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Hofstra law dean A. Gail Prudenti steers school in ‘changing times’

A. Gail Prudenti, the dean of Hofstra University

A. Gail Prudenti, the dean of Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Former Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti held one of the highest posts in the state judicial system before becoming the new dean of the Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law.

She’s not only steering future lawyers into the courtrooms where she spent decades. There are higher goals: changing the training of those lawyers, diversifying their skills and preparing them for a legal career vastly different from the one she began 40 years ago.

“I see great possibilities for this law school,” said Prudenti, 64, who was named dean on May 1. “The practice of law is going through changing times. It will once again flourish — but in a different way.”

Prudenti, who admits her own unpreparedness when she started her first job as a law clerk in 1978, says Hofstra’s law graduates will be “practice-ready,” having much more on-the-job training alongside experienced professionals before they sit for the bar exam to get their licenses.

Hofstra’s law school, with an endowment valued at $47.9 million, is nearing its 50th anniversary in 2020.

Prudenti took over as the 10th dean at a key moment for the school that counts thousands of working attorneys, judicial workers, politicians and advocates in the region among its 11,000 alumni. She had been interim dean since Jan. 1, succeeding Eric Lane, who had served as dean for four years and returned to the school’s faculty.

The law school has faced challenges in the past five years, reflecting a national trend caused in part by closing of some large firms, high student debt and a weak employment outlook.

Applications to Hofstra’s law school had declined, effectively cutting the total class size in half. The university had to give the school an extra $11 million subsidy, while also eliminating 11 staff positions, according to university officials.

The year-to-year decline in applications began between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years.

For the class entering in August 2012, Hofstra received 3,892 applications from prospective full- and part-time students. That number dropped to 2,671 in 2013; 2,343 in 2014; 1,848 in 2015; and 1,808 in 2016.

President Stuart Rabinowitz, a faculty member since 1972 who was dean of the law school for 12 years before becoming the university’s top administrator in 2001, acknowledged Hofstra was among the victims when “the bottom fell out” of legal education across the country.

“I’ve never seen a larger downturn in student demand. It just happened so quickly and so deeply,” Rabinowitz said. “Nobody was prepared for it.”

Now, however, interest in applying to law school appears to be on the rise. Nationally, the number of students who are taking the admissions exam commonly known as the LSAT increased 19 percent from June 2016 to June 2017 after years of post-recession decline.

At Hofstra, the number of applications for the 2017-18 class rebounded significantly to 3,212. Enrollment numbers, though, continue to lag: The current enrollment is 819 students, down from about 1,100 before the downturn. And this year’s entering class had 253 students, less than the 320 who enrolled in fall 2012.

Rabinowitz said he believes Hofstra’s law school is “on the road to an upswing.”

“The world is getting more complicated, both legally and otherwise,” he said. “There will always be a need for lawyers — and good lawyers.”

The percentage of Hofstra law students passing their first bar exam — a popular measure of a law school’s success and the competitiveness of its students — was 70.1 percent in July. That was up from 64 percent in July 2016, though still below the 84 percent of July 2013.

Prudenti said she will continue to implement programs to raise students’ bar passage and employment rates and continue to prioritize fundraising for scholarships to defray students’ costs. The 2017-18 Hofstra law school tuition for full-time students in the juris doctor program is $56,794; for part-time students, it is $42,600.

In service of those goals, Prudenti could summon her professional network, including her relationships in the courts, government and on Long Island.

The Bellport resident grew up in Blue Point and is the daughter of the late Suffolk County Republican chairman Anthony Prudenti.

She became a judge in 1992, sitting on the state Supreme Court and serving as the Suffolk surrogate judge. She has served on the Appellate Division since 2001 and as its presiding judge from 2002 to 2011. From December 2011 to July 2015, she was chief administrative judge for the statewide court system, overseeing its $2.7 billion budget, 3,600 judges and 15,000 nonjudicial employees.

Third-year law student Alexandra Faver, 24, of Kings Park, said, “With Judge Prudenti the outreach has exponentially grown — which is just a huge benefit for the students. We are exposed to so many working attorneys.”

Another plan is to create and strengthen partnerships with the university’s Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine and the Fred DeMatteis School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Recently, the schools of law and medicine have created programs that would prepare medical students to be expert witnesses and law students to learn about health care law.

In July, the law school launched its newest clinic, aimed at representing immigrants facing deportation. The 10 law clinics are staffed with law students supervised by professors. The students receive two to six credits per clinic course.

With that practical approach, “when you graduate and pass the bar, no one is saying ‘Congratulations, you are my first client,’” said Theo Liebmann, Hofstra law school’s director of clinical programs.

Prudenti, who started on the bench in matrimonial court, says she still is committed to family law. This semester, she is teaching a course on guardianship.

While she calls herself “an adequate trial lawyer,” she’s eager to make her mark on students, hoping to merge her judicial life with academia and beyond.

Her mentor, former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, said he believes Prudenti is the “perfect person to produce a turnaround moment for Hofstra’s law school.”

“The tide is turning in relation to law school and legal careers,” said Lippman, 72, now at the Latham & Watkins law firm, based in Manhattan. “And you need a leader who is in tune with the times.”

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