Meet UW Law’s new Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs

Jessica West knows what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong.

Growing up in an interracial family and the first in her family to graduate from college, West felt like she stuck out like a sore thumb when she started her undergraduate education at Brown University. She couldn’t help it. What if the admissions department had made a mistake? What if she didn’t deserve to be there?

At the time, West wishes someone would have told her what she now tells students who walk into her office: You belong here.

“Among our biggest strengths as a community is that our students bring such an incredible range of experiences.” West said. “In order to support diverse leadership in law and policymaking throughout the country, it’s important to support this diversity of students, which means supporting different learning styles, life experiences and skill sets.

“It is critical that our students become great lawyers as they are ultimately going to be legal leaders, change-agents and difference-makers.”

West is an outspoken believer in the power of the law and a legal education. So when UW Law launched its new Academic Success Programs in fall 2019, she was a natural fit to step in as assistant dean and spearhead the effort.

The Academic Success Programs support all UW Law students seeking to develop as effective learners and lawyers. The program offers academic counseling to individuals and small groups through which students can learn more about available community resources and discuss ways to leverage learning strengths, as well as identify and tackle areas for growth.

West’s new role represents the opportunity to make a difference in the legal field in a way she dreamed of after a 20-year career as a litigator handling complex civil and criminal matters. The University of Denver Sturm College of Law first recruited her to teach, and it was in the classroom that West began to develop a passion for helping the next great legal leaders realize their goals.

“As my career developed, I saw that I could make more of a difference helping people become great in this very powerful way,” West said. “I saw the passion and the power of students and their desires to make a difference, and it really drew me in.”

In addition to individualized meetings, the Academic Success Programs sponsor a series of workshops and presentations to on topics related to student learning and success.

“The process of becoming a great leader, lawyer, lawmaker, and policy maker is about continuing to learn.”

As a new program dedicated to supporting the community’s commitment to overcome systemic barriers to student success, the program will partner with members of the legal community during 2019-2020 to identify area of future programmatic growth to best serve students and the legal community.

“Law school learning is different than other types of educational experiences and there are many strategies that can make it all so much easier,” West said. “When students understand the tools for effective legal learning, everything about law school, persuasion, and advocacy becomes so much easier.”

Having run her own firm and hired new law school graduates, West has a distinct edge in knowing what students will actually need when they are first building their careers in the legal field.

The most important skill students need to become a great lawyer, she said, is to become a truly great learner.

“It’s not just about getting through law school; it’s not just about passing the bar,” West said. “The process of becoming a great leader, lawyer, lawmaker and policy maker is about continuing to learn.”

West and her wife have two daughters, now 13 and 15, and her children have been reading casebooks since they were toddlers. When her older daughter gets to law school, as is her goal, West notes that she won’t necessarily be on even footing with a peer who is a first-generation college graduate or grad school attendee or others who haven’t been reading cases since barely out of diapers.

Leveling that playing field so that all voices can rise and be heard, West says, is why she believes so strongly in the power of the new program.

“There are a lot of systemic issues at play even in a place with as deep a commitment to fairness and diversity as UW Law,” she said. “Things like stereotype threats and implicit biases pervade all systems — even this one. As part of its continuing commitment to equity and inclusion, as well as to exceptional teaching and learning, the law school has created this program.”

With every student who walks through her door, West can’t help but see a reflection of herself when she first set out on her own journey — a small fish in a big pond, an aspiring legal professional unsure of their place in this daunting new world. So, when they do come to her in the most challenging moments of doubt, she simply tells them the truth.

“More than anything I want to say to students that the admissions department, the faculty, and the dean did not make a mistake,” West said. “We were right. You are here because you belong here.

“And you are going to make a difference.”

Learn more about the Academic Success Programs and connect with Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs Jessica West.