When he steps onto campus and settles into his law school office in June, Neil Fulton intends to immediately begin getting to know the USD School of Law and its community.
“I really look forward to engaging in the work of preparing the next generation of responsible, respectful and resourceful lawyers to serve South Dakota,” he said.
Upon completion of a national search, USD named the Miller, South Dakota, native dean of the University of South Dakota School of Law at a March news conference. Fulton is an enthusiastic leader who expects his transition from federal public defender to law school dean to be fulfilling.
“USD law has an amazing tradition of excellence, service and leadership and today’s students are picking up that tradition for the future,” he said. “It’s just an amazing and humbling opportunity to work on that with talented and dedicated faculty. I’m stepping into an organization that matters to a lot of people. I have to take care of it first and foremost.”
In his first few months as dean, Fulton plans to begin the process of connecting people to the right opportunities and helping like-minded folks to thrive and innovate. “The best things that can come out of my time as dean is other people’s great ideas succeeding,” he said.
Certainly, there are challenges. “Recent years have been hard on legal education and USD law hasn’t avoided those tough times,” Fulton explained. “We will need to step up to meet challenges in legal education and employment. Being a smaller school with deep connections in South Dakota and surrounding communities lets us be nimble and innovative in our approach. I hope we can find new ways to address the challenges of geography and demographics that face legal practice; to help fuel the innovation that’s taking place in health care, financial services and value-added agriculture; and continue to populate the legal infrastructure of South Dakota.”
Fulton attended Yale University and the University of Minnesota School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude, first in his class, and received the Devitt Award for excellence in trial advocacy courses and the Kaplan Award for overall academic excellence at graduation.
Fulton went on to serve as a law clerk for Judge Diana Murphy of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. He then became general counsel to the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance and the South Dakota Public Entity Pool for Liability, the South Dakota Bankers Association and the Office of the Governor at May, Adam, Gerdes & Thompson.
In 2007, Fulton became South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds’ chief of staff, overseeing the day-to-day operations of state government, managing legislative and budgetary proposals, drafting legislation and working with public and private organizations across the state.
"There are great things happening in the law school and opportunities for our friends and alumni to be part of them." - Neil Fulton
From 2010 to May 2019, Fulton was federal public defender for North Dakota and South Dakota as chosen by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. His appellate advocacy experience includes arguing almost 40 cases before the Eighth Circuit and more than 10 before the South Dakota Supreme Court.
"Neil brings an exceptional set of skills and experience to USD and we are incredibly excited to have him join us as our next leader of the law school,” said USD President Sheila K. Gestring. “Since the moment he stepped on campus for his interview, there has been tremendous energy throughout the law school.”
A self-proclaimed “introverted nerd,” Fulton says he’s shy in social settings and terrible at remembering names. “I’m excited to get to know everyone at USD law, but please be patient; it takes me time,” he forewarned. Fulton says he’ll no doubt get to know folks through his hobbies of golfing and hunting or attending Coyote games and kids’ sports: namely, baseball, cross-country and wrestling. He and his wife, Molly, have three children: Cael (12), Padraig (10) and Finnian (7).
Fulton wants the legal community to know that he will have an open-door policy. “Professionally, it’s important to know that I work hard to be accessible and honest,” he said. “I will say what I’m going to do and do what I say. I care enormously about the law and South Dakota and want to work hard to make both better.
“I hope that when I’m done being dean, folks can say that whatever the important public policy questions facing South Dakota were, the law school was at the center of the conversations about how to respond. If we serve South Dakota in that way, we’ll have done our work well.”
Listen to an interview with Neil Fulton on the USD Credit Hour podcast at usd.edu/podcast.