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The changemaker: Elizabeth Kronk Warner

The first female and first Native American dean in the College of Law’s 106-year history is ready to revolutionize legal education at a time when the industry is ripe for innovative ideas to accommodate a changing workforce.

Ask Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the new dean at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, why Salt Lake City is a great place to attend law school and she won’t hold back. Not even a little.

World-class faculty consulting on legislation for Congress or being published in top journals? Check.

A supportive community and opportunities for law students to gain real-world experience before graduation? Check.

A Pac-12 university with opportunities to pair with other parts of campus on unique initiatives? That too.

“So, you’ll get a world-class education and you’ll be in an inclusive and comfortable environment. And you couple that with the fact that just a couple of minutes away you’re at the Utah Capitol, able to do legislative work or you’re at the U.S. District Court or Utah Supreme Court, able to do research or a clerkship—the fact that you have that kind of access to courts is not something many law schools can claim,” said Kronk Warner, her voice rising with excitement when ticking off each point.

But she’s not done yet.

“On top of that, you know, if you’re a skier, and you do your schedule right? You can hit the slopes every day,” she added with a smile.

She’s only been on the job for about a month, but Kronk Warner has embraced her new home and role as an ambassador for the College of Law with an enthusiasm that’s hard to ignore.

She’s a force ready to get things done, unapologetic about her belief in the College of Law’s ability to reach new heights and enhance the quality of education for future generations of lawyers preparing to work in a changing legal industry.

As orientation begins for a new group of U law students, a historic first coincides: Kronk Warner will officially begin her leadership of students as the college’s first female and Native American dean.

“I’m truly humbled to have the position of being both the first female and the first Native American dean at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. It’s something I take very seriously because I understand that for many people it’s important to have a woman and a woman of color in this role,” said Kronk Warner, who is member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“My goal is to make the law school a truly inclusive and welcoming place for everybody.”

From the reservation to the courtroom

Kronk Warner’s road to the deanship began with a goal to one day become an attorney, an aspiration she had from an early age. Her parents both were attorneys, but their paths to law careers weren’t paved in gold.

Her father got into the business by writing to all of the county judges in Michigan asking if they needed a prosecutor, an unusual way to get a foot in the door. Most shot him down. Luce County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hired him. He’d eventually go on to work a trial against famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, known for defending Sam Sheppard, the “Boston Strangler” and O.J. Simpson. Bailey was so impressed with his small-town opponent after the case that he offered him a job at Bailey’s big city law firm.

Kronk Warner’s father declined the offer, instead opting to serve his community as a prosecutor. He eventually became an administrative law judge and married Kronk Warner’s mother.

“I think that’s a big reason I became a lawyer. I saw all the positives there were to being a lawyer and the difference you can make being a part of your community and that was very inspirational to me,” said Kronk Warner.

Kronk Warner recalls two distinct childhoods: The time when the family survived and the time when the family thrived.  In Kronk’s early childhood, her father’s $19,000-a-year salary meant the family scraped by with powdered milk and commodity cheese. Her mother didn’t envision a life beyond staying home to raise a family, the usual choice she’d seen modeled by women around her on the reservation who often married local welders and lumberjacks in the blue-collar region.

Her mother’s mindset one day changed after persuasion from her father that yes, women could go to law school too. Kronk Warner watched her mother attend law school and establish a legal career that elevated the one-time stay-at-home mom to the position of tribal judge on the reservation. The family’s economic situation moved to one of affluence.

“My mom stayed at home with me until I was 8 and then she went to law school. So, I not only had a very positive experience with my dad being a lawyer, but a really positive experience because I watched my mom go to law school. I remember the day she got an ‘A’ in tax law. She was literally skipping down the driveway,” said Kronk Warner.

The family’s shift in careers opened up doors to resources that put Kronk Warner onto a trajectory of success. She attended Cornell University in New York, drawn to the institution’s strong program in American Indian history and culture.  Law school at the University of Michigan followed, another school with solid American Indian programs, the field of study which most inspired Kronk Warner.

She practiced environmental, Indian and energy law as an associate in the Washington, D.C., offices of Latham & Watkins, LLP and Troutman Sanders LLP. In 2010, she was selected to serve as an Environmental Justice Young Fellow through the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School. She has also served as a visiting professor at Xiamen University in Xiamen, China, and Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, Turkey. She served as chair of the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Section and was elected to the association’s national board of directors in 2011.

After leaving law-firm life for academia, she served on the law faculties at Texas Tech University and the University of Montana. Teaching fit her outgoing personality and as a one-time opera performance major, she enjoyed the theater of the classroom.

She moved to the University of Kansas School of Law in 2012, her last stop before accepting the deanship in Utah this year.  Her scholarship, which focuses primarily on the intersection of Indian law and environmental law, has been published in several prominent journals, including the Arizona Law Review, Colorado Law Review and Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. She is also co-author of the casebook “Native American Natural Resources,” and she co-edited “Climate Change and Indigenous People: The Search for Legal Remedies.”

She has served as an appellate judge for her hometown Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Court of Appeals in Michigan and as a district judge for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas.

