L. Song Richardson, UCI Law School’s new dean since January 2018, is the only woman of color to be leading a top 25 law school. UCI Law School is currently ranked 21st in the nation for 2019 by the US News Rankings, which is an increase of seven compared to being ranked 28th in the 2018 report.
The Law School’s former dean Erwin Chemerinsky left UCI after accepting a position as the dean of UC Berkeley’s law school. Richardson was appointed interim dean and eventually dean.
“Women across every profession, or even more than professional, women just across multiple different areas inspire me. And so I don’t think of myself as being the only woman of color to lead a top-21 school,” said Richardson. “But to the extent that, me holding this position now can inspire other girls and women to do what they want, and to lead their passion, to never think that anything will stand in their way — if me being in this position helps others, then and that’s all that I could possibly ask for.”
Richardson explained that she always tells hers students to “just say yes when amazing opportunities happen.”
She didn’t have a set idea about where she would be now, but explained that the important part for her when she reflects on how she “ended up here was just about taking advantage of incredible opportunities that were presented to [her] throughout [her] life.”
Richardson’s mother raised her “very much steeped in the Korean culture” and “one of the most important things [to her mother was] that she wanted all three of her children to be musicians.”
Growing up, Richardson lived out a lot of the passions that her mother had for her, and developed her own passions in college.
“College for me was really trying to figure out what things I liked to do. That really just entailed me trying a lot of different things and trying to push my own boundaries and learn what the outside world was like,” said Richardson.
While in college, Richardson decided to apply to an internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
“That’s what triggered my passion for the law because I was working with lawyers in areas related to race and discrimination,” she said, “My parents had always sheltered me from all of that, so it was my first real exposure to see just how much racism and discrimination could influence people in ways that you weren’t even aware of.”
“That just opened my eyes to a world that my parents had sheltered me from, and I just became very passionate about issues related to race. That’s what led me to law school, and it was still a passion in law school and for everything I did after that.”
Richardson holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University and a law degree from Yale University. She has worked as a partner in a criminal law firm, as a state and federal public defender in Seattle and as an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She came to UCI in 2014 from the University of Iowa and previously held law professorships at DePaul University and American University. Richardson and Chemerinsky both began their careers at DePaul University.
Richardson is an expert in criminal law and criminal procedure, with a focus on implicit racial and gender bias.
“Most of my work is on the issue of race and policing — that’s my primary area. And it’s interdisciplinary in that I use a lot of social psychology, like unconscious racial bias and unconscious gender bias to think about the law,” said Richardson. “I was a psychology major in undergrad, so I would read [articles related to unconscious biases] anyway. Psychology has always been something that I’ve loved, and so being able to read that not only for fun but also for my research is really rewarding.”
While at the University of Iowa, Richardson did some of what she believes is her most interesting work related to race and policing. But, it was also there that it became her dream to come the UCI Law School to teach.
“The (UCI) law school had everything that I had always wanted to have in a law school. They were truly interdisciplinary, they were at the cutting edge of legal education, they were thinking about the future, and I really wanted to be here,” Richardson said.
“And so when I got the call saying ‘Hey, why don’t you come interview,’ it was as if all of my dreams had really come true. To be at this school with [Chemerinsky] as the Dean, and the incredible faculty that they had here, it was everything that I wanted. I think the career that I had and the opportunities at the other great schools at which I taught all prepared me to be ready to take advantage of this opportunity when it presented itself.”
Although Richardson is the dean now, she didn’t ever consider that she would be in the position she is in today.
“Chemerinsky, who is an incredible Dean and mentor and friend…for about a year before we knew he was leaving, would always talk to me about how much he enjoyed being Dean, and how he thought I would make a good Dean,” said Richardson.
“It was never something I thought that I wanted to do. And so, when he would say that it would always make me laugh. It was just not in the realm of anything I ever sought to do or ever thought I wanted to do.”
Richardson was not expecting or prepared for the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of UC Irvine Enrique Lavernia to call her to offer her the interim deanship.
“But, eventually, I started thinking back to all the things I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do, each one of them wasn’t ever something that I had planned on, and yet when the opportunities presented themselves to me I said ‘yes’,” said Richardson.
“I eventually decided to do it, and the next thing you know I’m sitting here in front of you as the Dean. That’s certainly not something… I had planned for the beginning of my career.”
“Now I’m just so happy to be here because it’s just an incredible school. I have amazing colleagues and the students are incredible. So all of these opportunities that I now have to think about the future of the law school and where we can continue to go and excel in are reasons why I’m happy that I’m here,” said Richardson.
The transition from being interim dean to the permanent dean has given Richardson more authority to implement changes and plans for the school.
“Just by virtue of being in an interim role there are certain things that you can imagine that you want to do, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do. So, if, for instance, things like our strategic planning, which is what we’re going to be doing now, because I am the permanent Dean. There were lots of things I had been thinking about for the law school’s future, but I also knew didn’t make sense to to really implement major changes when I was the interim,” said Richardson.
Richardson views the primary duty of a Dean as the caretaker. She wants to make sure that the students, staff, and senior administrative can achieve what they dreamed could be achieved when the law school was first formed.
“So what is it that we can continue to excel at? How can we continue to surprise people at the amazing things that we were able to do because we are new and innovative and entrepreneurial,” said Richardson.
Richardson wants to continue the law school’s public service mission while maintaining the collaborative and supportive culture within the school. She also wants to expand the public service mission by engaging more with the business community that exists in the Orange County.
“I think I want to continue to achieve the impossible is way I think about it. No one believed that we should start a new law school and create the incredible law school that we have now… Our public service mission is an incredibly important aspect of our culture here and a lot of the reason why many of the students and the faculty came here, but on top of that our culture is incredibly collaborative and supportive of each other and that’s something I think is critical to the success of any organization,” said Richardson.
Richardson also wants to expand what is meant by public service. Most people think that it is limited to public interest, but she feels it should be to broadened to giving back to the community.
“I think expanding what we mean by public service — to say that when you come to UCI no matter what it is that you do when you graduate you have a commitment to giving back to the communities that have already given back to you. So that is part of our mission is continue to attract students who believe in that and who will continue to do that after they graduate.”
Now Richardson wants to focus on preparing for the next 10 years. She wants to work on what to continue to teach students and what improvements and updates are needed.
“[We want to] prepare [students] to be ready for what the legal profession will be in the future, because it’s changing very quickly. We are the school that is perfectly placed to figure out what is it that our students need from us to prepare them for the new legal profession that they’ll be entering,” said Richardson.
“I think what makes us perfectly positioned to prepare our students for [technological advancements] is the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, we created ourselves to serve our students and to prepare them for the future that they’ll be entering. And unlike other law schools, who are really much more set in their ways, just because they’ve been around for so much longer, we’re just nimble and new and ready to make those changes happen with in our curriculum so that we can prepare our students to keep being practice ready when they when they graduate,” said Richardson.
“What makes us unique as an entire institution is that we all came here because we’re strategic risk takers. When the faculty first came here it was an unranked school — they were coming from highly ranked schools elsewhere. It was a strategic risk, because they knew that we could be successful, if we all worked together and had that dream in mind. And that’s part of what attracted me to this place.”