With all the bad press that legal education receives in the mainstream media, it is crucial for law schools to be able to tell compelling stories about their students, faculty, and alumni. Those stories help sway prospective students to choose one particular school over another and convince donors to re-engage with their alma mater by donating their money or their time. If done really well, those stories can also help raise the law school’s profile in the legal academy and the community at large, which in turn may help improve reputational rankings and convince government agencies and law firms to hire students as externs and clerks.
Yet a glance at most law school alumni magazines shows that storytelling remains low on law schools’ agendas. Magazines are a tremendous opportunity to connect with multiple audiences, to stimulate and engage readers, and get them to appreciate the fine intellectual work that goes on at your law school and beyond. A magazine should represent your school in one alluring, provocative package. Your readers are busy people; the law school’s alumni magazine competes with The New Yorker, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and reams of junk mail and fundraising appeals for their attention. So why not seize their interest with stories they’ll actually want to read?
Last fall, as part of Willamette University College of Law’s strategic goal-setting process, Dean Peter Letsou and I decided to re-conceive the Willamette Lawyer, the law school’s twice-yearly alumni magazine. We are the only law school in the Pacific Northwest located across the street from the state Legislature, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Justice. Our graduates include three former state Supreme Court chief justices, a governor, a U.S. senator, prominent criminal defense attorneys, and partners in top law firms in Portland and Seattle. We are well positioned to comment on the intersection of law and policy, and we thought that adding regular reporting on legal issues that are primarily of interest to the Pacific Northwest would align well with our goal of enhancing our connections to state and local government and the judiciary. We aim for every issue to reflect the intellect of a university magazine and the spark of a regional magazine of ideas.
The idea is to communicate the fact that Willamette is a place where serious people engage in the most stimulating intellectual issues of our time and that connecting with Willamette – whether by hiring a student or donating one’s time or money to the school – can enrich one’s life whether or not one is a Willamette grad. To expand our reach, we’ve added to the mailing list elected officials, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, lobbyists, state agency heads and all judges in the Ninth Circuit. With the downsizing of newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, we believe we can drive the debate on legal topics of concern to lawyers and non-lawyers, graduates of Willamette, and graduates of other schools.
The fall 2012 issue contains three feature stories about hot-button issues in Oregon: the death penalty, the retirement system for Oregon public employees, and campaign financing. Every story has ties to Willamette, but each one is interesting enough to hold the attention of readers who don’t have any ties to the school. We’re still an alumni magazine; we include news about professors, the entering class, and a “Class Action” section for alumni. But even in those areas, we’ve tried to freshen up the content. For instance, we’ve begun a new feature called “Dicta,” for our professors to explore provocative legal topics in a way that non-lawyers understand. The inaugural essay was written by the head of our dispute resolution program, who states that neuroscience explains why conservatives will never forgive Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his decision on the Affordable Health Care Act. Another new feature, “The Willamette Law Interview,” is a lively question-and- answer forum in which we interview a legal newsmaker who may or may not be a graduate – but with whom the law school wishes to establish a close relationship.
The reaction has been immediate and gratifying: lobbyists have sent admiring e-mails; alums have sent in essays and poetry for inclusion in future issues; and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked for extra copies to distribute to board members. Universities around the country are asking for copies of the Lawyer because they want to try what we are doing. The magazine also won two awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Our upcoming issue has stories about Oregon’s foray into veterans court (three courts in the state are led by alums); children’s rights in Africa (highlighting the work of one of our professors who researched the topic while on a Fulbright grant in South Africa) and a lengthy interview with the new chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
If law schools are to survive, they must remain relevant, and one of the most cost-effective ways to do so is to tell stories about your professors and your alums in a way that gets attention from your alumni and from other influential readers. You can’t do that by filling your magazine with bits of information or message-driven copy; people won’t read it. They want stories. The legal world is ripe for storytelling; it’s where the best and the worst of human nature intersect, after all. If you fill your magazine with copy that reflects that, you’ll be amazed at what can happen.