Legal affairs: How highly respected Cornwell, interim dean at Seton Hall Law, is guiding state’s top law school into future

As he approaches his 30th year on the staff of Seton Hall Law, renowned professor Kip Cornwell likes to think his teachings and lectures haven’t changed a bit — or maybe that’s just part of the idea that precedent is the foundation of the legal system in this country.

“If you could go back to when I started teaching, Kip Cornwell’s criminal law class in 1994-95 versus the one today, at its core, what I try to teach in the classroom — and what I hope the students get out of it —is the same,” he said.

And that holds true for having in-person instruction, something Cornwell said he feels is essential for those entering a profession that is so based on personal communication.

Don’t be fooled though. Cornwell is not stuck in the past. He appreciates how modern technology has enabled him to teach those standard lessons in a new way.

For instance, documents — or the latest news updates or analysis — can be delivered instantly. 

“I’m a criminal law professor: When I was teaching about the George Floyd murder, I was able to pull the indictment up on the screen in real time,” he said. “We could talk about what was being charged and how it reflected what we were learning about homicide. That’s a value added ­— something we never could have accomplished in the same way back in a day.”

The impact is about more than just saving time, Cornwell said. Groups for in-class or out-of-class projects can be created in a way to ensure they bring a diversity of thought, something he also feels is essential. 

“There are interactive tools that enable you to create a breakout session in real time in the classroom — or you can have students get together with each other to tackle a problem to collaborate on a problem and then report back to the professor,” he said. “Those kinds of opportunities simply didn’t exist when I started. 

“If you did it the old-time way, you would have people forming a group of their best friends who they sit with in class. Now, you can scramble it, so that you’re having people working with other people in the class who maybe they don’t interact with as much. That means that they’re hearing from people they don’t otherwise hear from — it’s a further enrichment of the opportunity.”

Being someone who was both grounded in the history of the law school and a leader in modern-day teaching made Cornwell the perfect choice to be interim dean, a job he has held since November.

But let’s be clear: It’s a job he did not seek — and one the school did not want to assign.

Cornwell was named interim dean in the aftermath of improper actions at the law school — ones in which now former employees were found to have embezzled nearly $1 million over many years.

To be clear, there is no evidence these acts impacted the quality of education at Seton Hall Law — almost universally regarded as the top law school in the state. But it did have an impact on the school’s alums, many of which fill top legal roles in the state. That impacted Cornwell.

“One of the things that was top of mind for me when I assumed this role was assuring and ensuring our alumni base that everything was fine,” he said. “That, yes, this was a challenge that we confronted, but that once we discovered the impropriety, we moved quickly to address it and to put in place protocols that would make sure that something like this never happened again — and that we would continue to provide a high-quality education. 

“Obviously, what happened was upsetting. But I think that the law school and our many grads have pivoted away and moved forward from it in a positive way. They understand that we addressed the issue, figured out what we needed to do, rolled up our sleeves and made the changes necessary to move forward and make sure that this was a chapter that would never repeat.”

As part of the ROI-NJ Influencers: Higher Education list, ROI-NJ spoke with Cornwell about Seton Hall Law and the state of legal education. Here’s more of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Your background is incredibly impressive: Undergraduate degree from Harvard, masters from Cambridge, J.D. from Yale Law School (where you were editor of the Yale Law Journal). Clerkships for the Honorable Mariana Pfaelzer of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and the Honorable Dorothy Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Senior trial attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. You could be working anywhere, yet you’ve devoted your career to teaching the next generation. Tell us why?

Kip Cornwell: Even after I went to law school and I clerked, I always was interested in academia as a career. I really wanted to practice for a while before I did that, because I just felt that it enriches what you bring to the classroom if you’ve had some work experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a little over four years at the Justice Department in Washington D.C. and the Civil Rights Division doing civil rights work. And I pivoted from there. Seton Hall’s been my home ever since. In May, it will be 29 years. 

ROI: You’ve been voted professor of the year at Seton Hall eight times, that’s equally impressive. What’s the secret?

KC: I love teaching. And students have been very generous to me over the years. I think the hallmark of my teaching is interactive engagement. I think it’s really important that professors engage not just the three or four students who are eager to raise their hands, but those who are more reluctant to raise their hands. 

Hire calling

We asked Kip Cornwell, interim dean of Seton Hall Law, about the opportunities that come with being arguably the best law school in the state.

“It provides incredible opportunities for our students, it opens doors,” he said. “We loom large over the state and federal bench and bar in the New Jersey area, it’s irrefutable.

