A Tribute to Dan Bernstine

Late last week, legal education lost an icon.  Dan Bernstine, president of the Law School Admission Council and member of the LSSSE Advisory Board, passed away at the age of 69.  Over the course of his illustrious career, Dan did it all.  He was a lawyer, a law professor, a law school dean, a university president, and president of LSAC – a position I sometimes call “master of the law admissions universe.”

Unsurprisingly, many tributes discussing Dan’s impact on the people and institutions he encountered have been written over the last few days.  I found the recollections of people who date back to his tenure as president of Portland State University to be particularly telling, given that he left that position almost ten years ago (to join LSAC).  Good people are unforgettable. Dan was such a person.  And while I could walk through Dan’s impressive biography, I really want to reflect on the impact he had on me.

I began my career in legal education in 2002 – and it was not long before I heard Dan’s name for the first time.  This was years before I would actually meet him; a colleague of mine, who was acquainted with him from his time at Howard University, felt that he was someone whom I should seek to emulate in my career.  Needless to say, I was very excited when he became LSAC president about five years later.

My first interaction with him would not come until 2009, when he attended a meeting for an LSAC committee on which I was serving.  I must admit, I was a bit awe-struck.  I had been hearing and reading about him for years.  I couldn’t help but assign a level of heightened significance to that first encounter.  But Dan’s approachable, unpretentious demeanor immediately took the edge off.  We didn’t talk much that day.  But I did take the opportunity to ask for his permission to email him about a career move I was considering at the time.  When I followed up, he actually responded – quickly, I might add (recommending that I not pursue the particular course).   I would have many interactions with Dan over the years.  He was one of the first people I contacted as I sought the opportunity to serve as director of LSSSE.  As always, he was willing to share his time and his insights.  As always, I followed his advice.  It always made sense.

In his role as an advisory board member, Dan was highly supportive of LSSSE’s mission.  For example, he readily agreed to have LSAC serve as co-sponsor of LSSSE’s first symposium, which centered on legal education assessment.  This sponsorship quite literally made the event possible.  At our annual board meetings, he was a source of sound perspective.

If I had to pick one word to describe the impact that Dan had on me, it would be “inspiring.”  It was inspiring to see a man – a black man – ascend to the highest levels of higher education administration.  It was inspiring to observe how he treated people, how he was always approachable, and always willing to share his insights and experiences.  Dan owed me nothing.  There was nothing I could even give him.  Yet, he treated me with a level of openness that profoundly reflected who he was as a person.

There’s an old saying about giving people their “flowers” while they are still living.  The premise is that it is best to tell people how much you appreciate them while they are around to hear it, as opposed to regretting not having done so once they pass away.  I missed that opportunity with Dan.  While I was always effusive in expressing my appreciation of his time and support, I never shared with him the extent to which he inspired me to be excellent, to dream big, and to do good.  For that, I am regretful.  All I can do now is try to live by the example he set.  That strikes me as a wonderful tribute to a life that is truly worthy of emulation.

Thanks, Dan.

Dr. Aaron N. Taylor