posted Jan 18, 2019

The University of Washington School of Law is well known for its influence within the legal profession and its commitment to preparing the next generation of lawyers. But just as the practice of law is not defined by traditional disciplinary boundaries, neither is UW Law bound by classroom walls or campus borders.

UW Law is a leader in convening experts and sparking dynamic conversations outside a classroom setting.

“The law school is a part of the public conversation about things that really matter,” said Scott Schumacher, associate dean for academic administration and professor of law. “We’re not some ivory tower, disconnected from the real world. Not only are we invested in the conversation, we’re taking a leading role in convening it and moving it forward.”

Drawing top practitioners and visionary leaders

This ability to draw speakers from the top echelons of industry, government and academia is a hallmark of events sponsored by UW Law.

Twice a year, for example, the UW Tech Policy Lab — which bridges UW Law, the Information School and the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering — invites a leading national or international figure to its Distinguished Lecture Series to address issues that are at the intersection of technology and law.

In November, cybersecurity expert and former British intelligence officer Matt Tait spoke to a capacity crowd on election hacking. Tait was among the earliest researchers to uncover evidence of Russian interference and his presentation covered midterm election meddling, the status of the Russian investigation and what can be done to eliminate future foreign interference. Tait is also a former private-sector consultant and a senior fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Ryan Calo, Tech Policy Lab co-director, bringing some of the world’s foremost experts to campus lies at the very core of the Tech Policy Lab’s mission of research, education and thought leadership. Event organizers strive to keep the range of topics and speakers lively and fresh.

“Past speakers have included a best-selling author, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command and the former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission,” said Calo, who is also the Lane Powell & D. Wayne Gittinger Endowed Professor and an associate professor of law. “One year, we had the individual who built R2-D2 for the Star Wars movie.”

The highly regarded UW-TEI Tax Forum is co-sponsored by UW Law and the Seattle chapter of the Tax Executives Institute. In February, some 200 tax professionals will be on the UW campus to listen to, network with and learn from some of the nation’s brightest minds on tax and policy issues.

For Brett Weaver, a national tax policy leader and partner at KPMG, UW Law plays a key role through the Tax orum in advancing the conversation on tax and legal issues. Weaver, who spoke at last year’s forum, identified two elements that make the event special.

“First, we bring some of the best minds from across the country to Seattle to explore tax and legal questions and the underlying social issues that drive them,” he said. “Second, the program is carefully designed to allow time for participants to ask questions, engage with the speakers and network with their peers.”

Mike Bernard, chief tax officer at Vertex Inc., agrees that the Tax Forum provides an opportunity to get diverse perspectives and rub shoulders with others in the profession. Bernard was instrumental in designing the forum eight years ago when he was serving as U.S. tax counsel at Microsoft.

“People come to the forum expecting a full day of education, networking and outstanding presentations,” he said. “We bring in national practitioners from Washington, D.C., who speak on policy issues as well as invite local practice providers to discuss what’s going on in Washington state. These are the experts who have the ear of legislators, policy analysts and trade organizations.”

Making an impact thanks to philanthropic support

Some UW Law lecture series are made possible through the generosity of donors, such as the Shidler Lecture, funded by real-estate investor Jay H. Shidler in honor of his uncle Roger Shidler, a 1924 law school graduate.

The winter Shidler Lecture, to be held Feb. 6, brings Christoph Ann, chair of corporate and IP law at the Technical University of Munich, to Seattle. Prof. Ann’s book on patent law is the most comprehensive German treatise on the subject. The spring Shidler lecturer, to be held May 2, will feature Jessica Silbey, director of the Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity at Northeastern University School of Law.

Discussing timely topics

UW Law also convenes a robust array of seminars and lectures throughout the year, guaranteeing up-to-the-minute discussions on topics that are trending. These include:

  • an annual estate planning seminar, now in its 63rd year and the second biggest in the U.S.;
  • an environmental law symposium that attracts not only lawyers but politicians, healthcare professionals and activists; and
  • a lunch lecture with a California Supreme Court Justice.

Many of these lectures offer Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit to support professional development and help attorneys stay at the top of their game. There are great advantages for law students, as well.

“Our students are welcome at our conferences and events, usually with discounted or free admission,” Schumacher said. The benefits far outweigh any cost. At the Tax Forum, for instance, students hear from representatives from leading global companies, such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks.

“Sure, there are other great law schools out there,” Schumacher admitted. “Notre Dame has a terrific law school; so does the University of Illinois. But I can guarantee you that the general counsel of Amazon is not going to be a regular speaker on the Urbana-Champaign campus.”

Leading the discussion in Seattle and around the globe

For Anita Ramasastry, director of UW Law's graduate program in Sustainable International Development, advancing the conversation around business law and human rights is often carried out on a global stage.

Two years ago, Ramasastry was appointed to the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, one of five independent experts serving on this international body. The assignment enables her to draw students and alumni into conversations that assess and monitor how nations and businesses, particularly transnational corporations, are upholding human rights.

“The UN is making a huge impact in this area, where global supply chains are a big focus for governments and human rights advocates,” said Ramasastry, who is also the Dean Emeritus Roland L. Hjorth Professor of Law. She recently returned from Geneva, Switzerland, where the 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights was held. She often brings students to this event, which allows them to network and see what career pathways exist.

“Here, more than 2,500 attendees network, share experiences and learn about the latest initiatives to promote corporate respect and responsibility for human rights,” she said.

Ramasastry often sees graduates from UW Law's Sustainable International Development program at the Geneva forum, participating as speakers on the dais or consulting with corporate or government representatives. She recalled one graduate who works with Amazon to prevent modern slavery in global supply chains, and another who now heads a business and human rights team at the Kenyan Human Rights commission.

“Instead of teaching them, I am now collaborating with them,” she said.

A former adviser to the World Bank, Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ramasastry draws on these contacts and others to bring greater depth and context to the Sustainable International Development program. Representatives from top corporations such as Microsoft and Coca Cola, among others, come into the classroom to speak to students, sharing first-hand how their companies are engaging in the world more responsibly.

Whether it is tax law or tech policy, sustainable development or human rights, UW Law continues to convene these important conversations.

“As a university, we’re dedicated to furthering knowledge,” Schumacher said. “It’s what we do and who we are. But at the same time, we are also committed to holding these critical conversations outside the classroom, whether around the nation or around the world. It’s the way we show our relevance as an institution to the legal community and to the community at large.”