He plays Texas Hold ’em, ponders Arctic border disputes and has an identical twin brother whose life bears intriguing parallels to his own.
Austen Parrish, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who came to the U.S. as a teenager, has been busy settling in as UCI Law’s third dean, a role he assumed on Aug. 3 after helming two other law schools and working for one of the nation’s top legal firms.
Sporting a trademark pocket square and tortoiseshell eyeglasses, Parrish recently sat down in his still-barren campus office to share stories from his past and discuss plans for UCI Law’s future.
Originally from Vancouver, the 50-year-old didn’t set out to be a law professor – or even an attorney.
After finishing high school near Seattle (where his British-born father moved following a divorce) and earning dual citizenship, Parrish double-majored in political science and economics at the University of Washington, as did his twin, Ashley. He also dabbled in theater and waited tables at a posh downtown restaurant.
While heading home from work one day, Parrish happened upon a law fair and chatted with a Columbia University recruiter for half an hour. Months later, he found himself enrolled at the Ivy League campus. There, he met his wife, Leslie – a Foothill High School (in Tustin) alumna who spent eight years of her childhood in El Salvador, living with her grandmother.
Meanwhile, Parrish’s saxophone-playing twin, who took a year off to travel post-graduation, got into law school at the University of Chicago. Today, Ashley Parrish is an appellate attorney in Washington, D.C., who also wears tortoiseshell spectacles – but no pocket square – and whose wife is the law professor of the family, teaching at American University.
The D.C. twin has two sons; Austen Parrish has two daughters – and the birth of his first in 2002 helped spur the shift to academia.
At the time, five years out of law school, Parrish was on the road frequently, handling intellectual property, civil rights, antitrust and other cases for the L.A. branch of law firm O’Melveny & Myers, while his wife worked as a senior staff attorney for the Children’s Rights Project. “I loved the job,” he says, but the schedule left little time to spend with his growing family.
Then a one-year contract to teach legal writing at Southwestern Law School popped up, and Parrish never looked back. Before long, he was running the school’s summer abroad program in Vancouver and moving up the food chain to vice dean. His boss for most of this period was Bryant Garth, who previously had served as law dean at Indiana University Bloomington and later became interim dean at UCI after Song Richardson’s departure.
Parrish would follow a similar path.
Garth says: “I’m proud and happy that I turned out to be part of Austen’s career trajectory. I promoted him to vice dean at Southwestern, recognizing his obvious talents and judgment, made sure he would be interim dean when I left, and recommended him to Indiana University, where I had been. He excelled at everything … and I am thrilled for UCI Law that he’s our new dean.”
As a scholar, Parrish delved into transnational law and cross-border litigation, exploring everything from Great Lakes boundary disputes between the U.S. and Canada to questions about sovereignty over swaths of ice in the Northwest Passage that melted because of climate change. He also co-authored a guidebook for fledgling law students: Hard-Nosed Advice From a Cranky Law Professor.
After taking the reins at Indiana University’s law school in January 2014, Parrish launched an ambitious series of projects, including recruitment partnerships with more than two dozen undergraduate campuses serving Black, Latino, female and even engineering students to improve diversity. The law school also created an exclusive scholarship program to train officers for the U.S. Army’s JAG Corps.
Similar pipelines could bolster UCI recruitment efforts, Parrish says. “We may not be able to compete with Harvard solely on rankings,” he says, “but we can use the stellar reputation of our faculty, our exceptional clinics, and our unique programs and initiatives” as an edge, especially if coupled with scholarships and guaranteed summer jobs.
Internship and career connections can also be strengthened, he suggests: “Some of the nation’s biggest companies and organizations are right here [in Southern California], and there are opportunities to both improve existing relationships and create new ones with them. The professionals leading our Career Development Office are some of the most talented in the nation, and I’m looking forward to what we can do together.”
Overall, Parrish says, “the law school’s fundamentals and people are strong. My job is to take what’s exceptional and make it more so.”
He’ll also sandwich in occasional trips back to the Midwest, where his wife – a pro bono attorney for Indiana Legal Services’ Low Income Taxpayer Clinic – is staying while their younger daughter, 16, finishes high school.
“So I think I’m going to be busy,” Parrish says.
Austen Parrish at a glance
Education: University of Washington, Columbia Law School
Family: Wife Leslie, an attorney with Indiana Legal Services, and two daughters
Musical tastes: “I’m fairly eclectic with music. I grew up in Vancouver and Seattle, and while I can’t say it’s necessarily my favorite, I still enjoy some of the softer grunge and alternative rock classics that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
Last book read: Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher
Hobbies: Poker, bicycling
Favorite food: “Hard to claim a favorite. Perhaps sushi/sashimi.”
Favorite film: “A little cliche, but ‘The Princess Bride’ is a favorite (great book too).”