PUBLISHED:July 24, 2008

Frank Read '63: Defending the profession

After 40 years as a law professor — 29 of them as a dean at five different law schools — Frank “Tom” Read is retiring this summer. Although he still enjoys teaching his core subjects of evidence, professional responsibility, and torts, he says that it’s time to make good on his long-standing complaint about the “graying” of the legal academy. “Bright young people need to get in with new ideas to refresh the ranks of our law schools,” says Read, who is on the faculty of the South Texas College of Law, where he previously served as president and dean.

Read may be heading into retirement willingly, but he’s not going quietly. His new book, The Lawyer Myth, co-authored with Rennard Strickland, professor and dean emeritus at the University of Oregon School of Law, is an exhaustive yet accessible explanation of the key role lawyers, juries, and judges play in modern American life.

The book started out as a “rant,” Read says, set off by the lawyer jokes he and Strickland heard flying around at a national meeting of law school deans. They decided the self-deprecating humor was just one manifestation of a widespread and undeserved disregard for the legal profession. “If we can’t defend the profession, who else will make the case to the general public that lawyers are essential to this democracy?” asks Read, who has also served as president of the Law School Admissions Council, chairman of the board of Law Access, Inc., and in leadership posts in the American Bar Association.

Their “case” is targeted at a number of specific audiences, among them prospective law students and lawyers “who need a pat on the back and a reminder of what their larger role is,” explains Read. Lawyers help keep social change peaceful, facilitate compromise, and keep the public informed, he says. “Since World War II [American] society, more than any in recorded history, has suffered monumental change. And on both sides [of any proposal for change] lawyers provide the grease that keeps things from erupting into the violence or insurrection that epitomizes other societies.”

The classic example he offers is Brown v. Board of Education, once a focus of his legal scholarship. The NAACP team of lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall emerged as heroes, as did the judges who ensured the Supreme Court’s judgment was carried out in the Deep South. “There were some violent protests and lynchings, and it took a long time,” says Read. “But no society, as I know it, has had a change that has been as deeply resented by some and so aggressively pushed by others that, nevertheless, has been handled as peacefully and as successfully.”

In their book, Read and Strickland take on “myths” about lawyers and law — that juries are out of control, there are too many lawyers, and there are no more legal heroes. Their starting point is the story of two lawyers in Kokomo, Ind., who in the early 1980s took on the case of Ryan White, who had been expelled from school because he had AIDS. “It’s a stunning story,” says Read. “Two small-town lawyers changed the views of a whole country towards kids with AIDS. When people say there are no more heroes, we want them to know they’re there.”

A life member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors, Read also launched his academic career at Duke. While practicing on Wall Street in the late 1960s, he was recruited by former Dean F. Hodge O’Neal to join the faculty and serve as assistant dean. Read returned to Duke in July 1968 — after O’Neal had stepped down as dean and prior to the arrival of A. Kenneth Pye, his successor. Read says both men became friends and mentors, offering key advice as he started his first deanship at age 34.

O’Neal’s advice, “delivered with great good humor in a deep Southern drawl,” concerned the need for a dean to bring people together and create a common sense of enterprise, Read says. “Ken Pye taught me everything I know about administration, good and bad. He had two rules: ‘Take nothing personally,’ because the dean gets blamed for everything, and ‘never retaliate.’ You might have to impose order and discipline in some cases, but never do it disproportionately to the ‘particular sin’ you’re dealing with. That advice stayed with me through all my deanships.” (In 2003 Read was honored with the Law Alumni Association’s A. Kenneth Pye Award recognizing his contributions to the field of legal education.)

Having served as dean at law schools both big and small — at the universities of Florida, California-Hastings, Tulsa, and Indiana-Indianapolis, in addition to South Texas, where he holds the title president and dean emeritus — Read estimates that he’s helped train as many as 20,000 lawyers in his career. “Students taught me to keep a sense of humor and, occasionally, a bit of pride and humility,” he says. His interaction with students also has convinced him that tomorrow’s legal professionals will continue to be a source of “heroes.”

“More than most graduate-level students, they are morally centered, deeply committed, idealistic, hard-working, and do a really good job of living their lives in a higher sense.”