BY CLINTON DICK
“I know it sounds kind of corny, but I knew after working in business investment for a few years that I wanted to be a law school administrator,” says the new Dean of Student Services, Ellen Cosgrove. “I thought it would be fun to get back into the mix.”
Dean Cosgrove officially took office on Monday after former Dean Suzanne Richardson stepped down last Friday due to her battle with cancer. Richardson will return to the Law School as the special advisor to the Dean, conducting research on issues that concern her, but which she has never had time to study.
Cosgrove has not wasted any time setting her own policies for a position she has held for less than a week. “The first thing I am hoping to do is set up a daily meeting with small groups of students during the month of March to talk to them about what they would like to see improved at the Law School,” she explains. Following upon the goals of Richardson, who had worked to build a greater sense of network among students, especially group leaders, and bridge the chasm between the school and students, Cosgrove says, “I want to come up with some creative events to help build community here at the Law School and give students an easy way to work with the administration.”
These sound like typical goals for a Dean of Students, but Cosgrove has previous experience and accomplishments to back up her claim. She was recruited by Chicago Law School in 1993 to be the Assistant Dean and Dean of Students, a position she held until she filled her current position at HLS. At the time she had applied to be Dean of Students at HLS, but then-Dean Robert Clark chose Richardson instead. Chicago Law School learned about Cosgrove’s application to HLS through references she had used at the school and snatched her up before she went elsewhere.
While Cosgrove beams when discussing Law School issues and what she will do to ease, in her words, “the red tape” that can develop between an administration and students, her career has not always been in the law. She graduated from Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. She had an interest in finance and, after spending some summers working in the investment department of an insurance company, she decided to pursue it upon graduation. It was a hard decision, however, and Cosgrove struggled with it. “I knew I had an interest in finance and I thought from college coursework that I would have an interest in the law as well,” she says. “When I had two options I chose the path that cost the least, and which did not require three more years of education.”
It did not take her long, however, to realize the law was her passion and, after three years in finance, she began to fill out law applications and sign up for the entrance exam, which, given the timing of the exam, proved to her that finance was no longer her forte. “I decided to take the LSAT in October of 1987 and the stock market crashed the following Monday, so I could not have picked a better time to get out of investment banking.” Others had the same thought, Cosgrove says, as people who tried to sit for the December LSAT found locations full as newly-aspiring lawyers sought out the enduring profession.
Cosgrove was accepted to Chicago Law School in 1988. She describes herself as “one of those people who enjoyed law school more than law practice.” When asked about the recently completed “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School,” which was released last Thursday, and her experiences at Chicago, Cosgrove says, “I was fortunate to have had a college experience that was very nurturing of women, and then I went into investment that was notorious for sexism. And then I went to Chicago that fell somewhere in between. Less than 30% of the women were students and out of a faculty of 25, two were women. It went up to three before I graduated.”
She continues, “You didn’t have women role models in front of the class. At Holyoke it was all about supporting you as a woman, but being at a school that had a low percentage of women role models, things were very different.” That said, she goes on, “men and women students were very supportive and the faculty as well. It was not that I experienced faculty members saying inappropriate things, it was just they [did not teach from a woman’s perspective.]”
Graduating in 1991, Cosgrove says she had every intention of working at a small firm doing family law, but that she was “sucked into” a large New York firm. Because of her background in banking she did litigation, focusing primarily on hostile takeovers. “It was exciting, but the hours were ungodly,” she says, citing the 2600 billable hours that were common at her firm.
But again Cosgrove did not feel at home at her job, and felt that her talents were not being put to use. “I knew I did not want to do [firm work] long-term and I was talking to a friend who was making a career change. As we both talked about what we wanted to do with our lives, [I knew I needed to make a switch to law school administration.]” From that conversation, Cosgrove moved to Chicago Law School and then to HLS.
Even while she was at Chicago, however, Cosgrove was expanding her opportunities at HLS. “I knew Dean Kagan when she was a faculty member at Chicago and I thought the world of her,” she says. “I would watch her in meetings and think, ‘this woman should be Dean.'”