New UIC Law dean eager to build on mission of access, opportunity
Nicky Boothe, a legal academic, experienced litigator and leader in legal education, officially started as dean of the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law June 16.
Before coming to UIC, Boothe was a tenured professor of law at Florida A&M University College of Law, where she taught since 2006 and held several leadership roles, including interim dean and associate dean for academic affairs. She also was a key developer of the college’s Guardian Ad Litem Clinic. During the 2021-22 academic year, she was a visiting professor of law at Boston University School of Law.
Boothe, who was a defense litigator before joining the FAMU faculty, has established herself as a nationally recognized leader in the field of ethics and professionalism in law. Her scholarship addresses issues of legal professionalism and ethics, social media and human trafficking, and her work has been widely published.
Her legal education career includes a proven commitment to antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion, student well-being and community service.
In a Q&A with UIC today, Boothe addressed a variety of topics and shared her vision for the school.
Where did you grow up? What made you want to study law?
I was born in Jamaica to parents who were both very active in the community and who regularly took my sister and me on their frequent excursions. As a result, I was exposed to informal debates on everything from politics to sports and fashion at an early age. My upbringing instilled a lifelong commitment to serve and be engaged with my community.
When I was 13 years old, my family migrated to the United States in part to escape political oppression on the island during that time, but also to provide greater educational and professional opportunities for the family. We lived in New York, and for the first time in my life, I was keenly aware of the emphasis society placed on the very things that make us all so unique and special. I was surprised and saddened by both blatant and covert racism and cultural discrimination. And I was confused by the apparent inequalities in accessing opportunities, which seemed to be grounded in irrational bases, such as an individual’s race, and not related to merit.
Those experiences, coupled with my desire to serve, stirred a passion to advocate for equal rights and equitable access to opportunities for all people. The natural course for me to accomplish this goal was to study law. Although my first law practice experiences involved representation of Fortune 500 companies, I never lost the desire to positively impact the lives of others through service. This led me to legal academia.
You were a defense litigator for almost a decade. Tells us about that experience and how it informs your work in legal education?
It provided me with rich practical skills training that I have been and remain always willing to share with the next generation of lawyers. Having been a practicing lawyer, I am keenly aware of the need for graduating law students to possess the necessary skills to be practice-ready and meet the legal demands of society. UIC Law’s commitment to preparing tomorrow’s change-makers with the knowledge, skills, experience and values to change lives was one of the key reasons I answered the call to serve as dean.
My years of practice also made me deeply aware of the need for professionalism in the legal field, and the need to maintain one’s well-being in a demanding profession. These experiences guided my teaching, my scholarship and my service and continue to inform the work I do in legal education to provide support and resources for students to be successful both personally and professionally.
You are considered a leader in the field of ethics and professionalism in law. What does it mean to be ‘professional’ in the legal field?
Lawyers are required to adhere to enumerated ethical rules of professional responsibility, violation of which can subject the lawyer to discipline, including possible disbarment. These rules are the baseline of a lawyer’s expected behavior. There are however additional aspirational standards that lawyers should strive for daily to be a true legal “professional.”
A professional lawyer should seek to possess attitudes and behaviors that supersede self-interest, serve to enhance public opinion and trust, adhere to high ethical and moral standards, and aspire daily to a commitment of excellence in one’s personal and professional life. It encompasses a lawyer’s comportment, demeanor, behavior and conduct within and outside of the boundaries of legal practice, and above and beyond that which is required by ethical rules.
You’ve traded in Florida’s climate for Chicago’s erratic weather. What appealed to you about UIC and the deanship with the School of Law?
At this stage in my career, it is increasingly important that I make a positive impact on the lives of others. UIC and the School of Law presented an unparalleled opportunity to do so in alignment with my core values. UIC Law has a storied history and continuing mission of providing access and opportunity to a legal education. This mission of access and opportunity aligns with my aspirations to actuate change. In addition, UIC Law is on a unique trajectory in its history. The transition from being a stand-alone private law school to now being a unit within a public, prestigious R1 institution provides a unique set of challenges, but also a plethora of opportunities.
