Richard D. Freer

The manifest dean

Dean Richard D. Freer

After 41 years on the faculty at Emory University School of Law, Richard D. Freer officially became the dean on July 1.

Emory has been my entire professional life.

“I know this is not the typical career path,” he said candidly, “but I’m honored to be here, and if I can give back during this five-year term, I’m happy to do it.”

Freer has been honored eleven times as Most Outstanding Professor at Emory Law, including by the Class of 2024. He is active in advising and committee roles outside the classroom. He has been working quietly on his plans since the announcement of his deanship last November, and his day-to-day life will change dramatically as he steps fully into the role. “Next year I will not teach, and that breaks my heart, confessed Freer. “Every year I get older, but my students don’t. They’re young and excited. It’s energizing. To see them grow through the years as lawyers and people, and to maintain friendships with them, is a blessing. Many are reaching retirement age, but I still consider them my students.”

That his students energize him is evident. Freer is warm, quick to laugh, and establishes an almost instant rapport in conversation. He is a Californian, and perhaps that explains his easygoing manner. “[My wife] Louise and I have had opportunities to go back to California. Louise said, ‘It’s just not home anymore.’ Not just that Atlanta is home; Emory is home. This is where we’ve invested,” said Freer.

The investment will be paying off for Emory Law. Freer has worked with the school’s faculty, students, alumni, curriculum, and operations for four decades, and he believes the key to the law school's future success is embedded in the people who comprise the school, Freer says. “I look forward to emphasizing a team focus,” said Freer, “and to ensuring that those on the team have the support they need to thrive. And I get to trumpet the accomplishments of our faculty, students, alumni, and staff. And yes, this team is full of incredible people.”

He lauds outgoing dean, Mary Anne Bobinski, and recognizes her leadership in difficult times. “She has dealt with the pandemic, a generational turnover on faculty, and yet has been able to hire fabulous new faculty members. She’s done a great job,” said Freer. During his time at Emory, he has worked with ten deans and interim deans, some recruited internally and others externally. “There are just different times in the life of the law school where maybe you spend energy in different directions,” he said.

Freer calls for a people-focused approach to mold a strong faculty culture, help students flourish, and engage alumni. He has a reputation for making time and listening—ensuring that every member of the law school—past and present—is recognized, heard, and involved. Relationships are the key to breaking down silos and underlie a holistic set of goals. His priorities are not ranked but, rather, are being approached with the understanding that positive change in the faculty begets positive change in the students who become even more engaged alumni.

Faculty team-building

I will always have their back.

When Freer joined Emory Law, its faculty was in a similar state of turnover with retirements and new hires. “The law school was on the move, and that’s why I chose it over other schools,” he said. There was an eagerness to build a new culture and to know one another as scholars and people. That feeling is still here, the dean believes, but can be strengthened, particularly with the successful recent hiring of new faculty members.

“I want us to spend more time with each other. This is how you build a team. We’re going to have a more inward focus at the outset. I want us together to talk widely about scholarship, collaboration, pedagogy, and to brainstorm as a group,” Freer said. “We have fabulous scholars and teachers on this faculty; I want us to know each other as people. We are also going to be avid in celebrating scholarship, teaching, and service.”

Longtime colleague John Witte Jr., Woodruff Professor of Law and faculty director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, reflects on the new dean’s talent for connecting people. “He is a highly respected member of the law school faculty who gets things done effectively and efficiently. He places a high premium on scholarly excellence, professionalism, community-building, fairness, and faculty service to students, alumni, the bench, the bar, and the business, and health and service professionals of the city and region. And he brings diverse people together in all manner of formal and informal ways,” said Witte.

Ani B. Satz, professor of law and public health, has worked with Freer for two decades. “When I first arrived at Emory Law, I had an office without much light,” said Satz. “Rich Freer bought me a lamp.” She looks forward to his leadership and underscores the dean’s ability to build community. “Over the last 20 years, I have witnessed Rich’s persistent dedication to the faculty community, students, and scholarly excellence. Having taught large classes at Emory and more than 500,000 BARBRI bar candidates nationwide as well as being active in the local bar, Rich is poised to inform and enhance the student experience and to build alumni connections.”

