Legal Education

Meet Jennifer Rosato Perea, who'll lead ABA accreditation and legal ed as managing director

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Jennifer L. Rosato Perea will be the first Latina woman to hold the post of managing director for accreditation and legal education at the ABA. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

As a marathon runner, Jennifer L. Rosato Perea is used to both considering the long run and taking things one step at a time.

It’s the mindset she’s bringing into her new role as managing director for accreditation and legal education at the ABA, just as hot-button issues are hitting the docket of the council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. She starts June 1.

Rosato Perea has had her eye on the ABA job for a while, seeing it as an option following 16 years of service as a law school dean.

“I know the standards intimately well,” she says. “I believe in the standards. I believe in accreditation and how it helps law schools become better.”

Stepping down as dean of DePaul University College of Law, she comes to the ABA job as contentious issues such as academic freedom; accrediting online law schools; and considerations related to diversity, equity and inclusion are on the table. She’s aware of the long road ahead, taking it in stride.

“There’s a lot changing,” she adds. “Just like being a dean, you’re not always going to be liked.”

Helper jobs

As a kid growing up in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Rosato Perea wanted a career helping children and families live their best lives. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, she studied to be a social worker. But an externship at Child Protective Services in her senior year pointed her in a different direction.

“I was learning more about the laws and the courts that impacted the lives of these families, that divided these families, that put these children in foster care and all of the consequences of the system,” she says. “I realized it was law that was the most powerful tool to make change in the lives of families.”

But a serious car accident forced her to defer starting at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She took a gap year, teaching English as a second language in the Ithaca City School District and working in day care centers. “Then I was really ready to go to law school,” she adds.

At Penn, she thought litigation “looked fun.” After graduation in 1987, she got a judicial clerkship for Judge Thomas N. O’Neill Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Then, in 1989, she went into private practice at Hangley Connolly Epstein Chicco Foxman & Ewing in Philadelphia as an associate, only to quickly find out that she missed teaching.

“That was going to be the better balance for me, a better fit for me, for my talents and experiences and passion,” says the expert on family law, bioethics and legal ethics.

Rosato Perea has worked at law schools in Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

Professor to dean

She joined Villanova University School of Law as a legal writing teacher, not knowing if she’d be able to make the leap to full-time faculty. With support from other faculty, she published an article in the University of San Francisco Law Review about the prosecution of faith-healing parents.

“That allowed me to get on the market and to become a professor at Brooklyn Law School,” she says. During her 14 years at Brooklyn, she moved into administration, becoming the associate dean of student affairs.

In 2005, however, she received a call asking if she’d help Drexel University launch its Thomas R. Kline School of Law. She jumped at the chance to move to Philadelphia, where her husband and daughter were living. She served as acting dean its first year.

“That’s when I really got to know the ABA standards,” she says. “When you’re going to start a school, trying to get provisional approval, you have to really have all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed, building everything up to the specs of the standards.”

After a full-time dean was named, she became dean of student affairs and stayed until the first class graduated.

But the seeds of desire to become a dean had been planted, and a divorce helped encourage her to leave Philadelphia. In 2009, she found a fresh start as dean at Northern Illinois University College of Law on the western edge of the Chicago metropolitan area. Six years later, she moved into the city, becoming dean of DePaul University College of Law.

“Part of the beauty of being in legal education and the legal profession is that we have different ideas, and we are going to hash them out,” Rosato Perea says. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

Listen and learn

At the ABA, she will be the first woman and Latina in the managing director role.

It’s not the first time she’s been a first, having been one of the first Latina law school deans.

“I used to call myself a reluctant pioneer,” she says. “I’m a woman, I’m a Latina, I’m a first gen. I always feel pressure being the first. You feel like you’re an example for others that go behind you.”

Priority one on the new job is “a listen and learn tour,” she says, and she plans to dedicate the first six months to talks with constituencies—judges, bar associations, young lawyers’ groups and others—to understand their points of view in the accreditation process.

“My role as managing director is partly to keep communication lines open, both in terms of creating standards as well as implementing them,” she adds.

During her transition to the role, she has been in close contact with current managing director Bill Adams, having coffee together each month and regularly emailing about upcoming projects. He retires June 1.

“Dean Rosato Perea is the perfect choice for the managing director position,” Adams said in an email to the ABA Journal. “Her extensive experience as a dean at multiple schools gives her the depth of knowledge needed for the position.”

The long run

As she transitions to the new job, she anticipates her leadership style will shift.

“When you are the dean, you often lead from the front. The managing director is leading either from behind or side-to-side,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to that: to persuade as well as navigate and negotiate.”

Rosato Perea says her entire career has served as a run-up to this job.

“Part of the beauty of being in legal education and the legal profession is that we have different ideas, and we are going to hash them out,” she adds. “We’re going to listen to those voices, then come up with, ‘In the ABA context, what are the best standards to provide a quality legal education across the country?’”

In the long run, she’s interested in taking a close look at current processes and available information.

“We have a lot of good data,” she says. “Can we use it more effectively? How might we be able to improve processes’ transparency?”

Ultimately, however, “I take my lead from the council,” she says.

With her daughter now grown, she and her husband, Juan F. Perea, a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, live in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago. A side benefit of the new job is her commute will be a half-mile shorter.

“I love the city, and I am thrilled to be able to still run by the lake and the river,” she says. “But I’m excited for the opportunity also to travel to different places as well, as part of the job to meet folks where they are.”

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