“We always like to say, ‘Seton Hall hires Seton Hall.’ And they do. People have a great experience here, they know the quality of the education our students are getting, and they want to hire back. We are number one in the country in state court clerkships.”

I like to call on students, not to intimidate them, but just to hear from them — hear what they have to say, hear what questions they might have. I want to make them part of the conversation. I think that’s really important because I think it enriches the entire classroom to hear from everybody. People have different backgrounds, different life experiences and different perspectives. And I think you create the optimal educational environment and experience if everyone has a seat at the table.

ROI: It’s a big table. The beauty of law school is that you can go in dozens of directions — the law is that vast. Talk about the challenge of teaching law students who start their schooling with little idea of which part of the law they want to study?

KC: My mantra is foundation, exploration, specialization.

The beginning of law school is the foundation, everybody takes the same classes. That’s to provide a comprehensive, rigorous introduction to the various core areas of law. 

Then comes exploration. Most students come to law school without a clear sense of what they want to do. I tell them to explore. Maybe they want to take broad-based courses or ones in intellectual property or family law or criminal procedure or environmental law. I tell them to sample from the smorgasbord of possibilities that Seton Hall Law offers. And then once you do that, then you might decide that there are one or more areas that you’re particularly interested in. 

That takes them to specialization. At that point, they can take upper-level courses in particular areas that have most engaged them. I think that evolution helps students land where they think they might want to go. And some students might come out of this process being interested in more than one area. And that’s perfectly fine, too.

ROI: Trying to narrow a focus is a challenge for the law school, too. Talk about the challenge of determining which areas of the law the school wants to specialize in?

KC: I think any law school has to take a hard look at what areas make the most sense to invest extra resources in — which isn’t to say that you don’t provide a broad array of opportunity across disciplines and across legal fields. 

We’re in Northern New Jersey, we are the pharma capital of the country, if not the world. Because of that, Seton Hall Law has long been a national leader in the health and pharmaceutical law area. And that makes perfect synergy. We’ve established long-standing ties with many pharmaceutical companies, which enriches them, because we can work with them to provide programming that inform what they do. And it also provides opportunities to our students, who can have internships, summer job opportunities, and ultimately permanent job opportunities in that space. It also brings to Seton Hall Law students from across the country who are particularly interested in health care and pharma. 

We also have a beachhead in the IT area, where we have the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science and Technology.

ROI: Of course, those areas of interest can change. How are you making sure Seton Hall Law adapts to the modern student?

KC: One of the things you have to do when you’re a dean is keep your eye on what it is that students are most interested in. The students in 2023 might be interested in things that students in 2010 or 2000 weren’t interested in. 

One of the initiatives that we have undertaken, which has been wildly successful, is our gaming, hospitality, entertainment and sports law program. One of the highlights of that program is our annual bootcamp. We just had our fourth one in March, when we had over 140 people coming from across the country to participate — people from the public sector or the private sector, industry leaders, regulators in this space. I’ll give a shout out to our assistant dean, Devon Corneal, because it was just so well done. I think that’s an initiative that is really a growth area.

We also should talk about the incredible work of our Center for Social Justice. That’s a mission-driven part of our law school, providing services to the underserved. This is something so many of our students are interested in. We have more than a million dollars in state and federal grants to help us provide services to immigrants in the state.

ROI: There it is again, blending the old (health care law) with the new (gaming law). It’s no wonder they selected you to be the interim dean. You sure you’re not interested in the job full time?

KC: I view my job as providing a bridge to the next generation of leaders at the law school, including the next dean. I am not a candidate in the dean search process that’s currently underway, nor do I want to be.

When I was asked to assume this role, one of the reasons that I agreed is because I’ve been around Seton Hall Law for a really long time. I have taught, without exaggeration, tens of thousands of students, and I felt like I really wanted to step up in service to the school that I love. 

There’s nothing that happened at the law school that had any impact on the quality and integrity of the education that we provide, the experience that we guarantee our students and the value and prestige of a Seton Hall Law degree. That was very much top of mind for me. And I felt that because I’m so well known among the alums that I was uniquely positioned to be able to provide that assurance and confidence for our alums. 

Being the best

Seton Hall Law graduates have a first-time pass percentage on the bar exam of approximately 86% – or 14 points higher than the state average.

Interim Dean Kip Cornwell says that places the school at No. 31 out of more than 200 schools in the country. He notes, however, that it’s more than just a pass-fail metric.

“We do it without giving students the sense they’re being ‘taught to the bar,’” he said. “This isn’t a hollow empty experience. They are having a really enriched, vital, vibrant experience. And along the way, they’re learning everything that they need to learn for the bar, so when they get the bar review, they’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve seen all this stuff before.’”