Dean Simons Strives to Foster Diverse Community at SJU

 St. John’s School of Law Dean Michael Simons often joins students at community-building events. Photo courtesy of Michael Simons.

St. John’s School of Law Dean Michael Simons often joins students at community-building events. Photo courtesy of Michael Simons.

By David Brand

If there’s a St. John’s School of Law event, there’s a good chance Dean Michael Simons will be there, posing for selfies and fostering community among students and staff.

“In my view, one of the key parts of leadership is creating a community,” Simons said. “Our students will do their best when they feel supported and a big part of that is feeling like they’re part of the community.”

Simons said he considers St. John’s Law School to be a “local law school in the World’s City,” which means the school promotes an inclusive culture that reflects its hometown while preparing students for careers around the world.

“Diversity and inclusion is a core value for St. John’s and that goes back to our founding” in 1925, Simons said. “That’s the culture we try to actively create from the very first day of orientation all through graduation and studying for the bar.”

In late-November, Simons joined a cohort of students who had just passed the bar exam for a celebration. It’s one of many such gatherings that demonstrates how the Red Storm community persists even after freshly minted lawyers embark on their new careers.

Prominent SJU Law alumni include several prosecutors in the Queens District Attorney’s office and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. The school also trains students for careers elsewhere in the U.S. and the world and attracts scores of foreign attorneys.

St. John’s Law has also focused on attracting students who reflect the diverse races, ethnicities, income levels and experiences of Queens.

“The school was founded in large part to provide opportunities to recent immigrants and the children of recent immigrants who were being shut out of other law schools,” Simons said.

SJU still has work to do to diversify its student body, but it has become more equitable in recent years. The schools has attracted more women and people of color while providing more scholarships to low-income students.

The current crop of 289 1L students range in age from 20 to 50 and about 53 percent are women. More than 30 of are first-generation Americans, 24 students were born outside of the United States and 27 percent are students of color, the school reported in August.

“You are cancer survivors and environmental activists, dancers and athletes, teachers and technologists,” Simons said at the August convocation. “You have worked with refugees and sexual assault victims. You have started businesses and raised children.”

Simons said the school strives to uphold the tenets of the Order of St. Vincent, on which the university was founded.

“The Vincentian Mission is serving the poor,” he said. “Law is power and the license to practice law gives lawyers a particular and important power in our society. For that power to be wielded in a just and fair way, lawyers and legal profession have to look like Americans.”

To achieve that, SJU Law runs 12 clínics that enable law students to work with low-income clients.

“Practical skills training is very important and much of that takes place in the field,” Simons said. “That experience of directly helping the poor is also important for students to help them be more effective lawyers and it’s part of our mission.”