The Future is Built Here

Dean Bobby Chesney

Texas Law Dean Bobby Chesney gets real about the future of Texas Law.

Interview by Christopher Roberts
Portrait by Callie Richmond

For over two decades, Bobby Chesney has helped shape national and global dialogues on an array of cutting-
edge legal issues. His academic career began in the wake of 9/11 with a focus on national security law and terrorism. Chesney became one of the most prominent voices in that dramatic field, prompting his recruitment to The 40 Acres in 2008. In the years that followed, his national security work continued but also merged into groundbreaking work in the emerging field of cybersecurity law. This, in turn, led him to prominence in still another strategically significant field: artificial intelligence.

Along the way, Chesney developed a passion for strategic leadership that dovetailed with his love for The University of Texas. On July 1, 2022, this son of San Antonio—and a magna cum laude graduate of both Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School—became the School of Law’s 16th dean.

I sat down with him for a conversation about the future of legal education, being dean of one of America’s top law schools, and the unique pull of this 140-year-old institution.

You’re a Texan with the global perspective of a national security expert. How has that shaped your perspective as dean?

I understand deep in my bones how special Texas is. People sometimes caricature it, or skip over its incredible variety of people, outlooks, cultures, and landscapes. But Texas is all those things, not just one of them, and the combination is unlike anywhere else in the world. The future is being built here and Texas Law, as the flagship for legal education in Texas, plays a very special role in that.

My national security work does have a big impact on how I approach my role as dean. In the national security context, it is common to think carefully about the relationships among ultimate objectives, strategies to achieve them, institutional design to serve those strategies, and tactics to execute them, as well as external and internal strengths and weaknesses that will enable or constrain all of that. Well, it shouldn’t be any different for the law school, at least not if we are serious about establishing ourselves as the very best of what a public flagship law school can and should be.

You do have a bold vision of Texas Law being the best public law school in the country. What does that mean to you?

We have long been a top national law school, and the crown jewel of legal education in Texas in particular. That will never change. But there’s a bit of room to be even better, to be—and be widely recognized to be—the very best public law school. 

Part of this is about the excellence of our faculty, where we’ve always been so well-regarded. We maintain our strengths in all the familiar areas like Constitutional Law, Intellectual Property, and Civil Procedure. But we’ve also established ourselves in key emerging areas such as cybersecurity and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. We do not lose sight of the importance of ensuring that our students are practice ready, either, and you see that in areas such as our surging trial advocacy program and innovations in our business-related offerings, not to mention our world-class clinical program. I suppose the bottom line is that we are firmly committed to our “best of both worlds” tradition, in which our students receive strong grounding in both theory and practice.

Back to AI, how are you thinking about that, as an educator and as a lawyer?

I’m excited about it! My scholarship has studied the intersection of law, technology, and strategic change, and I have been looking closely at AI in particular since co-authoring the first law review article addressing deepfakes back in 2018.*

One thing is certain: every law school will need to adapt to some extent. My goal is to model an approach that is creative and bold yet also thoughtful. We have a three-pillar strategy to guide this. First are ordinary business operations, which means giving our staff tools that will help them in their jobs. Towards that end, we will soon have access to key capabilities and training on how to make the best use of them. Second is teaching and we will ensure Texas Law students are well-versed in what AI tools can and cannot do for lawyers, and the fundamentals of using those tools effectively. Third, there is the law of AI. Many of our faculty members already are writing on AI-related topics, and we expect to grow in this area in the future as part of our larger emphasis on the intersection of law and technology.

You really are an enthusiast! I’m curious, is there a gadget or app you can’t live without—or don’t want to?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I admit there are many I love! But I’d be in real trouble without the Ultimate Guitar app for my iPhone. That’s my go-to for getting the chords and notes for the songs I want to learn. Which I suppose reveals that my true “can’t live without” gadget is my guitar, not my phone!

That’s fabulous. Let me ask about the housing facility you’re building. Why is that important now, and how does it fit into our role as the best public law school?

I spend a lot of time thinking about strategic challenges, and long ago noticed that the rising cost of rent in Austin was becoming a serious threat to our goal of providing elite outcomes for our students without burdening them with as much debt as other places. But I love the notion that challenges can be converted into opportunities. Several years ago, when the University Co-op outpost across Dean Keeton Street closed, the Law School Foundation bought that land. Now we are going to build a first-class residence hall for 1Ls there, featuring below-market rent.

The working title is “Texas Law Village.” Our research suggests about two-thirds of the 1L class will likely choose to live there, and some 2Ls and 3Ls will live there too. The best part will be lowering the total cost of attendance, but I also love that this will further deepen ties among classmates during their first year, and that it will likely boost 1L involvement in extracurricular offerings like career panels, guest speakers, and so on. When the doors open, hopefully in fall 2027, it will be a major milestone in the history of Texas Law!

Speaking of the future, how should we prepare students for the ever-evolving legal job market?

Well, there’s an employer side to that question, and a student side. For the employers, one of my core tasks is to help them see just how talented our entire student body is, and that they should hire from throughout the class rather than using some kind of grade cut-off. From the student side, conversely, there’s a somewhat similar task of helping students to better appreciate the wide range of employers who are out there, and to see how many of them would provide a wonderful home. 

Over the coming decade we will see some of the higher-volume employers reconsider their entry-level hiring approaches to some extent, rewarding schools whose graduates seem best adapted to the evolving nature of their work. The same thing happened about a dozen years ago, following the Great Recession, when there was a wave of pressure on schools to better prepare their graduates to be effective practitioners from the start. I think we will do well when that time comes, both because we’ll never lose sight of our core task of teaching students the battery of analytic and communicative skills that constitute “thinking like a lawyer,” and because we will adapt wisely to legal practice trends.

You may be our first dean to play in a rock band as a side hustle. What are your ‘desert island discs’? 

Hah! I suppose the clues to that are in some things we’ve already touched on: Texas and guitars. The thing that comes immediately to mind is Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, “Texas Flood.” When I started playing guitar, around age 16, I discovered that record—and I do mean vinyl record. And Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” Same era, another Texan, totally different sound. Amazing record. Finally, another rock album altogether, same year as “Texas Flood,” but no Texas connection: U2’s “Under a Blood Red Sky.” That’s their album recorded live at Red Rocks. Incredible songs, incredible performance, incredible sound.

One last light-hearted question: favorite law-themed movie?

Easy. “My Cousin Vinny.” 

Excellent choices, all around. Texas Law has had some legendary deans. Townes, Keeton, Powers. What do you expect to be your legacy as dean?

I won’t dare try to imagine how I’d compare to my predecessors. But whether they boot me out tomorrow, or I get to hang on for decades, I hope that people who knew me in the role would feel that I put the students first, that I treated everyone fairly, and that I always tried to do what was in the school’s best interests. And, well, I do hope someday at midcentury there will be some students enjoying the view from the roof deck of Texas Law Village, with the sun setting behind the Tower, and one of them will say something like “I don’t know who this Chesney guy was, but I’m sure glad they built this thing when he was dean!” 

Category: Features