Dean’s legal education leadership sparks inclusion in most influential list

January 19, 2024 · By David Sandler
Image with text: Dean Anthony E. Varona, National Jurist's Top 20 Most Influential People in Legal Education

Varona starts his fourth semester as Seattle U Law dean with long list of accomplishments

Anthony E. Varona, dean and professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, has been recognized as one of the 20 most influential legal educators in the nation by The National Jurist in a list published online. The publication characterizes the 20 featured leaders as “major forces in shaping legal education.”

An award-winning teacher and scholar, and longtime leader in legal education, Dean Varona is especially known for spearheading curricular and programmatic innovations in technology and the law, internationalization, and diversifying the legal profession and legal education itself.

Remarking on this distinction, Varona said, “This recognition reflects the influence and leadership of my brilliant Seattle University School of Law faculty and staff colleagues, and our extraordinary alumni – so many of them leaders in service of justice – more than it says anything about me. It is a great privilege to be dean of this outstanding law school and a member of this innovative, diverse, and dynamic community.”

At number 18, Varona is included with legal education luminaries including: Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Berkeley School of Law; Law School Admission Council President and CEO, and Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Executive Director/CEO-Designate Kellye Testy; William Treanor, dean and executive vice president of Georgetown University Law Center; Paul Caron, dean of Pepperdine University School of Law and editor-in-chief of TaxProf Blog; Stanford University Provost Jenny Martinez; and the outgoing and incoming presidents of the AALS.

“It is gratifying to see Dean Varona receive this well-deserved national recognition of his innovative leadership. Seattle University is fortunate to have such an energetic and visionary leader guiding our law school,” said President Eduardo Peñalver, who is also a professor of law.

Throughout his more than three-decade career in law, Varona has had an outsized influence on legal education by working tirelessly to improve legal education outcomes for students and to make law school more accessible to students from a range of backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented and marginalized communities.

For Varona, a first-generation college graduate who immigrated as a child from Cuba and whose native language is Spanish, making legal education and the profession more accessible and diverse is a personal mission. In July of 2022, Varona became the first Latinx dean of any law school in the Pacific Northwest, and the first openly gay male and Latinx dean of Seattle U Law.

He also broke barriers at the University of Miami School of Law, where he served as its first Latinx and openly gay dean. His was a record-breaking deanship despite COVID-19's disruptions, which emerged after his first seven months as dean. He led the recruitment of the two then-strongest JD classes (with the highest LSAT and undergraduate GPA averages), achieved the highest representation of women law students and increased African American enrollment by nearly 22%. He boosted the bar success rate by 10% year-over-year, raised both US News & World Report reputation ratings, and improved the rankings of nine of 12 specialties, including a new Top 25 ranking for clinical teaching and a Top 30 ranking for international law. Varona and his team also brought in more than $8 million despite the start of the pandemic, launched new programs in international, environmental, human rights, transactional skills, and other areas, led the law school’s prominent response to the national racial justice reckoning, and initiated a new SJD Program.

Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, wrote: “I am delighted to have overlapped as a law school dean at the same time as Dean Tony Varona. He is an inspirational leader, and I am consistently impressed with his passion for Seattle University and his strong commitment to diversifying the legal profession.”

During his time here, Varona has exhibited strong leadership in directing legal education to examine and change certain outmoded or even harmful practices and standards.

Last year, Varona served as a powerful voice and convener of dialogue with the team responsible for developing the rubric used to calculate the U.S. News and World Report annual law school rankings. For many years, Varona has argued that the rankings penalize law schools that seek to broaden access for underrepresented students, and that certain subjective measures are weighted too heavily while other important metrics are not counted at all.

Working with his fellow Jesuit law school deans, Varona helped convene a series of national discussions, including a meeting with the U.S. News top editors. He also took a forceful and early public stand by announcing that Seattle U Law would suspend its participation in the rankings until meaningful changes are made to the rankings methodology.

Varona also has demonstrated influence by serving as co-chair of the Washington State Bar Licensure Task Force (WBLTF), which recently presented a set of recommended reforms to bar licensure to the Washington Supreme Court. In this role, he has brought his decades of experience as a legal educator and practicing lawyer to the table, guiding conversations and actions in ways that balance the goal of making both the profession and legal services more accessible, with the necessity to protect the public.

The Task Force’s work provides a blueprint for bar licensure reform for other states as they pursue their own efforts. The WBLTF’s recommendations were characterized as “the most comprehensive set of reforms in the nation” by a prominent scholar focused on licensure reform at the AALS’s recent Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Washington Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, co-chair of the committee with Varona, wrote: “Dean Varona is a remarkable force; during his time as co-chair of the WBLTF, he has provided much appreciated guidance to move us from our extensive research phase into developing concrete recommendations. He has been a consistent, encouraging voice and has made each person on the task force feel heard and valued. I have been grateful for his leadership and commitment to a very complex and challenging set of recommendations for change that puts equity in law licensing at the center of the Task Force’s recommendations.”

