“It was daunting. I read a ton,” she said. “I threw together PowerPoints and did drop-in experimental programs for students. Some of them were mediocre. I got a better and better sense as I went, about what was good advice and what worked.”
Today, Elizabeth thrives on continuing to find ways to support law students as the Associate Dean of Students at George Washington University Law School. Her office provides support services and programs to nearly 1,500 JD students and 200 graduate law students, which includes everything from academic advising, wellness and cultural programs, to supporting student organizations. One of the fascinating things that has unfolded in law schools in the past decade is a cultural shift in the way law schools support students and prepare them for both practice and life. Law school is different from earlier academic experiences, Elizabeth said, and schools are now becoming better equipped to help students navigate those differences.
“I tell students there’s no better time than law school to get a handle on what’s bothering them,” she said. “They’re not going to have more people who are watching out for them, more resources for getting help or more time once they start their careers.”
Elizabeth started her legal career at Gordon & Rees LLP in San Francisco, where her early cases involved breast implant litigation. She enjoyed reading through medical records, learning about medical issues and deposing doctors, which led her to develop a niche in products liability. She joined Preuss, Walker & Shanagher LLP’s San Francisco office in 1995 and relocated to Drinker Biddle’s Washington, D.C., office in 2002, shortly after the two firms merged. Elizabeth said that Chuck Preuss had a big influence on her career as one of her mentors. He is someone who is incredibly patient, steady and reliable, she said, and he encouraged her to work at the limits of her comfort zone. With his trust, support and encouragement, Elizabeth was taking and defending expert depositions, negotiating settlements, and assisting local counsel in cases across the country by her fifth year in practice.
“I gained friends for life at the firm. From the softball team in San Francisco (where Tom Pulliam and I made a pitcher/catcher battery to behold), to the Hawaiian-themed rooftop parties in D.C., I really loved the team culture,” she said. “There’s nothing like being in the trenches on a common enterprise to bond people. I’m lucky to still be in regular touch with so many Drinker Biddle folks on both coasts, past and present.”
Elizabeth taught adjunct classes in legal research and writing at GW Law and thought she might enjoy working at a university much later in her career. But in 2010, Georgetown University Law Center’s Office of the Dean of Students had an opening for a new position and she thought it would be worth exploring.
“When I interviewed at Georgetown Law, I considered it an informational interview—find out what law school administrators do, whether I would like such a job, be qualified for it, etc.,” she said. “Accidentally, I got the job.”
Elizabeth was with Georgetown Law for about six years before moving to her current role with GW Law in 2016. At the time Elizabeth started her career in legal academia eight years ago, there was resistance to providing academic support to law school students at top-tier law schools. Elizabeth says the rationale was that highly intelligent students don’t need that kind of support and if a school offers such programs it would show that the students “don’t have it all together” or need help. Since faculty members have already mastered the necessary skills for being good lawyers, they often didn’t understand the student perspective of struggling through tasks such as pulling relevant information from cases and applying it to hypothetical scenarios. Today, Elizabeth says the vast majority of law schools have some type of academic support program.
“Regardless of LSAT scores or prior grades, law school is a very different exercise and people are dealing with all kinds of different learning styles and external issues,” she said. “Having someone else to go to who is not your faculty member to talk to about that can be helpful.”
Developing wellness programs, which were still a relatively new concept for law schools and the legal profession, also became part of Elizabeth’s job. Over the last several years, elementary and secondary schools have been providing more education on mindfulness, emotional awareness, communication and different learning styles, Elizabeth says, so as those students started entering law school they were surprised to see few wellness resources. In the past, many in the legal profession viewed any personal struggle as weakness and there was a belief that a “sink or swim” mentality would create tougher professionals. But numerous studies have shown that these attitudes can lead to lawyers developing depression and anxiety as well as unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol and substance abuse, which can spill into their practice. By normalizing the conversation around wellness from day one of law school, Elizabeth hopes that students will be happier and more resilient.
“We want to foster professionals who are in it for the long haul, and who have positive coping strategies to maintain longevity, stay healthy, provide excellent and creative service to their clients and institutions, and enjoy their careers,” she said.
Wellness is also connected to diversity and inclusion. Elizabeth says the law school strives to create an environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves without feeling judged. GW Law’s constantly growing roster of student organizations and affinity groups play a role in providing this space, which is important to creating a sense of belonging for students who may feel different.
“Students will tell me they didn’t grow up around any lawyers, are the first in their family to go to graduate or undergraduate school, or in some other way don’t think they’re right for law school,” she said. “This burns a lot of mental energy and plants the seed with the student that there’s a reason for them not to succeed. I want students to get past that as soon as possible, to feel they belong and have support for their success in the short and long term.”
The life cycle of law students
Most people associate a dean of students’ office with handling crises, such as student health emergencies or run-ins with law enforcement, which is why people often tell Elizabeth they wouldn’t want her job. In reality, emergency management is only a small part of her job, she says. The vast majority of it is working with her team to provide academic, co-curricular and personal assistance to students to help ensure their success. Her office also oversees orientation programs, offers student publication support, and coordinates the annual academic awards program.
One of her favorite programs is GW Law’s Inns of Court, which melds academics, career preparation and learning “soft skills” to create a whole lawyer. All incoming students are assigned to an Inn, as opposed to a section, and those who participate in the co-curricular programming meet weekly throughout the semester to discuss adjusting to law school, professional formation, finding the right career path based on self-assessment, and how to approach a job search. They also discuss wellness, cultural competency, and utilizing resources such as the law school’s writing and career centers. The Inns are each named after a U.S. Supreme Court justice and have their own colors, mottos and logos. Elizabeth said it’s a nice way to make a big place feel more intimate.
Working with law school students is fun and rewarding, Elizabeth says, and when she or her staff are acknowledged by students for supporting them through a difficult time or helping them achieve their goals, “it’s the greatest feeling.” During her first year at GW Law, the Student Bar Association passed a Dean Elizabeth Ewert Appreciation Act joint resolution. The official act with student signatures is framed and hangs on her office wall. Elizabeth says she has three favorite moments in “the life cycle of a law school student.” The first is orientation, when they arrive filled with energy and everyone feeds off their enthusiasm, and the second is commencement, when she gets to share as many hugs and handshakes as possible, knowing some of the trials and tribulations many students have gone through to get that diploma. The third stage, Elizabeth says, is some moment in between when she sees students really shine, whether it’s at a moot court competition, becoming leader of an organization, or heading off to an externship or job interview.
“It’s like watching a child grow up. You see them in their sweatpants on a bad day and you know they’re struggling through a decision about whether to stay in law school, or maybe having a stumble with a bad grade or class,” she said. “And then one day you see them in a suit shaking hands with a judge at a reception and you can’t help but think ‘Wow, that person really pulled it together and is really polished. I’m proud of them.’ It’s a wonderful metamorphosis.”