Freer praises the faculty’s scholarly impact. “My colleagues are active and productive; they have built Emory’s reputation as a leading scholarly hub, a reputation we will continue to build.” At the same time, the faculty is dedicated to student success. “Faculty can disagree on this or that, but when it comes to the quality of education and the student experience, it is ‘all hands on deck.’” 

Student flourishing

Flourishing is a long-term investment.

Freer is quite clear on this point: “Student flourishing is not the same as happiness. There are days in law school, as in life generally, when we are not happy.” Flourishing is about digging in, working hard, and being prepared to serve a client. “Law school is not college. From the first day, it is a professional school. You have chosen a profession, and it is all about service,” he said.

Flourishing happens in real time, though it is most evident in retrospect. It is about being prepared, supported, and guided. When students look back on their time in law school, they should see exactly how it prepared them for their jobs. “We’re putting together a first-year course that expands orientation to give students the skill set they need to start law school. We set expectations, and we will never expect something of you for which we do not give you the skill set,” said Freer. His decades in the classroom have shown him what skills students need in law school: how to prepare for class, how to take notes, and how to review for exams. “It’s a different learning experience from college,” he said. “You read raw materials, you read case law, statutes, regulations. The classroom is interactive and participatory, and 100 percent of the grade is on the final exam.” He lets the last part land, and, with his trade-mark good humor, laughs. “Gee, that’s a Pepto Bismol moment!”

The law school skill set must take the student beyond exams, of course. In his second year, he plans to do an honest, heavy lift on curriculum—something that has not been done in 15 years. Is the current curriculum still serving lawyers in this decade? The next decade? Does it anticipate the changes coming with artificial intelligence? And does it reflect changes to the bar and changes in law practice? “If law schools need to be emphasizing different skills, let’s be ahead of the curve,” said Freer.

In addition to seeking insights from law offices and general counsels about what skills they are looking for in young lawyers, Freer is also engaging at the student level to learn where they want to take their skills.

Freer is “one of the most student-focused faculty members,” said Olivia Davis 25L. “His leadership style is about serving the student population and ensuring everyone has a seat at the table and adequate representation,” said Davis.

A student feels ownership over his or her path when advised well and matched with a mentor whose career can illuminate the path forward. Emory Law has a huge pool of alumni willing to mentor law students; in fact, mentoring is one of the primary ways that alumni stay engaged. But what positive change might come if law students themselves took a more active role as mentors? This is something Freer is committed to.

Alumni engagement

I could not be prouder of our alumni; we need their continued engagement.

“We do mentorship well at a lot of levels,” said the incoming dean. “I want us to get this pulled together in a more coordinated way. I think of it as a pipeline.” All first years will get a mentor from among the second- and third-year law students who know the ropes. “Because of our selfless alumni, any student who wants an alumni mentor can have one. There’s so much activity here,” he said. “From your first day of law school and well into your career, you’ll have a mentor, and then you will become one.”

He envisions a pipeline that makes mentors of first years, too. Freer plans to host open houses for undergraduates from Emory and other local colleges. “We want to tell them about law school, and first years will mentor undergraduates in this process,” explained Freer. “As a 1L, you have information that’s valuable to these undergraduates.” Furthermore, playing a mentoring role gets people involved. “Maybe some of these undergraduates will come to Emory Law, but either way, they will learn about the law school experience from Emory students and professors.”

Emily Baker 98C 01L, a partner at Jones Day, has stayed connected to Emory and is counted among the highly engaged alumni. “It’s hard to imagine anyone who has inspired more Emory lawyers or knows what Emory Law has to offer better than Professor Freer,” said Baker. “His commitment to this community runs deep, and the future is bright for Emory Law under his leadership as dean.”

For alumni who have fallen out of the pipeline, Freer insists that they are still making valuable contributions to the school. “By being a consummate professional—a sophisticated, principled lawyer—you are reflecting glory on us,” he said. That is giving back. 

A second term?

His five-year plan is mapped out, but there is enough work to fill a decade—or more.

“My friends ask me why I haven’t retired,” laughed Freer. “But I am having too much fun to leave. God willing, I have five years in this term. I’ll do the best I can. I want to build collaboratively, work strategically, and put the school in position to move higher and higher.” He recognizes retirement as an eventual theoretical possibility. “Tennis, writing, piano, travel are all great, but we have work to do. There’s time to think about later, later.”

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