided a safe haven for more than 150 Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Germany. This allowed us to build our social sciences department and begin offering Ph.D.’s, a departure from previous years. After the war, GIs came to The New School to study for an adult Bachelor’s degree; Parsons became part of the university in 1970; we established Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in 1985; and Mannes [the music college] joined the university in 1989.
As for the next 100 years, obviously you can’t predict much. But The New School is adept at addressing challenges. Today, the cost of higher education is the biggest challenge. Tuition goes up because costs go up. And the number of high school graduates is decreasing at a steady rate; it is about five percent a year in the Northeast. I think I am leaving the school in a great position to face that challenge. The questions we ask ourselves aren’t existential, but about quality. The New School has the highest proportions of non-U.S. undergrads in the U.S. (about one-third, though Parsons is up to 45 percent). We intentionally draw people from around the world because great creative talent exists all over the world, and I think that’s the future of higher ed. The current political climate certainly creates challenges, which we’re watching very closely, but higher ed is one of our country’s biggest exports. And it is so important, more so now than ever before.
Vault: Earlier this year, you announced that you’ll be stepping down as president after this school year. We’re all very sad to see you go, of course, but I have to ask—what comes next?
DVZ: My wife teaches at Eugene Lang College [The New School’s Liberal Arts College], and she loves it, so we will definitely stay in New York. I have joined the board of the nonprofit Action Against Hunger—a great organization—and I’ll probably join up with another. I will probably work doing something, though probably not in higher ed and not at a law firm. This is a real opportunity for me; I have lots of energy, and there are things I didn’t get to do earlier in my career that I want to try now in the later part. It’s very exciting for me.
Vault: And finally, any advice for law students or current attorneys who might feel themselves drawn to academia and higher education?
DVZ: It depends on who you are and where you are in your career. If you are earlier in your career and interested in full-time academics, I’d recommend a Ph.D. in the social sciences—you need a method in something in order to study the law. On the other hand, if you’re already practicing, you can meet up with your alma mater or a local law school. Teaching can be a wonderful experience alongside practice. About half of the full-time faculty we had at Northwestern were people who were lawyers for many years, came back, and taught law, which is a much more open path these days. Law schools are some of the most traditional institutions in this country, but that’s starting to break down now. Here at The New School, some of our faculty are full-time academics, and a number are practitioners who teach for a few years as well. Having both academic and practical experiences is a very valuable thing for lawyers. We’re all made different ways, and there are lots of ways to get into higher ed.
2019 represents The New School’s Centennial, and they’re celebrating with The Festival of New—check out the calendar of events for the Festival here.