People - September 2005

Davis is dean of N.C. law-school startups
By Frank Maley

It’s time for Leary Davis to move on, time to pay the price for what he considers one of his weaknesses. “I’ve got a quarter-century worth of boxes that I have put stuff in that I was going to look at later.” He’s clearing out his office at Campbell University in Buies Creek and heading to Greensboro to start Elon University’s law school. For the next year, he’ll be recruiting faculty and students, refining the curriculum, renovating a building and whatever else is needed to open on schedule with about 100 students in the fall of 2006.

It’s rare that anyone gets a chance to start a law school. There are only five in the state. When Elon’s opens, he’ll have started two. The novelty of the assignment was one reason Davis agreed to start Campbell’s in 1976. He was getting along just fine practicing law, mostly representing small businesses, in his hometown of Zebulon, where he had been since getting his law degree from Wake Forest University in 1967. “I really don’t think any-body enjoyed practicing law any more than I did.”

Working a case in Harnett County in 1975, he stopped by Campbell to visit his brother, a student. Instead, he saw Campbell President Norman Wiggins, who had been one of his Wake Forest professors. Wiggins had consulted him about the proposed law school. This time, they started talking about who should head it. Wiggins offered him the job. Reluctantly, Davis said yes. “I assumed — incorrectly, it turned out — that would never happen again.” He built a curriculum that focuses not only on the law but how to practice it. Campbell’s trial-advocacy program, which requires students to try and appeal simulated cases, was one of the first of its kind, winning an award from the American College of Trial Lawyers. Another course teaches students how to run a law office.

“I think at that time people felt, well, gee, if you do this, you’re going to water down the academic side of law. And that’s not the case. There’s a synergy there. When you get a chance to apply what you know, it tends to make more sense.” Stepping down as dean in 1986, he stayed on as a professor. At Elon, he hopes to build on what he learned at Campbell. He has more to work with than he did when starting Campbell’s law school — a free building and $10 million to renovate it, buy library books and meet operating costs.

He wants to turn out lawyers who know the law, have good practice skills and can overcome self-defeating personality traits that lessen their effectiveness. And, at 63, Davis even aspires to change himself. In Greensboro, he vows, he’s going to do better at dealing with paperwork and avoiding clutter. “A lot of that is just time management. I teach that stuff, and so I’m going to try to practice more of it.”