Earl Martin’s former neighbors in Hartford, Kentucky might be forgiven if they assume “esquire” is part of the Martin family name. The honorific has been attached to four generations, going back to Martin’s great-grandfather, who founded a prominent law firm in the small town. Though he was determined not to be a lawyer—”because everyone in town assumed I would be”—Martin has pursued the family business after all, albeit by a different path. Since 2003, Martin has been Associate Dean at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, where he has also taught for eight years. In March, Martin was named Dean of Gonzaga University School of Law, a post he’ll assume on July 1.
Martin received his J.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1987 before spending seven years in the U.S. Air Force’s judge advocate general corps. In 1996, he received an advanced law degree from Yale Law School, and it wasn’t long before he discovered that his real passion lay in the classroom rather than the courtroom.
Recently, Dean Martin took a break from finals week at Texas Wesleyan to answer a few questions about his professional history and his vision for Gonzaga Law.
Maybe family is destiny: You were determined to not be a lawyer, and yet you ended up becoming one. How did that happen?
When it came time to go to college, I couldn’t find anything else that grabbed my attention. I knew a law degree would give me a good, all-around education and allow a lot of flexibility in my career.
How did you wind up in academia?
I wanted a real intense experience with the law, and I knew I could get that through teaching. I had done a lot of trial work in the JAG corps, and had enjoyed it, but I learned that the part of the practice I enjoyed most was researching and learning new things. As a lawyer, I constantly had to get smart about varied topics. For example, I was dealing with mental health professionals all the time, so I got to know the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders very well. In a case involving a bus crash, I had to get into the physics of braking mechanisms of busses. I have always enjoyed that aspect of the profession immensely. In the academic world, you not only had the freedom to do that kind of research—it was a job requirement.
Will you be teaching at Gonzaga?
Not initially. The dean’s job requires a lot of external relations work. It can really wreak havoc with a teaching schedule, and it wouldn’t be fair to the students to constantly have to cancel class. But I would like to teach, and I hope I can work some in, because it really is a lot of fun.
What do you like about teaching?
It keeps you so keen. How the day unfolds is very dynamic. I don’t lecture. I insist upon having a very interactive classroom. I engage students in a conversation, and then I manage that conversation. It’s like conducting an orchestra: You’re trying to bring out all the voices and hit all the right notes. You’re trying to bring out different perspectives, and you get these great insights from the students that I appropriate and pass off as my own. (Laughs.) I like serious conversations, and these are serious conversations every day.
What led you to administration?
I came to Texas Wesleyan before it was fully accredited by the American Bar Association. It was still a very young school with hardly any systems in place. There was a real need to pitch in and help run the school, and I did that from day one. I found I enjoyed that, and that just evolved into me having a stronger voice and greater involvement in how the school was run.
I’ve enjoyed it a lot. That’s not to say that every administrative duty is a joy, but the big picture, for me, is one of enjoyment. I like managing this enterprise that I believe in so much. I truly believe that we offer a great value to our students, that the education we’re providing is going to serve them throughout their lives, whether they choose to practice law or not. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to give them that experience.
What has been your most significant achievement at Texas Wesleyan?
I’ve tried to model and instill a sense of professionalism in the school, across the school—from colleagues on the faculty to the staff to the students. I’m not trying to cast myself as some kind of Pied Piper. But I do try to bring a professional attitude and demeanor to the job, and I kind of spread that message as I go along. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, particularly from students, that they greatly appreciate that. They see a model they’d like to emulate. I’ve helped create programs here that will outlast me by decades, but my greatest sense of accomplishment has come from providing a model to those students.
What do you see as your number one job at Gonzaga, a well-established school with a longer tradition?
I’m going to bring a sense of entrepreneurialism. At Texas Wesleyan, we’ve always been very adamant that we don’t have to do things the way every other law school does them. I’ve been an advocate of trying new things. At a school like Gonzaga, which has such a great history, one of the potential drawbacks is that it can become moribund and set in its ways. I’m not saying that’s the case there—it would be presumptuous of me to sat that at this point. But I want to come in and say, let’s look around for new opportunities, and let’s exploit them for the sake of the students, faculty, staff, and alums.
