The Next Chapter
November 21, 2013
BY BILLY LIGGETT
At age 62, J. Rich Leonard is without a doubt the oldest father in the room dancing with his 8-year-old daughter at her ballet recital.
He's also having the most fun.
“If there's anything that keeps you from being rigid, predictable or frozen in time, it’s having small children,” Leonard says.
Becoming a dad again this late in life also helped prepare Leonard to make another life-altering decision this past year. After a 32-year career as a U.S. judge (nearly 20 of those years as a U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina), Leonard became the fifth dean of Campbell University's Norman A. Wiggins School of Law in Raleigh, following Melissa Essary (2006-12) and Interim Dean Keith Faulkner (2012-13) on July 15.
Like fatherhood, becoming dean of the only law school in North Carolina’s capital city was viewed not only as a challenge, but an adventure for Leonard, who had served as an adjunct professor for Campbell and other law schools in the region in recent years.
“You look at your life and realize you only go around one time, so you want as many exciting adventures as you can find,” Leonard says. "I was a judge, I was good at it, and I loved it. I don’t think anybody loved it more than I did. But the [deanship offer] came, and I saw it as refreshing and invigorating. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got about taking on this challenge and giving it my all.
“And so far, it feels like I made the right decision.”
At a time when law schools across the nation are seeing sharp declines in enrollment and employment opportunities for new graduates, Campbell Law remains steady enrollment-wise and is still enjoying the fruits of the school’s decision to move its campus from Buies Creek to downtown Raleigh in 2009.
“I think all the moves this school made in the last few years have been solid," Leonard says. “The decision to move to Raleigh was made for the survival of this law school ... If you look at polls, most new law students say the biggest deciding factor in choosing their school is location. Where you go for three years is important. Being in Raleigh has been critical for this school's success."
Leonard’s focus in his first few months on the job has been the curriculum. He believes a student’s third and final year should be less about academic electives and more about courses and degree paths that provide more opportunities post-graduation. One way to do that is to add more to Campbell’s growing list of dual degree programs. Campbell Law currently offers six such programs, including two with North Carolina State University, and most recently added a Law/Divinity program in August.
“There will always be a place for traditional law practice, and we’ll train you better for that than anyone else,” he says. “But law is changing, and lawyers need to be trained to do many different things.”
Leonard also wants to expand Campbell Law’s externship program, which already ranks 27th in the nation when it comes to the percentage of students who participate, according to The National Jurist. The school is ideally located just blocks from every branch of state government, and the opportunities abound for students to go out and get real world experience.
“Campbell’s curriculum, both the rigor and the emphasis on advocacy, is fine,” he says. “We’re not going to back away from that. But what I think, and I think Dean Essary would agree, where the law school is beginning to make strides is how we’re using the City of Raleigh and the Research Triangle as a lab to train lawyers. I think that’s what I can do for this place — retain the rigor and retain the core elements that distinguish Campbell grads, but also find all sorts of unique and intriguing educational opportunities for our students. Get them out in the community in externships and give them a much clearer eye of what practicing law is all about. This will differentiate us from what you’d get from your average academic setting.”
His aunt told many times the story of the day Leonard declared to the world he wanted to get into law. It’s an account Leonard has no recollection of, he admits, but the story is a good one and one worth hanging on to.
It was a hot, dewy August morning, and Leonard was 11 or 12 years old, working several back-breaking hours in the tobacco field at his parents’ home in Davidson County. Fed up with the work, Leonard stood up and told everyone, “This is for the birds! I’m going to law school.”
Leonard says he probably wanted to be a doctor around that time, but he’ll never question his aunt. Regardless, one thing about the story is true — Leonard knew he wasn’t cut out for farm life.
“I’ve never been remote from my family, and the family farm is still there and is still my favorite place on earth,” he says. “It was just very clear to me at an early age that that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be something else. And I think, objectively, I’ve had a pretty good career.”
Leonard was the first student from North Davidson High School to win a Morehead Scholarship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and four years later, he graduated at the top of his class at UNC. He was then accepted into Yale Law School, considered by most the most difficult school to get into.
He credits his public education and his love for reading any and every book placed in front of him for his academic success early on.
“I had a couple of remarkable teachers, which is why I’m a huge fan of public education,” he says “My high school English teacher, whom I had three of my four years, was one of those remarkable people. She was just magical. She’d ask things of us no teacher ever asked before. We wrote daily every single day for three years in her class. We wrote in every perspective … it was just brilliant the time she was willing to put into us.”
Leonard earned his master’s in education from UNC in 1973 and his law degree from Yale in 1976. He was turned down after his first interview to be a law clerk in New Bern when the judge there learned he “had the audacity to attend Yale,” but a more “forgiving” judge, Judge Franklin Dupree, took him on as a clerk for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
From there, the doors kept opening.
After practicing law for a few years, Leonard became a United State magistrate judge in 1981. He remained a clerk of court through 1992 before serving as a U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 1992. He was the chief judge from 1999 to 2006. For over a decade, Leonard also acted as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State, working with judiciaries in many developing countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2012, Leonard put his love for reading and writing to another use — he penned his first fictional book, “The House by the Creek,” a 95-page truth-based tale set in North Carolina about his ancestors during the Revolutionary War. The book has been met with good reviews, including nice write-ups in The News & Observer and Our State magazine, and its success has convinced Leonard he may have what it takes to write another book or two.
“I come from people who tell stories, as I suppose most rural Southerners do,” Leonard says. “My kids’ favorite stories are about stuff that happened long ago — on the farm when grandpa was a little boy and so on. So this started out as a story for my kids, but as I looked a little deeper into my family history, I found out about my great-great-great-great grandfather who was a bit of a minor Revolutionary War hero who fought in the Guilford Courthouse battle and was assassinated by Tories [Americans who favored the British side during the war] for rallying German immigrants to fight for the patriots.”
Leonard is also an award-winning preservationist. In October, he was presented with the Gertrude S. Carraway Award of Merit from Preservation North Carolina for his work in spearheading the restoration of the historic Century Station Federal Building on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh.
The building, which serves as the home to the downtown Raleigh post office and the federal bankruptcy court, was where Leonard previously presided as bankruptcy judge.
“[The building] had fallen on hard times, but we have really put it back to its original splendor,” Leonard says. “And that’s been exciting. I spent three years camped in basement office, essentially holding court in borrowed courtrooms, working on daily basis with all folks doing the work.”
During his first few weeks on the job, Leonard admits to a few “full-blown panic attacks.”
“Sure, there were a few ‘What have I done?’ moments,” he says with a laugh. “But those have been abated. I’m beginning to feel like this is where I’m intended to be.”
The faculty, he says, is learning that he’s as transparent as they come. Leonard says he learned early on as a judge not to pretend to know things, because that can get you in trouble on the bench.
“I’m quick to say, ‘Whoa … I don’t understand that.’ I haven’t spent a lifetime in academia,” he says. “On the other hand, what I bring to this job is a judge’s ability to look at all sides of an issue and make a decision. And in many instances, there are many decisions — not just a right one or wrong one.”