Wednesday January 18, 2017

'Principled Pragmatist'

Richard Perna shuns the spotlight. Even as he celebrates his retirement, he’s reluctant to call attention to himself or his accomplishments during his 34-year career as a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law.

“He's remarkably adept at getting things done without drama and without drawing attention to himself,” says fellow longtime law professor Charlie Hallinan. “He's not a ‘character.’"

But when he looks around the Law School – when he looks around the greater Dayton legal community – Hallinan sees his friend’s true character in every corner.

It’s there in the curriculum that reflects his passion for social justice, his keen interest in clinical courses, his deep understanding of issues surrounding legal technology.

It’s there in Keller Hall itself – in the 122,500-square-foot brick-and-limestone building he helped the architects to design in the mid-‘90s with an eye toward the way technology would transform legal education in the coming decades.

And it’s there, most of all, in every student who has ever taken one of his classes or sought his counsel as former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

“When he was Associate Dean he regularly went out of his way to help students who were having personal or financial problems, but he's so self-effacing that he never even talked about what he had done,” Hallinan says. “Just about everyone who's graduated from the Law School over the past 34 years has left with some large or small piece of Perna as part of his or her professional development. Each of one of them -- and all of their clients -- will be the better for that gift.”

Perna believes he has been the recipient of that gift, not the giver. “The university has been a great place to teach, and I have had a lot of opportunities to do different things over the years,” he says.

For all his success, you could call him The Accidental Professor. After graduating from the Villanova University School of Law in 1975, Perna began his career at a nonprofit providing legal services for low-income Philadelphians.

He views the law as a helping profession – a belief rooted in his parents’ hard work and self-sacrifice. Perna’s father, Virginio, emigrated from Italy in his youth and his mother, Celeste, was first-generation Italian. He and his older brother were the first family members on his mother’s side to attend college.

“One way to look at the success of a society is to ask, ‘How does it take care of those who have the least?’” Perna says. “I wanted to help people solve their problems, and to make society more just for everybody.”

Perna had no intention of trading the practice of law for the classroom. But in 1979 he was hired as a lecturer and clinical supervisor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. It was the beginning of a love affair with experiential learning that continues to this day.

“I was surprised how fulfilling it was to be in the classroom,” Perna says.

When the University of Dayton School of Law offered him a job as director of the Law Clinic in 1982, he eagerly accepted. Dayton was a pioneer in clinical teaching, then far from the mainstream in legal education. Perna expanded the clinical course offerings and activities and increased the number of students and faculty taking part in them.

He figured he’d stay four or five years, tops. A couple of things happened: He fell in love with the Dayton Law community, and he fell in love with a Dayton woman.

Perna met his wife, attorney Merideth Trott – a partner with Dinsmore & Shohl -- on a blind date in 1983. All thoughts of leaving Dayton swiftly left him.

It turned out to be a good thing – for the couple and the Dayton legal community.

Trott has worked with many of her husband’s former students over the years. “They tell me how great he is and how he has influenced their lives,” she says. “It’s a really gratifying thing.”

Perna remains the only academic to serve as president of the Dayton Bar Association in recent history.

“Rick doesn’t stay behind ivy-covered walls,” says DBA executive director Bill Wheeler. “He was very member-oriented and service-oriented, and he helped us to move the DBA forward.”

Perna would like to tear down the wall between academia and practicing attorneys: “It was a real joy for me to be the 100th president of DBA and to be connecting and reconnecting with so many of our grads, and they appreciated that as well. It’s important for academics to keep those ties up and to be active in the community with the professionals that we helped to train. It’s important to give them the message that their law school cares about them.”

During his tenure as Associate Dean, Perna served as liaison to the architectural firm designing Keller Hall. He wanted the building’s design to position UD among a select group of law schools embracing technology.

“We can’t educate students for the world we grew up in,” he said in a prescient interview in 1994. “We have to educate them for the world they’ll live in.”

He wanted to give them an edge in their field. “Working with the architects and starting from scratch was a real joy,” he says. “I was impressed with the way the design process worked from beginning to end. It was very collaborative.”

His fascination with technology has never left him. He recently co-taught a Legal Technology Innovations Lab with Geoffrey Ivnik, director of marketing for the LexisNexis Corporation.

Students once voted Perna Professor of the Year, and Ivnik says it’s easy to see why: “Rick is very personable and approachable, but best of all, he’s very conscious of the takeaway. He presents information in a way they can come away with tangible skills. Assignments include a 30-minute shark tank presentation, pitching ideas for a legal startup.”

Hallinan called Perna “the most principled pragmatist I’ve ever known.”

 “He wants things to work well, and he's very good at making that happen,” he says. “But both the ends and the means are simultaneously driven and constrained by his deeply felt standards of decency, fairness, and community.”

Concurred Dean Andrew Strauss, “Rick has contributed enormously to the spirit of our law school and our community.  He has contributed as a scholar, a teacher and for many years as Associate Dean.  For me personally, since I arrived a year-and-a-half ago, he has provided tremendous support and counsel. We all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

Even in retirement, Perna continues to be forward-looking. He hopes to continue teaching as a professor emeritus.

“There are a lot of things I’m going to do, but I’m not sure what they are,” Perna says. “I’m excited about not knowing and exploring and thinking about what the options are.”

He’s looking forward to having more flexibility to travel and to spend time with Merideth. “I hear people say, ‘I don’t want my husband to retire,’ and that’s such a foreign concept to me,” Trott says. “He’s wonderful and I’m proud of him. I feel very lucky we met and for the time that we’ve had together.”

Perna, too, feels lucky. ”Dayton has been a great place to have a career,” he says. “It has been a remarkably generous community from the start.”

At Perna's Jan. 18 retirement celebration, Adam Armstrong '05 announced the Alumni Association will establish an annual Richard Perna Young Alumni Award of Excellence. "He is beloved by students and alumni and noted for his creativity and caring," Armstrong said.

Perna said he was deeply moved by the unexpected honor because, in the end, it's all about the students: "We dedicated our lives to educating young lawyers and professionals. And they give so much back to us."

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