Despite early career experiences with the most prestigious of law firms and chances to travel to all corners of the world, Kronk Warner said her childhood experiences of struggling to get by early on has shaped her today into a fierce advocate to help potential law students believe in themselves and their ability to pursue a legal education. Case in point: She traveled to New Mexico earlier this summer to visit the Pre-Law Summer Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting American Indians and Alaska Natives to prepare for the rigors of law school. Kronk Warner shared her own story and encouraged students to consider the U as a future law school option. Several Navajo students followed up after their encounter with her, a step in the right direction for improving diversity among law school applicants and one Kronk Warner wants to build on through improving diversity initiatives at the law school.

“How do we build pipelines? How do we create mentors? How do we create, ‘Oh, she did it. I can do it too?’ ” said Kronk Warner.

Prior experiences will help to guide her. At the University of Kansas, Kronk Warner led the effort to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion matter into each year of the law school curriculum and formed faculty/staff, student and alumni diversity, equity and inclusion groups. In her earliest days on the job, she’s creating the foundation to do the same in Utah.

A connector

Kronk Warner hasn’t wasted any time getting to know Utah. She arrived in the Beehive State with an agenda packed full during her initial days on the job, canvassing the region to meet alumni in Ogden, Provo, St. George, Las Vegas and several law firms across the Wasatch Front.

With each visit, she’s eager to share her passion for the future of the College of Law, of her belief that that U and its exceptional legal program is undervalued by East Coast peers who are too quick to overlook the institution and its high-caliber research and faculty —people who regularly grace the national stage and are invited to vital public policy discussions on subjects like victims’ rights, consumer debt protection and anti-discrimination regulations for LGBTQ communities.

It’s a perception Kronk Warner is set on changing, with a focus on raising the national reputation of the law school through telling the story of its longstanding history and successes while also priming audiences to keep an eye out for what’s next at the U, an institution on the rise.

Her ability to bring people together to embrace change is one of the reasons the U’s senior vice president for academic affairs tapped her for the position from a competitive pool of applicants after a national search for a new leader.

“Kronk Warner is highly regarded as a natural leader and consensus builder who engages deeply, prioritizes both faculty scholarship and student success and is committed to equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed in announcing her hiring earlier this year. “Her academic background is aligned with the strengths of our law school and her experience in administration, alumni and donor relations, scholarship and community service will help move our outstanding law school to new heights.”

She’s also keen to collaborate with other law schools wrestling with how to be a resource in solving broader issues facing the legal industry. Among the first to visit her new office at the law building was Gordon Smith, the dean at Brigham Young University’s law school in Provo. Kronk Warner and Smith were quick to find common ground in wanting to improve law school diversity, a goal that if accomplished may lead to a more diverse judiciary, bolster economic growth and attract more talent to law firms among other things.

The two joined forces at the Utah State Bar convention in Park City soon after meeting, taking the stage before hundreds of lawyers at the annual gathering of the entity in charge of licensing attorneys. Together, they encouraged professionals to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives and committed as law schools to better seek out and promote those values.

Smith, after the visit, was quick to compliment his new colleague and share posts of their presentation on social media.

“I look forward to our future collaborations,” he said.

A time for change

Kronk Warner’s vision for strategically moving the law school forward comes with a framework designed to build on historic strengths of the institution while forming new foundations to excel.

For five years running, the institution’s environmental law program, anchored by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, has earned a top 10 national ranking in U.S. News & World Report. For the first time in history this year, the institution’s health law program earned a national ranking, scoring 36th on the U.S. News & World Report list, as the college’s Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences continues to gain national recognition.

She will foster the college’s Master of Legal Studies program into its second year, continuing to build the new degree program that is designed to broaden the law school’s course offerings to students interested in legal education outside of a traditional J.D.

She’s building bridges around campus—brainstorming with the School of Medicine on how law students might assist patients with legal needs; how law students can pair with social work students to better serve marginalized communities; how law students can assist with entrepreneurs at Lassonde and engineering to draft patents or provide support on other legal matters affecting those specialty areas. The possibilities are endless at a campus as interdisciplinary as the U, said Kronk Warner.

“There are amazing opportunities for cross-campus collaboration, which the University of Utah is so uniquely poised to do because the university as a whole is doing great work,” she said.

Besides making history as the first female dean, Kronk Warner has appointed an all-female leadership team, another first for the college. Amelia Rinehart will serve as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and RonNell Andersen Jones will serve as Associate Dean of Faculty and Research as part of Kronk Warner’s new administration.

Kronk Warner will oversee an overhaul of the law school’s experiential learning, in-house clinics and externship program with the help of newly hired program director Anna Carpenter and associate director Ashley Mendoza.

She’s moving forward on an idea brought forward by Clifford Rosky, a law professor, to better incorporate wellness initiatives into law school—a competitive and grueling experience for many students, which can bring on depression and anxiety. Rosky has led the charge to better connect students with mental health resources, including on-site yoga and mindfulness trainings and a therapist/counselor who will be staffed at the law school in the near future as better outreach for students.

Read the full story here.

Instagram takeover

What’s law school like? Check out the University of Utah’s Instagram Story on Monday and Tuesday to get a glimpse of life on this part of campus. Law students and new dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner will be taking over the account for a day as orientation week kicks off on Aug.12.

New podcast: Law School Life

Are you an undergraduate considering law school? Want to know more about what to expect and how to apply? Tune into the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s new podcast, “Law School Life,” set to launch on Aug. 19. New episodes pertaining to preparing for law school will be posted each week.