A Conversation with Dean Michael Waterstone

On June 1, 2016, Michael Waterstone became the 18th dean of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Waterstone, who also is senior vice president at Loyola Marymount University, is a nationally recognized expert in disability and civil rights law. He has consulted on projects for the National Council on Disability, authored a case book, and worked with foreign governments, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions on disability rights laws. He also is an associated colleague with the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Dean Waterstone's impact was recently summarized in the Installation Video.

Waterstone first joined Loyola's faculty in 2006, teaching civil procedure, disability law and employment law. He served as Associate Dean for Research and Academic Centers from 2009–2014, chairing the employment committee. In 2014-2015, he was a visiting professor at Northwestern University School of Law, where students selected him as the Outstanding First Year Professor. 

Prior to his tenure with Loyola Law School, he taught at the University of Mississippi Law School. He also worked as an associate in the Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP for three years, focusing on commercial litigation.

A native of Los Angeles, Waterstone earned his law degree in 1999 from Harvard Law School and his B.A. in political science from UCLA.

We sat down with Dean Waterstone at the law school’s Frank Gehry-designed campus located in downtown Los Angeles to talk about Loyola, his experience, and his new role as Dean.

What is special about Loyola Law School?

Our Jesuit tradition teaches us the importance of educating the whole person. One of the things that distinguishes Loyola Law School is our commitment to social justice. Our students are using their legal education to help make the world a better place, however they define that. That has always been a key part of who we are and always will be. Our pro bono commitment is a longstanding reflection of that fact.

As a lawyer at private firm you also did pro bono work.

I was a commercial litigation lawyer for three years, and I found the work interesting and I liked solving problems. At the same time, I also had a pro bono practice in disabilities rights law.

What drew you to disability rights law?

I had a cousin with muscular dystrophy. I think when you have a family member with a disability you tend to see some things differently. I wrote my third-year paper on the Casey Martin case — the professional golfer who sued [the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart during competition] under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I felt like there was so much up for grabs in this area. People with disabilities are a diverse community that has tended to be excluded from society and not had full rights in a number of areas. It has been a wonderful professional journey to try to use law to change that, and we’ve come a long way but there is certainly still a long way to go.

And what attracted you to teaching law?

I had been involved in teaching and coaching from undergrad on. Part of the reason I went to law school was to fuse two interests: teaching and law. I really enjoyed law but I always knew teaching was something I would truly love. I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to create a career in teaching. It’s an honor and privilege and great fun to be able to teach law students.

What experiences had an impact on you as a lawyer, teacher and now as Dean?

When I was at law school I worked at a legal clinic. I was able to represent real clients in real cases: a battered woman in a divorce case; a tenant who was getting evicted in a slum housing situation; someone who was unjustly denied benefits by the government. Through all of those experiences as a student, I was able to see how important law is in people's lives and the difference law can make on the ground. Now I am part of an institution that gives students similar experiences while they are still in law school. That is tremendously exciting.

As a practicing lawyer, I was able to see that there is such value in being a problem solver and helping a business through a difficult situation. Clients are coming to you because they need your judgment. And again, being part of an institution that helps students build that judgment and go out create value in the world is gratifying.

What is it about Loyola that prepares students so well for the practice of law? 

This community cares deeply about teaching. That dedication is genuine and it changes students’ lives. Our faculty undertakes scholarship on the very highest level, and they take what makes them special as scholars and use it to impact real-life policy debates and bring students along on that journey. We have a commitment to innovative teaching, and we will continue to be out front in this area. I believe in what we are doing in the classroom, and the results speak volumes.

What is special about the students that come to Loyola?

Our law school is reflective of the community we live in — a big, sprawling, exciting, diverse city. Loyola has always been a gateway school where people who are first-generation college students in their families have found a home and a launching pad. We also have an evening program that has traditionally opened different doors to allow students to get a legal education. And we will continue to adapt and innovate to make sure legal education is available to all segments of society.

You have said that Los Angeles is Loyola’s extended classroom. How so?

We are incredibly lucky to be right in the center of one of the world’s most exciting, thriving, energetic, diverse cities. Part of a student’s educational experience at Loyola is taking advantage of that. And we’re making sure that our programming is both a part of and reflective of this incredibly exciting city.

What emerging trends or issues is Loyola addressing in its programs?

There is so much happening at the intersection of law and business and technology, and nowhere is this most evident than in what is going on in entertainment and new media right in our backyard. Law, business and technology are moving closer together, and lawyers need to be more facile in understanding this trend and how law can be useful in all of those synergies.

Moving forward we are excited to form collaborations with the exciting things that are happening in Silicon Beach. We have a very strong business faculty and IT faculty, and we are going to be active players in that space. I am also inheriting the first program that focuses on cybersecurity and the legal issues and regulations around it. It is a growing issue and another example of how we are out in front of new and emerging legal issues.

You said at Orientation that ‘once you are at Loyola, you are family.’ Can you elaborate?

Our alumni are incredibly loyal to the law school and to each other, which comes across in all kinds of ways — networking, mentoring, hiring, financially supporting the law school. Our alumni base is large and incredibly strong in Los Angeles and even nationally. They want to meet and help our students in their careers, and then those students turn around and pay it forward when they graduate.

As the 18th dean of Loyola Law School, what legacy do you hope to create?

I hope everyone in our community feels energized by the trajectory of the law school. We are an institution that is on the move and is increasingly recognized nationally for our many strengths. There are a lot of challenges facing legal education, but I view Loyola as the school that is uniquely qualified to meet those challenges and to grow stronger in the process.

I am incredibly excited about Loyola’s future, and I literally jump out of bed every morning to come to work. I am grateful to be chosen as the leader in the next evolution of this great law school’s development.