Additionally, Varona has been a leading and sought-after national voice on the importance of making legal education and the legal academy more diverse.

He is the founding co-chair of the Hispanic National Bar Association Association’s Task Force on Law Faculty and Deans, which is focused on identifying and implementing new and more effective strategies to increase Hispanic/Latino representation in the legal academy.

As a national speaker on this topic, Varona has delivered several recent addresses. In August, he was the keynote speaker at the Michael A. Olivas Writing Institute, a one-day international online event created to provide support and encouragement to junior and senior academic scholars of color in their writing projects. Legal faculty from across the nation, as well as Peru and Mexico, attended.

Recently, he delivered keynotes to two international law firms – White & Case LLP and Dorsey & Whitney LLP – on the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month, where he spoke about the need for more Hispanic and Latinx lawyers, law firm partners, law school deans, law professors, and law students.

Varona has worked hard to ensure that Seattle U Law serves as a model for other law schools in terms of inclusive excellence. In his first full year as dean, he oversaw efforts to recruit a Fall 2023 entering class that is the most diverse in the law school’s history, comprising 45% students of color. At the same time, the class is the most academically distinguished, in terms of GPAs and LSAT, in nearly 15 years.

Varona’s energetic and strategic leadership has resulted in important new and renewed distinctions for the law school. Seattle U Law is consistently recognized among the nation’s best law schools in key areas. Its Legal Writing, Clinic, and Part-time programs score at or near the top of national rankings. Additionally, The National Jurist has more recently included Seattle U law among the “Top 20 Most Innovative Law Schools,” and gave it an A+ in Racial Justice and an A in Diversity, International Law, and Business Law. It also received an A- in Criminal Law, Tax Law, Employment/Labor Law, Human Rights Law, Family/Child Law, and in Practical Training.

Varona also conceived of and hosted a national rapid response webinar, hosted by Seattle U Law within 24 hours of the release of the Supreme Court's SFFA v. Harvard and UNC affirmative action decision. The webinar featured top experts from across the nation, alongside prominent Seattle University scholars, and attracted nearly 2000 registered attendees and national media attention.

Since being named dean, Varona oversaw the recruitment of numerous prominent new faculty and staff colleagues, including the two top-cited scholars at the law school. He has launched numerous initiatives to promote faculty and alumni achievements, and to make Seattle U Law a more prominent, convening national law school.

Varona also demonstrates influence in legal education by spearheading innovative programs.

The Hybrid Hubs initiative seeks to bring the law school experience to three “legal deserts” of the Northwest that lack law schools and access to legal services: the state of Alaska, and in Washington state, the South Sound (Tacoma/Olympia) and the Yakima Valley. The program is especially attractive to potential law students from underrepresented and marginalized communities, who are place bound due to work and family commitments but have a strong desire to become attorneys who can then practice law in their home communities.

Together with faculty colleagues, Varona has created Seattle U Law’s new Technology, Innovation Law, and Ethics (TILE) Program. He recognized the need to prepare a new generation of diverse legal professionals to help guide the development and implementation of current and future technologies in lawful and ethical ways.

Varona oversaw the launch of a new SJD Program, and the most extensive expansion of Seattle U Law’s international programs in the law school’s history, bringing to the law school impressive and accomplished graduate law students from around the world.

Varona also developed Seattle U Law's 1L Communities & Commons Program,a year-long program that incorporates structured opportunities for first-year students to collaborate and form a community with their classmates, law school staff, and faculty members. Through communal dialogue, facilitated workshop sessions, cross-curricular team-teaching events, and other programming, 1Ls strengthen the foundations of their academic, professional, and personal development while integrating the law school’s values and traditions.

Varona’s leadership in and service to furthering legal education also includes:

  • Co-Chair, 2024 American Bar Association (ABA) Annual Deans Workshops Planning Committee
  • Executive Committee Member, AALS Section for the Law School Dean
  • Fellow, American Bar Foundation
  • Member, AALS Membership Review Committee; and ABA accreditation site inspector
  • Chair of the Planning Committee for the 2019 National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference (NPOC19), the largest gathering of minority law scholars in American history.
  • Author of proposal to establish, and inaugural Selection Committee Chair, of the AALS Michael A. Olivas Award for Outstanding Leadership in Diversity and Mentoring in the Legal Academy.
  • Former Co-Editor, AALS Journal of Legal Education
  • Former Member, AALS Executive Committee for the Section on Teaching Methods

Michael Kaufman, dean of Santa Clara University School of Law, wrote: “Dean Anthony Varona is an impactful scholar, beloved educator, devoted public servant, and transformative leader, who has worked tirelessly and effectively to expand access, affordability, and equity in legal education and the profession. By his example of remarkable skill, talent, tenacity, and kindness, he has inspired a generation of law students, legal educators, and professionals to follow the trail which he has blazed in building the future of justice for us all.”

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