New law school dean Rod Smolla is a man of many hats

By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times

Rod Smolla, Dean of Widener University’s Delaware Law School
Rod Smolla, Dean of Widener University’s Delaware Law School

New law school dean Rod Smolla is a man of many hats: Scholar, professor, philosopher, author, litigator .

Rod Smolla says he’s in Delaware to stay. The new dean at Widener University’s Delaware Law School has acclimated well, having moved his family in May from South Carolina. As a wearer of many hats, Smolla will serve as dean; teach constitutional law classes; continue, when possible, to practice law as an appellate court litigator; and, perhaps, write a few books. When we caught up with him, he was dapperly dressed, wearing a pinstriped suit, purple tie and ready smile.

While change isn’t new for Smolla — he’s been deans at the University of Richmond School of Law and the Washington and Lee School of Law, and president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C. — change, and growth, are nothing new for the law program at Widener University.

The Delaware Law School joined the Widener family in 1975. Thirteen years later, a branch campus opened in Harrisburg. The American Bar Association recently granted a status change for Harrisburg, one that elevated the branch campus to that of an autonomous law school. Rebranded to highlight programs more germane to their diverse geographic locations, the two sites were given new monikers — respectively, Widener University Commonwealth Law School, and Widener University Delaware Law School or, shortened, the Delaware Law School. The Delaware Law School will focus more on corporate and business law.

The university launched a national search for deans for both sites last fall. “We had an excellent pool of candidates. Mr. Smolla became the clear choice, (based upon) his experience as a law school dean, former president of Furman University, and his outstanding background as a legal scholar and practitioner,” said Widener University Interim President Dr. Stephen Wilhite.

Smolla brings a rich, and sometimes famous, background with him. His book, “Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder by the Book,” was acquired by the FX network. The TV movie starred Timothy Hutton as Smolla. He’s argued cases in courtrooms around the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and has won teaching and professional awards for contributions as an instructor and as a writer. His multiple hats are interdependent and seem to complete a man whose dedication to his craft runs deep. In particular, he’s gratified in knowing that the Delaware Law School appreciates the relationship between legal theory instruction and the practice of law.

“I’m somewhat unusual as a law professor. From the beginning, I remained active in the profession and was (arguing) two or three cases at any time … It’s been an important part of my identity and personality, and has helped me as a professor and a writer,” he said.

Smolla waxed philosophical as he described the totality of what a legal system should represent. “Law is a very human enterprise. Emotion, politics and business, religion and art, and geography impact it. The more that we are able to see it as a human enterprise and not a math problem, the better we are able to help students,” he said.

Moreover, his past administrative experiences have broadened his lens. “They’ve taught me the importance of paying attention to the whole student. It’s not just their intellectual development that matters, but their ethical sensitivity and the development of their professional judgment that matters,” he said.

His advice to graduating law students? Smolla said clerking for a judge is an excellent way to get one’s feet wet. His own experience is a testament. “I was a north Chicago kid going into the Deep South,” he said of his placement with a federal judge in Mississippi. The judge, he said, became one of his most important influences. “He taught me grace, dignity and humility,” Smolla said.

As for his dean hat, it should appease his more social side. Half his job will include external relations: “It’s partly like running a business … (I’ll be) out and about in the community, visiting alumni, judges, and schools. I love doing that. I feel real lucky to be able to do all things,” he said.

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