I want to continue the trajectory this school is on right now. The trends are positive. Gonzaga’s Bar passage rate is going up, admissions numbers are going up, career placement is going up, and faculty productivity is going up. The University as a whole is ascendant. I want to help accelerate that.
One of my big projects is going to be to connect more alums with the school. The law school is blessed with a core that supports it in a remarkable way. The fact that that beautiful building stands next to the river is testament to that. But we need more people to be involved.
I don’t just mean money, though that’s important. I mean being interested in the life of the school in other ways: as moot court judges, mentors, helping us recruit students, and helping find jobs for our graduates. I’ve got a printout in front of me that shows where Gonzaga law alums are, and they’re everywhere across the country. That is a resource that I believe has been underutilized, and it’s’ going to be a big priority for me.
What do you think law schools in this country generally do well?
Compared to when I went to law school, we’re doing a better job preparing students for the actual practice of law. Gonzaga does this especially well. You can see this in its clinical program. When I went to school, there was no clinical program, no externship. You had to do a clerkship, and the school didn’t facilitate that. I think it’s a wonderful development. Of course, it’s expensive. It costs a lot of money to provide those programs. That’s the greatest challenge for legal education: How do you keep it affordable and still give quality education that provides practical experience?
What else could law schools do better?
They need to do a better job helping students develop a professional identity before they leave law school. Give them a means by which they can think about what kind of lawyer they’re going to be and how they’re going to handle the challenges and stresses of the practice of law. If you look at any poll of lawyer satisfaction, you’re going to see a number say they are dissatisfied. That can be attributed to many factors—it’s a stressful life. But I tell students this all the time: You have got to assert control over your professional life. If you let the law practice control you, you’ll be unhappy. It recognizes no limits. There is always another hour in the day you can bill until you drop dead. So you have to control the time you’re going to devote to your practice, and you have to control the subject matter you’re going to pursue.
There is debate in this country right now about the proper role of the judiciary. What is your take, as someone who shapes future lawyers and judges?
I have great respect and admiration for the tough job that our judges do. And I believe that the judicial branch is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of our democracy. I see great danger in many of the things that have been said by various politicians who have been attacking the courts. We are always going to struggle with defining the proper role of the courts, in part because we ask so much of them. It’s not uncommon for us to punt difficult issues to the court. Many of the politicians who criticize the courts have done that themselves, because they don’t want the accountability that would come with making some of those hard choices. The judiciary is a vital institution, and I’m distressed by many of the calls that have been made regarding the performance, function, and place of the courts in our constitutional democracy.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
I would have to start with my father. My father always modeled how essential it is to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity in everything you do. Now, I’m not claiming that I’ve always met that standard. But because of his influence, I know when I’m not, and I know when I need to do better.
I’ve had many teachers that I greatly respected. In high school, my algebra teacher was always prepared, always demanded a lot of the students, but also gave a lot of herself. You came into class and you actually learned something despite yourself. You didn’t want to disappoint her.
Abe Goldstein was a professor at Yale I had for two classes during my LLM year. I’ve tried to model my classroom teaching after him. He engaged students in conversation. He did very little lecturing. But if you paid attention, his questions led you to the right results. He also brought a wonderful sense of humor to the classroom. Here was this person who was a longtime professor, who had been dean of the law school and had also, I believe, served as president of the university for some time. He was very accomplished, and yet he came into that classroom and connected with students on a very intense, individual level.
That intensity, that passion, is key to teaching law. Gonzaga Law is a professional school. It’s not about technical training. Yes, it’s about learning the rules and mastering a substantial body of knowledge you need to do the job. But law is an avocation that is, at its core, based on service to others. I understand when you’re out there in the daily grind it’s hard to remember that. But if we do a better job instilling that idea in our students, it will influence their lives as they go forward in the practice of law.