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She Led with Grace

September 4, 2012
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After six years of heading Campbell Law School through major growth and a major move, Dean Melissa Essary is ready to return to her first love (professionally) ... the classroom

Story by Billy Liggett | Photos by Bennett Scarborough

Is going to law school worth it for today’s student?

This was a question posed by the now former Norman A. Wiggins School of Law Dean Melissa Essary during an April meeting with her assistant dean of admissions, Dexter Smith. Smith had just delivered good news about a recent uptick in deposits from prospective students … great news, considering law schools around the nation are failing to meet their target enrollment … considering law schools around the nation are seeing a 30-percent decline in applicants from two years ago.

“Some, we think, are waiting,” Essary explained, optimistically. “They want to become lawyers … they just don’t see it as the best time to go for it. At least not financially.”

Law school, she added, had been a fall-back for many students over the years — something “to do” while they figured out what they really wanted their careers to become. Today’s economy, however, dictates that students can’t wait around anymore.

“Those who matriculate to us are dedicated to the idea of becoming a lawyer,” Essary said. “There’s more passion there.”

“Passion” is a word often used by those who’ve worked for and with Melissa Essary over the past six-plus years when describing what the native Texan has brought to Campbell Law School. Since 2006, Essary has led in moving the school to its prominent location in downtown Raleigh and has played a vital role in positioning Campbell among the top law schools in the state and region in terms of enrollment, notoriety, bar passage rates and overall respect.

“It takes a long time to be considered a top national law school,” said Britt Davis, Campbell’s vice president for institutional advancement who joined the University after Essary hired him shortly after she came on board in 2006. “She has given us visibility in national education circles that never existed before here.

“Without a doubt, Campbell’s on the move.”

And after six years at the helm, so is Essary.

On June 30, Essary stepped down as dean to return to her first love, professionally — teaching. Essary joined the Campbell Law School faculty, and on July 1 was replaced by Interim Dean Keith Faulkner, who’s been by her side since Day 1 in Buies Creek.

Her time as dean — her legacy — will be remembered for not only the big move but also big advancement for an institution that started small in the early 1970s from the late Norman A. Wiggins’ vision for a school that would develop lawyers “with moral conviction, campassion and competence.”

“We’ve undergone significant changes, and not just geographically,” said Faulkner. “Trying to be a leader during a time of change is challenging, but Melissa was able to navigate that with strong leadership and, quite frankly, with grace.”


FROM BAYLOR TO BUIES

Essary and Smith
Dean Melissa Essary discusses admissions numbers with Assistant Dean of Admissions Dexter Smith in May.

From the Southern “twang” in her accent to her love of barbecue (not the Carolina kind), Essary is all Texas … a characteristic, like most Texans, she’s proud to share.

A 1982 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, she attended law school at Baylor University School of Law, where she was a 1985 magna cum laude grad. While at Baylor, she served as executive editor of the Baylor Law Review, and after school, she served as a trial lawyer for two Texas firms, one in Dallas where she litigated complex commercial cases.

In the early 1990s, she got a call from one of her former professors at Baylor, who asked if she’d return as a professor. Essary would spend the next 16 years in Waco teaching — a job she loved and felt “privileged” to have.

But by 2006, Essary said she felt restless in her career. One night, she asked God to show her the right career move or take away that restlessness.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Essary said. “It wasn’t but a few months later I got a phone call from Baylor Provost Randall O’Brien, who happens to be a friend of (Campbell University President) Jerry Wallace.”

O’Brien, now the president at Carson-Newman College, was asked by Wallace if he knew anybody on the Baylor faculty who would be worthy of a nomination for dean at Campbell Law School.

“He left me a voicemail and said, ’I want to nominate you,’” Essary said. “I didn’t really think I had a chance, but he thought it would be a great opportunity for me.”

The thought of leaving Texas was tough for Essary and her family — her husband Larry and two daughters, Amber and Rachel. But several things about Campbell intrigued her … its Baptist affiliation and the law school’s advocacy programs both reminded her of an early Baylor Law.

“I saw an opportunity to lead Campbell to greater heights,” she said. “I also had a desire to see North Carolina, so I called O’Brien the next day and said I was interested in exploring.”

And explore, she did.

Her first interview was held in her airport hotel’s lobby, as was the case with several other candidates interviewed by Campbell over two consecutive Saturdays. But before her big day in Raleigh, Essary rented a car on her own dime and drove to Buies Creek to see the campus and the law school first-hand.

“I went into the law school and talked to some of the students,” said Essary, who didn’t tell the students why she was in town at the time.

“They said they loved the school … that it was the hardest thing they’d ever done.”

The sun had set on her way back to Raleigh, and Essary admits she got lost on her way back thanks to all the confusing highways that begin with the number four.

But she made it, and the next day, she shared her experience with the search committee, some of whom seemed surprised that she went out of her way to see the campus for herself.

“I thought it was ordinary,” Essary said. “I guess it was the investigative journalist in me … I did major in journalism in Texas before a media law class changed my career outlook.”

