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New MU Law School dean comes from within


Joseph D. Kearney

Scholar. Teacher. Practitioner. Pro bono advocate. Family man. White Sox fan.

All those labels describe Prof. Joseph D. Kearney. He’s about to take on a new role: law school administrator. Kearney, 38, will become Marquette University Law School’s new dean on July 1.

Kearney succeeds the late Dean Howard Eisenberg, who was widely respected among Wisconsin’s legal circles for both his contributions in developing state and federal law and his tireless service to hundreds of pro bono clients.

Eisenberg was also a colleague and friend of Kearney, since the latter’s arrival at Marquette in the fall of 1997. “He was a real hero of mine,” Kearney says.

No one would describe them as peas in a pod; their politics couldn’t be more different, and as Kearney wryly points out, Eisenberg was, of all things, a Cubs fan.

Yet that never got in their way and, until Eisenberg’s death last June, they collaborated on a number of projects. Kearney even served as Eisenberg’s legal counsel, in a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case where Eisenberg had been appointed amicus curiae.

Now that Kearney will be assuming the top spot at Marquette Law, he says he’ll strive to carry on many of the traditions that Eisenberg built upon or began.

A Nontraditional Path

Kearney, a Chicago native, earned his B.A. in classics from Yale in 1986, before attending Harvard Law School.

He says that for nearly as long as he can remember, he has been fascinated by the law, and as a law student, a career in academia was always in the back of his mind. Having both parents as college professors probably had something to do with that.

But Kearney didn’t immediately pursue that goal upon earning his J.D. in 1989. Rather, he clerked for Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, and in 1990, he returned to Chicago to work as an associate at Sidley & Austin, the city’s largest law firm. He practiced as a litigator at both the trial and appellate court levels in a wide variety of areas, but his main concentration was that of the firm, telecommunications law.

From there, Kearney’s career took a somewhat nontraditional turn. In 1995, he began a one-year clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For most law clerks, their first post-law school job is clerking for the federal Court of Appeals, and then, if they are lucky, a clerkship for one of the high court justices. Few bring the practice experience that Kearney had. Yet to Kearney’s way of thinking, it made him a better law clerk. For that matter, he says he hopes his practice experience will make him a better law school dean as well.

As for Justice Scalia, Kearney says that the former law professor was a strong supporter of the idea that Kearney explore a career in academia after clerking. Hence the employment application to Marquette in 1996, while he was again working at Sidley & Austin.

Goals as Dean

This spring, Kearney is teaching Civil Procedure and Advanced Civil Procedure. He enjoys working with students and says he plans to continue to teach as dean, although not at the same level.

Rather, a fair amount of his time initially will likely be spent simply learning the job, he says. He’ll also continue to pursue his scholarly projects.

In addition, Kearney plans to carry on the strong emphasis that Eisenberg placed on pro bono. He took over one of Eisenberg’s pro bono files after his death, a federal habeas case. No, he won’t be able to match the superhuman pro bono load that Eisenberg shouldered.

Eisenberg was known to have 40-50 open pro bono files at any given time, in addition to serving full-time as dean. But Kearney does plan to always have at least one or two active pro bono files, and to encourage the Marquette faculty, law grads and the bar to do so as well.

“I’m hoping to come up with some creative ways to ensure that Howard’s pro bono work and efforts here were not just a blip. Rather, I want them to be part of a tradition,&
#148; he says.

The pro bono push stems from the school’s Jesuit affiliation. Kearney explains, “It was somewhat of a curiosity that Howard Eisenberg, who was Jewish, found it easier than many of us who are Roman Catholic to talk about the mission of the law school in terms that approach the religious. And it’s a difficult balance for Marquette to strike. On one hand, we’re the sole source of legal education in southeastern Wisconsin — and therefore we have to be accessible to people of all faiths and backgrounds. On the other hand, we are a part of the Jesuit commitment to academic excellence and public service. Howard struck that balance well, and I hope to do the same.”

Kearney also plans to continue to create and raise funds for a law school debt forgiveness program for students who practice in public interest law and/or serve low-income clients. It’s a project that Eisenberg spearheaded before his death. And it’s of critical importance to low-income individuals, Kearney notes. Many graduates, who would like to help them, can’t, because their debt load from law school and possibly their undergrad degrees requires them to take higher-paying jobs.


Marquette University Law School

On a related note, Kearney says he anticipates that placement will become an issue to which he’ll have to devote time and resources in the future. The distribution of lawyers is already of concern; rural areas and inner cities are typically underserved these days. In addition, with the current relatively weak economy, the job market for new grads will undoubtedly become more competitive, he predicts.

Even in poor economic times, however, Marquette’s reputation serves its graduates well, he says — and to maintain that high profile, Kearney wants to lead the faculty in enhancing the school’s scholarly track record among legal academics. This was also one of Eisenberg’s goals.

“It’s highly appropriate that legal academics should make contributions to, what I call like to call, the ‘common storehouse of knowledge.’ But also, it’s important to hire people who can contribute to the scholarly mission, without losing what has been Marquette Law School’s historic strength, which is its teaching tradition, and its involvement with the bar and the public policy of Wisconsin,” he says.

The precious little free time Kearney will have in the coming years will be spent with his family. His wife, Anne, a former associate with Foley & Lardner, works as a part-time appellate law consultant. They live in Milwaukee.

The Kearneys, both Chicagoans by birth, have two children whom, in the spirit of good will and diversity, they allow to root for the Milwaukee Brewers from time to time.

“The kids will never really have to choose, because the chances of a World Series match-up of the White Sox versus the Brewers are pretty low,” he quips.

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