Minnesota Law

Summer 2023
Raising the Bar

Alumni Q&A: Neil Fulton ’97, Dean of the University of South Dakota Law School

Dean Neil Fulton ’97

University of South Dakota Law School dean Neil Fulton graduated summa cum laude from Minnesota Law in 1997. He later served as a law clerk for Judge Diana Murphy of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

After a spell in the South Dakota governor’s office, Fulton was chosen by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals as federal public defender for North Dakota and South Dakota. Among other achievements, he has testified before the United States Sentencing Commission about tribal sentencing issues, violent offenses and child pornography.

He recently took the time to answer some questions about the current state of law schools. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges/ opportunities for law schools today?

I think the two biggest challenges facing law schools today are a lot of change at once and demographic trends. 

With migration to the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ NextGen Bar, possible test optional admissions, responding to ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence -- and ongoing evolution of the delivery of legal services -- there is a lot changing at once. 

Change requires thought, discussion, and collective action to respond to, and that all takes time and energy, both limited commodities for already busy faculty. Also, most parts of the country are facing a projected decade of decline in college matriculants. Fewer college students might mean fewer law students. That is a challenge.

I think that the biggest opportunity is that these challenges will force law schools to thoughtfully evaluate their identity and culture to make decisions about who they are, what they do, and how they do it. It is entirely possible that some schools aren’t here in five to 10 years. It is my hope that most or all of us that remain are stronger as a result of the process of responding to these challenges.

How did your time at Minnesota Law prepare you for a law school leadership role?

First, it exposed me to some excellent role models of legal teaching, scholarship, and leadership. I think about the example of Dean Sullivan -- to always be thoughtful, courteous, and optimistic daily. I think of ways my faculty were great teachers and writers. Second, it provided an excellent education that has gotten me here and that I’ve spent my entire career building from.

Enthusiasm and optimism for the law and legal education are invaluable. I love being a lawyer, and I am excited about all the things lawyers can do to shape our world for the better. When the dean is running enthusiastically toward the future and inviting others to come along, the community they serve will be excited about and committed to the hard work of running along.

Minnesota Law is about to embark on a search for a new permanent dean. What qualities do you think are most crucial for a law dean to have?

I think authenticity and self-awareness are imperative for a dean. We all do some similar tasks as deans, but we all, ideally, do them a bit individually -- and I think that’s a good thing. The dean has to have the foundation of knowing who they are and what they believe -- and an honest command of their strengths and weaknesses.

What advice would you offer to a law student today?

First, go to law school. Lawyers shape our world in courtrooms, corporate boardrooms, government committee rooms, and the other rooms where key decisions get made. It is important that we have great lawyers in all those places facilitating good decisions. The work is infinitely enjoyable and rewarding. 

Second, pick a law school that fits you. Rankings are ridiculous and only tell so much of any school’s story. Ask yourself what you want from law school when it comes to culture, cost, community, and curriculum, and find a good match. 

Third, embrace your time in law school. It will be difficult at times, but important things are difficult. But it will be fantastic. You’ll make friends for life, develop skills that will open doors, and begin thinking about fascinating questions that you’ll wrestle with for years. The experience of law school is magical, so remember that and embrace that time with joy.