Q&A with Melanie Leslie, Dean of Cardozo Law School


Dean Melanie Leslie is the first woman dean of Cardozo Law School and a leading scholar in the trusts and estates field. Prior to being appointed dean in July 2015, she served as vice dean, overseeing the expansion of Cardozo’s curriculum, the establishment of new initiatives on technology and data law, and the FAME Center at Cardozo. A 20 year member of the Cardozo faculty, she was awarded the “Best First-Year Professor” award by three graduating Cardozo classes. We recently sat down with Dean Leslie to talk about her work, her life, and what it’s like to be dean.

Q: At what point in your career did you first decide you wanted to become a dean? Was there a moment or a triggering event?

I decided about two or three years ago that I would try my hand at being a vice dean to see if I liked administration. And I did. I just loved it. I was surprised because being a vice dean is much harder than being a dean in a lot of ways—you deal with all of the everyday problems, and there is not as much opportunity for big-picture strategic thinking. But I still liked it, and then six months in, the then-dean accepted an offer to move to another school. And there we were. In determining whether to become a candidate for the deanship, I thought, as I think as many women do, “I’m not ready for this because I don’t have enough experience.” Then I had a series of realizations, including one that occurred when the authors of The Confidence Code spoke at Cardozo. They said research established that women think they’re not ready or qualified for a job unless they’ve already had almost all of the experience necessary to do the job, whereas the majority of men will say, “Well I don’t have the experience, but I can learn on the job.” And I read that and I thought, “You know, if not now, when? Let’s just do this.”

Q: How do you know which career risks or opportunities like that to take?

This is corny, but here’s the question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? If, when thinking about an opportunity, I experience fear, I set the fear aside for a moment. I try to focus on whether I’m getting excited about all of the things I could accomplish if I took this opportunity. Is my brain starting to fire? Am I thinking about creative possibilities? If so, the fear is a good fear because it’s the fear of failing. So I know I’m going to be challenged. I know it’s probably a great opportunity because I will grow and learn and be engaged.

On the other hand, if it feels like something I should want to do, either because it’s a path that other people think is important or something that I think I should want to do, but I’m not actually inspired, then it’s probably not a great move.

When I decided to take on the role of Dean, I decided I would trust my instincts and I would just be who I was. For better or worse, I’ve always been a person who sees an opportunity and jumps in and takes the risk. That’s been more my approach than careful planning for my own career path.

Q: How, if at all, did your personal life factor in when evaluating career risks and opportunities?

It factored in a lot. When the kids were little, it was a big consideration. Being a law professor was more than a full-time job, but I had flexibility and that was huge. I knew that I needed to be able to go to the dance recital when I said I was going to the dance recital. That was key for me. I understood that I might not be there when one of my kids took their first step but then I thought, “Well, they’re going to do lots of things that I’m not going to witness. Then I’ll come home and they’ll show me and it will be great.” I knew I had to be able to structure time with them on a regular basis. That really informed a lot of my choices. For instance, early in my career I didn’t travel as much as a lot of academics, which “hurts” your career because you’re not developing broader connections with people in your field to the degree that you might. I made that choice, and then shifted focus once the kids were a little older.

Q. Can a woman dean have it all?

The phrase “having it all” invokes being a perfect 1950’s “Leave It to Beaver” mother and firing on all cylinders at a high-level job at the same time. No, career women don’t often experience those two things simultaneously. But why is that having it all? Why do we put this pressure on ourselves as women to be perfect—a perfect parent and a perfect worker at all times? If that’s the baseline, you can’t have it all. Things ebb and flow. You make compromises, but does that mean you’re a bad parent? No. Does it mean your work is substandard? No. Does that mean that you don’t bring important things to the table? No. It means there’s ebb and flow.

I had two children before I was tenured. Kids don’t operate on your timetable. For example, there were times when my kids would wake up sick in the middle of the night for a solid week and then I struggled to write because I was exhausted. So there were some years where maybe I wasn’t as productive as someone who didn’t have that constraint. On the other hand, if you look at the arc of my career, I’ve been a successful academic, and I’ve brought a lot of value to my institution. And I will say this, parenting two girls through adolescence was the best training for being a dean. The point is, your value is measured, I think, not in how was your week, but how was your arc. It’s important for employers to realize that and for us to realize that for ourselves.

Q. What were the greatest barriers you have encountered in your career, particularly related to being a woman?

In a way, the greatest barrier has been the pressure I put on myself to be perfect in every arena and do everything at the highest level, all the time. It caused me tremendous anxiety early on, and not the productive anxiety that propels you, but rather the anxiety that impedes you. Those feelings are amplified by people you meet in your work environment who have also bought into those norms of behavior. But I certainly wish I had just felt confident in my instincts and entitled to do what I was doing with the knowledge that my family would be okay and that I would build a career I would be proud of.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

As a woman, you come up against a societal expectation that you have to be nice and you have to be liked. And that’s a dance that some of us do. I certainly did it for many, many, many, many years. As a child, I was bossy! I angered people because I was very sure of what should be done at any given moment. But I saw in adolescence that being bossy was not getting me liked, and that being liked was the valued currency. True, I had to learn to listen. But I took it too far–I tamped down my leadership instincts in order to be liked. So for a long time I confused being liked with listening. It’s important to validate and listen to other people’s opinions, but not so that they will like you. You do it because they’re worth listening to and they deserve to be listened to and because you’re more effective in partnering with people when they know you understand their point of view, even if you disagree with it.

For me, being able to let go of needing to be liked and the insecurity that comes with that was key. I no longer focus on whether people like me, I focus on being honest and transparent and straightforward and respectful. My goal is no longer to get you to like me; it’s to partner with you so that we can accomplish something worthwhile.

Q. Do you have a personal motto or a guiding principle that you can share with us?

My new motto is “grow or die.” Those are the choices. You can’t stand still, so embrace chaos. It’s a very challenging time to be a law school dean. But it’s also really exciting because you can make a meaningful difference. And I am learning new things about myself and learning how to do new things every day and I just love that. I also like being an example to my daughters. I say to them, “I worry that I might fail, but I’m going do it and I want you to remember that, because I don’t want you to play it safe in your life.”

Rachel Flaschner and Verity Van Tassel Richards were associates in Debevoise’s New York office and are now alumnae of the firm.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.