Essary was one of three finalists for the job, and after a 14-hour interview in Buies Creek weeks later, she and her husband had fallen in love with the idea of coming to Campbell.

“I felt like it was an opportunity to fulfill whatever untapped potential I might have had,” she said. “I was offered the position, and my husband and I prayed a lot about the decision. It did mean leaving Texas, but ultimately, we felt the Lord led us this way.”

One of her first hires in Buies Creek was Britt Davis, whom Essary chose to be the law school’s director of development. Davis said it barely took five minutes into his interview before he was convinced he wanted to work with Melissa Essary.

“She had energy and charisma, vision and charm … but she was also so highly personable,” Davis said.

“She carried herself as if she was far more experienced than she actually was.”


NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER'S DEAN

“Law school dean” isn’t the same job it was 20 years ago.

“A dean today is a public figure, the most visible ambassador for the school, which itself is important to this city,” said Faulkner, who’ll serve at least one year as interim while a search for Essary’s replacement is conducted.

“You have to prioritize, run an enterprise, focus on admissions and development, be the chief academic officer … it’s the equivalent of being a CEO of a major company. The modern-day dean is much different than the ’gentleman’s deanship’ from years ago.”

The average tenure of a law school dean is between three and four years, depending on who you ask. Faulkner attributes the turnover rate to the immense workload most deans take on.

Davis said that workload for many leads to burnout, brought on by the stress that accompanies high expectations.

“The needs of students, both new and existing, plus the extensive pressure to be a face in the community, a voice on national issues and a fundraiser … as a dean, you’re constantly focused on that,” Davis said.

In addition to the “daily grind” that comes with the title, Essary had to guide Campbell Law through not only the hiring of 10 new faculty members (the school only had to worry about one such hire in the previous 10 years before she arrived), but also the move to Raleigh — a move that would transform the school’s image in any way imaginable.

Before she arrived at Campbell, the law school was housed in Kivett Hall, which at over 100 years old, was by far the University’s oldest structure. A study had begun about the potential for a move before Essary’s hire, but by no means was the move a “pressing issue,” she said.

“When I came to Campbell, Kivett had been closed for renovations,” Essary said. “And during those renovations, they found some problems, which raised the issue … do we spend millions here, or is this the appropriate time to reconsider relocating to Raleigh?”

Essary became part of a team led by Campbell University Provost Dr. Dwaine Greene charged with conducting a feasibility study and creating a list of pros and cons.

“To make a long story short, the task force unanimously recommended to the Board of Trustees that we relocate if it was economically feasible,” Essary said. “We found a building — 225 Hillsborough … just a block and a half from the Capitol — that ironically had housed a law firm.”

That location, surrounded by not only the bustling, growing city of Raleigh but also trees and historic churches (“We joke that we’re under conviction by a number of denominations,” Essary added) was more than ideal for a law school ready to take the next step in respectability.

“The location is par excellence,” Essary said. “I’ve never seen a law school this close to the state capitol and literally within walking distance to an array of learning opportunities in law. Students don’t even have to re-park their cars for externships at the legislature or at law firms, the Department of Justice, local courts or nonprofits.”

That externship program has expanded by 400 percent since the move from Buies Creek, Essary said. And now, roughly half of Campbell’s law students have two or more of them.

“It’s giving them the opportunity to see the law in action, to learn by doing,” she said. “It’s opening doors for them to network and get real experience.”

When Campbell originally announced the move, applications to the law school rose by 40 percent at a time when other schools were seeing a steady decline.

But hindsight is usually perfect. In the time between the announcement of the move to Raleigh and the arrival of the fruits of Essary’s labor, the dean faced criticism from a vocal group who didn’t want to see the school leave Buies Creek.

“There was one rumor that she had moved Baylor’s law school to Austin … which wasn’t true. Baylor doesn’t even have a law school in Austin … and she wasn’t even dean,” said Davis, who was with the law school every step of the way during the move. “It was challenging for Melissa … difficult and very emotional. There’s a love and fondness for the way the law school was in the 70s and 80s, and some people didn’t want to see that change. But times do change, and this change needed to happen.

“In the end, cooler heads prevailed.”

Davis said he believes Essary was called to lead the law school through the change, even if nobody knew it at the time of her hiring. Faulkner agrees.

“Melissa was the right person to be the dean of Campbell Law School for these last six years,” he said. “I think her greatest strength is her ability to lead through times of change.”

The other change Essary is proud of is the addition of 10 new faculty members during her tenure. Campbell Law continues to lead or be near the top of all North Carolina law schools when it comes to the percentage of students who pass their bar exam. Essary credits not only the quality students they enroll, but the faculty who mold them as well.

“We’ve been fortunate to hire incredibly talented and brilliant faculty members,” she said. “They are highly visible in their substantive areas of the law; many speaking in national conferences, publishing or simply excelling in the classroom. I don’t know if I call it the hallmark of my deanship — because it’s a faculty effort — but the investment of time in choosing members of the faculty has really paid off.”

 

BACK TO THE CLASSROOM

Essary and Hardin
Essary greets Durham Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin and his daughter, Maren Hardin, a prospective student at Campbell Law.

