An Interview with Law Professor Michele DeStefano ’91

Michele DeStefano ’91 is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law and founder of LawWithoutWalls, a multi-disciplinary, international think-tank of more than 1,000 lawyers, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and law and business students who create innovations at the intersection of law, business, and technology. She is also co-curator of the Compliance Elliance Journal, an e-journal of articles in compliance and ethics.

DeStefano took part in the 2018 Dartmouth College Law Day celebrations, as a member of a panel, a student lunch, as well as delivering a lecture about “LawWithoutWalls: Enhancing Access to Justice and Lawyers’ Skills with Innovation.” During her visit to campus, Professor DeStefano sat down with Lauren Bishop ’19 for an interview about her career journey and lessons learned along the way.

Lauren Bishop (LB): You took a nontraditional path to law school by working for about a decade in marketing before going to law school. Looking back, would you change anything?

Michele DeStefano (MD): The one thing I would change is I wish I had worked at a big law firm. Just for a year. The reason why is I think everybody could use one year in big law just so they know what it’s all about, to know what it feels like to be an associate. I wish I had done that as opposed to spending two years as a Special Master which I learned a lot in doing. I think I would have taken one more year, worked at a big law firm, and then go into academia.

LB: Would working at a big law firm tell you more about the industry or would you have done it to persuade yourself that is not a field you want to work in?

MD: Well, I say I wish I had done that but my fear is that I might have sold out and stuck with it because the money would be really hard to turn down and then go into academia making less than I did after one year as an associate. That would have been hard. Look, I study the legal profession. The only way that I’m going to really know what should be done, what’s not working properly, is if I know what’s actually happening. Having a year under my belt of actually being there and experiencing that would give me more empathy and a better understanding of the problems that need to be tackled and how to tackle them. What I do instead to get that real world experience is do qualitative interviews. I think I have interviewed over 300 general counselors, chief compliance officers, public relations in law, and heads of innovation in law, since 2009. All of my work, almost every article, I have between 50 to 100 interviews backing them up. A lot of professors will say that’s just anecdotal, that’s quantitative, and that’s true. I can’t statistically prove anything with those interviews and of course people say what they want to say and I hear what I want to hear in those interviews. There is a lens. That said, it’s better than not doing it. At least I’m talking to people out there in the real world and hearing them say what they’re experiencing and what they’re frustrated about and what they’re learning and what makes them happy. I end every interview telling them to finish my sentence, “I’m so frustrated when lawyers….” and they have to finish my sentence.   

LB: Is there one average frustration that you find when you ask that question?

MD: The general counsels often complain about law firms and their billing practices. Either they’re too slow or they’re inaccurate or they overbill or they bill for the time discussing the bill. That’s a common frustration that hasn’t gone away which I don’t understand why with all the technological solutions we have. I don’t get why that still exists and it’s unbelievable how often general counsels say that. The second thing they say is that they are frustrated with their law firm lawyers for not ‘getting it.’ For not providing legal advice in a way that the average person without a law degree can understand it and in a way that helps them make a decision that’s a mixture of business and law. Those two frustrations, on the one hand the billing one which is almost silly and should be easily fixed, and on the other hand one that’s very big and lawyers claim they do it. Lawyers tell me, “no no no, we’ve been giving them advice served up in business language for years.” Then I say, “How come all your clients tell me that you’re not? Somebody on your team’s not.”

LB: Do you think that Dartmouth prepared you well for law school and the legal profession? If so, how?

MD: I was an academic geek here at Dartmouth. I studied all the time and loved it. I had great relationships with professors and the professors here really let me be me in class. I think Dartmouth prepared me for a creative law practice better than any other institution could have. That really is in a large part due to the professors here that were willing to let their students choose how they were going to approach a paper, how they were going to approach a project. The professors let me be creative in my papers instead of following a structure. I think Dartmouth is a liberal arts education in the true sense of the word. You can create your own major here, I doubled easily in English and Sociology. There wasn’t a class I didn’t love.

LB: If you could go back and give yourself some advice when you were twenty years old, general life advice, what would it be?

MD: How you do matters more than what you do. I learned that the hard way with some really great bosses. Being first generation to go to college, you’re always striving to prove yourself. It’s always what you do, so I was an overachiever and came here to an Ivy League college. My dad was actually a garbage man when my mom married him; he ended up owning a garbage company but we were very much middle to low class. Coming here feeling surrounded and feeling like I had to prove myself and that maybe they’d figure out I wasn’t really smart enough to be here, didn’t deserve to be here. I focused a lot on what I did and what I accomplished and getting the right grades. I didn’t focus on learning the skills to be a really likeable person, how you do things. At my first job I really struggled because I was an overachiever, no one could say I wasn’t great at my job, but the people who worked with me probably didn’t like me that much because I wasn’t understanding how you get things done matters as much as the end product. When you’re 22, you don’t know that. If I had known that earlier, maybe taken some courses here about that, it might have been different. The second thing I would say would be networking. I didn’t spend enough time getting to know my classmates because I just needed to get my work done and go to my job.

As told to Lauren Bishop ’19, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The views and opinions expressed, and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.