Faculty Focus

Dean Emerita and Professor Michelle Simon

After taking the LSAT’s on a whim during her senior year in college, Professor Michelle Simon found her passion in the law immediately after starting law school at Syracuse University College of Law. Having spent time clerking and in private practice after law school, she was hired as a professor in 1985 by Pace Law’s first female dean, Janet Johnson. Twenty-two years later, Professor Simon would also serve as dean of the Law School, making her the third female dean in the school’s history. During this women’s history month, learn more about one of Haub Law’s female trailblazers, Dean Emerita and Professor of Law, Michelle Simon, in this candid Q&A.

You joined what was then known as Pace Law School in 1985 and became interim dean of the school in 2007, followed by dean of the school from 2008-2014. What was your experience like as the third female Dean of the Law School?

Dean Janet Johnson was the first female Dean and the Dean when I started at Pace in 1985.  She served from 1983-1989 and was a true mentor to me. She hired me and gave me opportunities to teach different courses. In addition, Barbara Black served as an interim dean in 1993-1994 and also served as a mentor. I was very lucky as dean. At Pace, we always had many women faculty and staff, and it was a very supportive place for a woman. In addition to the support of the previous female deans at Pace, I also had the support of other female law deans. I was fortunate to have these outlets to turn to for support and advice.

Who are some of your female role models – both in and outside of the legal and academic field?

Judith Kaye, Eleanor Roosevelt, Professor Barbara Salken, and my grandmother – to name a few. Judith Kaye was the first woman named to serve on the NY Court of Appeals, and the first to serve as the Chief Judge. She focused on creating alternatives to sending defendants to jail especially for crimes involving drugs and domestic violence.  She was a forward thinker and trailblazer.  Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an advocate of the rights of the poor, minorities and disadvantaged, and exercised her own political and social influence.  Professor Salken, a beloved professor at Pace, who died of cancer way too soon (there is a tree named after her in the courtyard).  She always supported me and pushed me to become a scholar and teacher.  And my grandmother, who left her life in Hungary in 1938 to escape the Nazis with her husband and my father, worked in a factory in the United States, and was one of the strongest women I ever knew. She believed in me and instilled in me that I could accomplish anything.

Although things have improved in terms of equality for men and women in the workplace, do you still feel there are roadblocks or double standards that women face?

While things are better, there are still many roadblocks.  It is very difficult to juggle having a family and a legal career.  While many women are entering the legal field, most managing partners and leadership positions still belong to men.  I think the pandemic has helped society understand the need for more flexible working conditions, but that doesn’t impact the need to satisfy a certain number of billable hours.

How can women help empower other women in their careers and otherwise?

Be kind and supportive to each other.

Let’s step back for a moment, when did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

I never thought about being a lawyer.  My father was a professional violinist, and my mother was an art historian, so I grew up in the arts and majored in studio art and anthropology in college.  I actually started a master’s degree in art therapy at Pratt Institute.  When I was a senior in college, many of my friends were taking the LSAT and I decided I would too.  I ended up scoring very well, and that’s when I started thinking about law school especially because I always loved both writing and researching.  When I started law school, I fell in love with it and knew I had found my passion.

How did you come to join Pace as a professor?

I was always interested in law teaching, and I tried to shape my career that way by clerking, then working in private practice, and writing.  I also taught as an adjunct in a paralegal program.  I applied to several law schools to be a professor and had several offers, but I loved the people at Pace. It always felt like a family. I feel very fortunate to have chosen both academia and Pace, I truly think I have the best job in the world.

What is your favorite course to teach?

I love teaching civil procedure.  I remember how challenging I found it to be when I was in law school, and I know that students find it difficult. I like to *try* to make it less frightening. I also love teaching torts, which is really all about analytical thinking.

You have held some prominent positions at Pace, which was the most challenging?

My time as Dean of the Law School was both my greatest challenge and my greatest achievement. It was challenging at times because you have so many constituencies—the University Trustees, the University President, the Provost, the law school faculty, law school staff, alumni, and of course the students. However, it was a very fascinating and rewarding experience as well. I had served as a trustee on a school board for 21 years and there were many similarities, but instead of thinking about what was best for all the children in my district, I was guided by what was best for all the law students at the law school.

What should students be thinking about as they enter the legal field?

I think it is important for students to think ahead about what they want their lives to look like. Your first job is not your last job, but it can be a stepping stone to the next opportunity.  There has to be work-life balance, and the practice of law can be very stressful.  If you are unhappy, there is nothing wrong with making a change and going in another direction. And, in whatever job you end up in, find a way to make yourself indispensable.

Aside from our mandatory first year courses, what classes would you recommend a law student should take before graduating?

It should be a mixture of courses that are tested on the bar exam (you don’t want to learn too many courses for the first time while you are studying for the bar) plus courses that look interesting to you, plus courses that are taught by a faculty member you enjoy, plus experiential courses so you get some idea about what practicing law is like. I was very surprised when I started to work about how different the practice of law was from law school.

Academically, what are you working on right now?

I am working on an article about the relationship between law students and University counseling offices and how we can better address the mental health issues in law school.

What are some of your passions and interests outside of the classroom?

I still love art. I am currently interested in honing my skills on the pottery wheel. I also have a house on Cape Cod and I love hiking, bicycling, fishing, and walking on the beach. And I have three children and so far, three grandchildren, so I love spending time with all of them.

Learn more about Professor Simon.