Among the stacks of law books, plaques, degrees and other things you’d expect to see on and around the desk of a law school dean in Essary’s office hangs a handwritten note, taped to the side.

“I just wanted to let you know you’re amazing in everything you do, and I admire you so much,” the note reads. “Thank you for helping me grow as a person. You are an amazing mother.

“Love, Rach.”

Rach is Essary’s now 15-year-old daughter Rachel, who was a fourth-grader when her family left Texas. Melissa and her husband of 23 years, Larry (the chief information officer at William Peace University in Raleigh), also have a 21-year-old daughter Amber, who’ll be a junior this year at UNC-Chapel Hill.

For the past six years, Larry, Amber and Rachel have been supportive of their wife and mother’s packed schedule and long hours. Essary’s decision to step down as dean is as much about them as it is any “burn out” she may have experienced as a result of such a high-demanding job.

“Being dean is a 24-7 job,” she said. “And I’m very much looking forward to spending more time with my family. I still anticipate long hours as a professor, but definitely not 24-7.”

And while leaving “the top” will be tough, Essary said she is looking forward to returning to the classroom, where her career in academics began at Baylor.

“I miss the in-depth mentoring that goes on between student and professor,” she said. “And I miss the bonds … the only reason I have a Facebook page is so I can keep up with the Baylor Law School students I taught. Some have even made their way here to Raleigh just to stop by and say ’Hello.’ That’s really meaningful.”

Faulkner said he’s glad Essary will remain close by during his year as interim dean, and he said he won’t hesitate to knock on her door for advice.

“Her insight will be helpful to me probably more times than she’ll like,” he said. “We’ve operated as a team for these past six years, and not having her in the office next to me will be strange.

It won’t be all teaching for Essary — she’s a much-sought-after speaker in the law and business ranks, and she said she’ll stay on the speaking circuit for as long as people want to hear what she has to say.

“I’ve been asked to speak several times on leadership during times of change,” she said. “That’s something I’ve definitely lived through.”

Rather than return to her roots in Texas, Essary and her family chose to remain at Campbell. She said it wasn’t a tough decision to stay in North Carolina.

“We love it here,” she said. “Of course, we miss our family in Texas. I miss Texas barbecue. But we’ve really fallen in love with North Carolina, and I’ve fallen in love with this law school.”

 

BUT IS IT WORTH IT?

The national trend is alarming.

About 60 percent of American Bar Association-approved law schools failed to meet their enrollment target last year.

Campbell went over its target, but Essary and Faulkner know it will continue to be a challenge for Campbell Law School to be able to say that.

But whether it’s as a dean or a professor, Essary said she will always advocate the importance of an education at a quality law school.

“When you look back on U.S. history, lawyers have played key leadership roles in both forming our country and building it to leading it through times of crisis,” Essary said. “One simply cannot understate the importance of lawyers in our society.

“I think every lawyer, in some capacity, is a leader and is certainly a servant.”

Students will continue to weigh that career opportunity with the potential debt that comes with any grad school education. In an effort to “sweeten the deal” for prospective students, Campbell has offered dual-degree plans and has formed partnerships with other state universities to offer the best possible education.

“I’m very excited about the future of Campbell’s law school,” Essary said. “I’m excited about the leadership of Keith Faulkner next year. And I think 20 years from now, this law school will be known throughout the country, if not the world, as what a law school should be.

“We and the people before us have worked shoulder to shoulder before and after the move to Raleigh to create something bigger than any of us,” she added. “We see our alumni doing remarkable things across this state, this country and even internationally. It’s a very proud heritage … one we’ll always strive to fulfill." 


Faulkner: Strategic Plan biggest goal for interim year

Keith FaulknerAfter six years as assistant dean to Melissa Essary and eight years total with Campbell Law, Keith Faulkner took over the reigns as interim dean on July 1.

Faulkner will hold the interim title for a year, and in that time, he’ll focus on implementing a strategic plan that’s been a year in the making.

“It’s one thing to have a plan. It’s another thing to execute it,” said Faulkner, a Campbell Law and School of Business alumnus. “It’s going to be a major focus for me.”

Without giving away details of the plan, which will be presented to faculty, Faulkner did say part of his challenge will be addressing admissions and placement at a time when law schools around the nation are experiencing a drop in enrollment.

“It’s a very competitive time for law schools right now,” he said. “It’s also a competitive time for law grads who are trying to find work. Shoring up our admissions as well as our career and professional development center is a big key toward our success.”

Essary, who will enter the fall as a member of the Campbell Law faculty, said Faulkner will have no trouble taking on the leadership role this academic year.

“From the beginning, I recognized how talented he was and what a hard worker he was,” she said. “He occupied a key leadership role during my deanship. And our relationship was more of a partnership rather than me being his boss. I’m very comfortable putting the law school under his leadership.”

Faulkner said he views Essary as both a friend and a mentor.

“She led by example with her work ethic and with her desire to communicate and hear all sides of a debate before making a decision,” he said. “Hopefully I can carry what I learned from her into my year as interim.”


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