Lisa Grace Lednicer has been hard at work on an ambitious overhaul of Willamette Lawyer, the alumni magazine of Willamette University’s College of Law. By “overhaul,” I do not mean just tinkering with the list of recurring features or the graphic package. I mean a fundamental broadening of scope. Her goal was to bring out a new magazine that, as she wrote in the editor’s note of the first new issue, reflected “the intellect of a university magazine and the spark of a regional magazine of ideas.”
By doing so, Lednicer opened herself up to a whole new level of media scrutiny. Specifically, a modified version of the UMagazinology questionnaire. That’ll teach her.
How long have you been in your job?
I’ve been in this job two years and four months. In other words, long enough to gather just enough knowledge of the legal academy to be dangerous. Short enough to realize there’s a lot more I can learn and grow.
What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?
My background is in newspapers and magazines, and the most significant thing I had to learn was how to explain my vision to people outside the law school who don’t understand what I’m trying to do here. As a newspaper and magazine reporter you work with fellow reporters and sources who know the playing field and understand what it takes to get a story into print—why you have to ask certain questions, why a story has to be structured a certain way. You don’t have to think about what your readers need. In this job I’ve had to think a lot more about what I’m trying to accomplish and how best to serve the magazine’s readers.
You’ve just overhauled the magazine. Could you talk a bit about the thinking behind that and the process?
At the time I inherited the magazine, its impact on the outside world was minimal. Alumni never wrote in to comment. Lawyers, judges, politicians, and policymakers didn’t know we existed. Law is where the best and the worst of human nature intersect, and the storytelling possibilities are endless—but you couldn’t find that in our magazine. At the same time, media outlets throughout the Pacific Northwest were downsizing and re-deploying staff. There was, and continues to be, a glaring lack of coverage of legal issues in an area of the country that has been groundbreaking in its approach to the law: legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, judicial decisions that equate campaign contributions with free speech, a governor who refuses to sign execution warrants. Willamette University College of Law is located across the street from the state capitol, the department of justice, and the state supreme court, so we are uniquely positioned to lead the debate on the pressing legal issues of our time. As for the process, I had several conversations with the dean of the law school, our alumni relations folks, members of our board of trustees, faculty members, state legislative aides, lobbyists, and others I had written about when I covered politics for the local newspaper. I tested out my idea of turning the magazine into a thought leader on legal issues throughout the Pacific Northwest, and everyone gave it a thumbs-up. The impact has been immediate. The dean of one of our peer law schools wrote to our dean to praise the content; the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked for extra copies for their board members; lobbyists responded favorably, and an alum was moved to submit two law-related poems for the next issue.
What about the new magazine pleases you the most?
The content. Our aim is to become a must-read throughout the Pacific Northwest. Alums still will be able to read about their fellow graduates and the latest news about faculty. But they’ll also get the kind of compelling storytelling and analysis that didn’t exist in the magazine before.
What was your biggest frustration?
Lack of staff. Besides running the magazine, I also maintain the law school’s website, alumni Facebook page, and Twitter feeds; coach professors on how write op-ed pieces for local and national publications; deal with media inquiries; produce videos; and approve copy for brochures. I’d love to publish the magazine more often, but I’d need a managing editor. And a marketing assistant.
What part of your magazine still does not satisfy you, despite everybody’s best effort?
The recurring features, such as alumni news and Ethics Corner, a Q&A feature I introduced in which alums and a professor tackle a legal dilemma. I’m a big fan of the wonderfully written alumni news pages of Reed College and the University of Portland’s magazines, but I’m not sure the tone would work for Willamette Lawyer. As for Ethics Corner, I’d like our contributors to let loose a little more.
If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?
Calvin Trillin. He put boudin (French rice sausage by way of Louisiana) on the map, and I’d love to turn him loose on a food-related legal question. Such as: Do people have a right to an adequate food supply?
If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?
In my off-time, I sing in a women’s barbershop chorus that was asked to audition for America’s Got Talent (we’re waiting for the results). I also co-authored a food book a few years ago (Extreme Barbecue, Chronicle Books, 2007) and I occasionally cater weddings and other big events. So, any job that combines food and song would work for me.