Interview with Provost JoAnne Epps

As readers of the 10-Q know, Temple University Provost JoAnne Epps has been a central figure at Temple Law School (indeed, the entire University) since she joined the Faculty in 1985. She became Dean in 2008, and this past summer became Provost of Temple University. On Wednesday, November 16, 2016, she was one of five inaugural members inducted into the Philadelphia Business Hall of Fame, along with John C. (“Jack”) Bogle, Founder, Former Chairman, and CEO of the Vanguard Group; Joseph Neubauer, Former CEO of Aramark; Brian Roberts, Chairman & CEO of Comcast; and Ed Snider (posthumously), Former Chairman of Comcast Spectacor and Founder of the Philadelphia Flyers. Her other awards and honors are too numerous to summarize usefully.

Provost Epps agreed to share with 10-Q readers lessons for business lawyers from her Deanship.

Jonathan Lipson [JL]: You’ve recently been inducted into Philadelphia’s first Business Hall of Fame. Before turning to specific lessons for lawyers, do you have any general thoughts about keys to success for those in business, administration, etc? Do you think there are a couple things you did (or refrained from doing) that significantly contributed to your success?

JoAnne Epps [JE]: I think a leader will be more successful if she puts the institution’s success above her personal success. It’s natural to want to be successful, but you can’t have your eye on honors, awards or your next job, or you will not do well in your current position. I also think it is important to learn how not to take things personally. This is not easy. All of us care to some degree how we are perceived.  In my generation, women, in particular, were raised to please others. We must resist the temptation to take personally—and seek to remediate—criticism. An effective leader won’t always make the decision someone may have wanted, but you need to be able to explain your thought process. If you can’t, that’s a sign that perhaps you came to the wrong decision—or came to an appropriate decision for the wrong reason. 

An effective leader won’t always make the decision someone may have wanted, but you need to be able to explain your thought process.

JL: You became Dean shortly before the financial crisis of 2008 which, in turn, precipitated perhaps the greatest upheaval in legal education in several generations. Business lawyers often have to deal with drastically changed conditions for their clients, and increasingly themselves. How did these disruptions affect your deanship? How did they change your plans, and what (if anything) do you think you will do going forward that may be different because of those experiences?

JE: Well, the disruptions weren’t fun.  The job I assumed was not the job I thought I sought.  For much of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, applications to law school were robust. That tuition revenue made possible innovative and creative ideas. I presided over years and years of constriction. This forced me to call on skills—both fiscal and managerial—that I hadn’t anticipated. This changed my agenda as dean: limiting innovative educational programming while ensuring that the core of our mission—producing first-rate lawyers—remained intact. I am pleased to think that we stayed true to our mission without sacrificing the enriching educational developments we feel our students deserve.

JL: One of your signature accomplishments was creating the Compliance and Ethics Center. This is a novel and ambitious project, although consistent in many ways with Temple’s history of innovation (e.g., international study, experiential education). Business lawyers are often wary of “compliance,” assuming that it is a transaction cost that clients do not want to pay. What can business lawyers do to develop and excel at corporate compliance practices? What sorts of things should students interested in compliance do?

JE: When businesses think of compliance, they should think beyond the regulatory regime. They should take the lead by thinking of both internal and external best practices. Done well, such thinking should match pretty closely a reasonable and fair regulatory regime. Students interested in compliance work should talk to Jon Smollen, our new Center Director, to get an understanding of what a career in this area would look like. In the brief time that our Center has been in existence, I have heard from a surprisingly large number of alumni who are (very happily) working in the field. They like the intellectual stimulation, the sense of purpose and the sense of impact on the activities of the business.

JL: If there is one thing you could have done differently as Dean, what would that be, and why?

JE: I would have spent more time, especially in the beginning, understanding my strengths and non-strengths. I always said that I didn’t want a “yes Ma’am” leadership team, and I didn’t install one. But that is slightly different from recognizing one’s non-strengths and ensuring that someone on the team fills the void.

JL: Because you have often worked or interacted with general counsel and firm lawyers, what sorts of qualities impress you most? What qualities do you think students would do well to avoid?

JE: If you’re not willing, on occasion, to put your work above your personal life, then go to medical school and become a dermatologist. Seriously, while I believe that, like work, devotion to personal life is important and that one’s personal life has a place just like work, the most successful GCs and Firm lawyers are hungry. They are fulfilled by the work they do. In that way, it doesn’t feel like work. This is not to say that one needs to sacrifice or abandon one’s family; that’s not my point.  But successful GCs and firm lawyers find enrichment in their work.  Along with families, this sustains them.

… the most successful GCs and Firm lawyers are hungry. They are fulfilled by the work they do. In that way, it doesn’t feel like work.

JL: Lawyers and academics are often gloomy about the future of lawyering, and business law is no exception. While many dire predictions are plausible, if you were to make optimistic predictions, what would a positive future look like, for lawyers generally and business lawyers, in particular. Where do you think areas of growth will be?

JE: If one believes that the only transactional question is “how” to do something, then the future of lawyers could be grim because artificial intelligence is poised to perform these tasks. But I believe, more now than ever, that our future will be defined, not just by “how” but by “whether”, “why”, and “what if”.  I grew up as an Evidence scholar, living in a world where policy preferences outweighed logical inferences—because of decisions about the world in which we wanted to live.  Computers may be able to “determine” the world in which we want to live (based on a range of input) but we are long way from the point, if ever, where they will be able to “decide” in what sort of world we want to live. In that regard, lawyers will—for a while—be the ones to help businesses find the right “fit” in our world, as they will guide, and influence, “decisions”. So I think areas of growth will be in using technology and big data, at one end of the spectrum, to inform supremely human choices, at the other. Not to be too glib, but this seems like an apt analogy:  All the data analytics in the world can tell you that the right decision is proposal for a long-term commitment, but in the end, the question is human. Do you, or don’t you, want to spend the rest of your life with this person? No amount of compatibility analytics can answer that question.

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