I traded in Florida’s warm winters and erratic hurricane season for the pleasant summers and erratic winter weather of Chicago in part due to the appeal of the city of Chicago: its history, its culture and the beauty of its landscape. But the main reason I ‘made the trade’ is because I saw the opportunity to make a significant contribution to an outstanding institution, and to legal academia and the profession more broadly. My years of experience in legal academia and leadership roles in a law school at a public land-grant university have provided me with a distinctive set of skills to lead UIC Law as it honors its history while embracing the benefits of its present and continues to excel in its future.
Serving as UIC Law’s dean allows me to use my cultural competence, practice experience, academic experience and administrative experience to partner with all constituents to build on the existing distinguished foundation of the law school. The inconvenience of multiple layers of clothes to survive the Chicago weather cannot compete with the incredible opportunity to serve UIC as the dean of its law school.
What are your plans for the coming year, and what is your overall vision for the School of Law?
COVID-19 impacted us individually and collectively in a myriad of ways. It siloed us and put a wedge in our sense of community. Legal education has not been immune to these changes. Therefore, the priorities for the law school in the upcoming year are to rebuild the sense of community, create a safe learning environment, and provide support and resources conducive to student success. Student success is at the core of everything that we do at UIC Law. We have an excellent faculty and committed staff. Together, we will create a diverse, equitable and collaborative community operating with transparency and trustworthiness to ensure student success. Success in the classroom and on the bar examination, and success in their post-law school careers. We will focus on student and community well-being, stay true to our mission of access and opportunity, and be an exemplar for not just having diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, but being intentional and actionable towards achieving true DEI both in the law school and in the legal community more broadly. Throughout the year, we will encourage active community engagement, robust alumni involvement and increased fundraising efforts.
My overall vision for the school is that it will grow its national stature and rankings by being a beacon of progress for legal academia, the City of Chicago, the state of Illinois and beyond. UIC Law will continue to be known for producing outstanding graduates who are equipped to meet the demands of an increasingly complex and diverse society.
It has been a historic few years involving changes to and challenges of American and state laws. How does this impact legal education?
These are uncertain economic times and an anxious emotional environment. Recent significant court decisions, political unrest, challenges to national and state laws, a long-overdue reckoning with racial and societal injustices, and an overwhelmed health care system have compounded to shake the very foundation of our country. Basic civil and human rights of people have come under attack and society in many aspects seems to be regressing. A change is necessary to meet this moment in time, and lawyers as change agents are critical. Legal education is therefore directly impacted. How we prepare the next generation of lawyers must be guided by the societal challenges we are experiencing.
Legal academia must remain nimble to weather the ever-evolving legal landscape and other threats to legal education, and to anticipate and prepare for the changes to come. In addition to the pedagogical learning process, our law students must be provided with the tools to be innovative in a process of lifelong learning that demands a more global perspective, and skills such as cultural competency, bias training and well-being initiatives to successfully navigate the legal profession and deliver legal services in a manner that meets the holistic needs of society. There is heightened accountability from the marketplace, and it is legal education’s job to ensure that graduates are prepared to meet and exceed the demands of society.
If and when you have free time, what are some of your hobbies and favorite activities?
Time is never free. I believe that we have to be intentional about how we utilize every second of every day, as each is truly a gift. I have lived and witnessed the adages of ‘tomorrow is not promised’ and ‘here today, gone tomorrow.’ That is why I make time for things that are important to me. As important as the success of my faculty, staff, students and alumni are, my family and self-care are just as, if not more important. After all, if I am not well, my ability to help others will be diminished.
I practice and teach mindfulness regularly, and I steadfastly spend quality time with my children and extended family members. I work hard, but I also play, or relax, hard. I love to travel, especially anywhere there is a large body of water. Lake Michigan has welcomed me! The water reminds me of the vastness of the world and puts any challenges and worries in perspective.
I started dance lessons at the age of 3 and participated in organized dance throughout my collegiate career and up until a few years ago, when an accident sidelined me. Nevertheless, I continue to have a passion for dance and the arts. I love attending sporting events and car shows, and watching rom-coms, home improvement shows and mindless reality television. I’m also thankful that the pandemic provided a platform for me to stay engaged and to virtually serve both my church and my sorority.