The career-turning points for María Pabón López, the dean of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, came in the form of a person and a job.
The person “was an Italian American woman, a lawyer for the teacher’s union who took the time – and had the ability – to explain how the law affects people in their everyday lives,” López said in a telephone interview. This was during her year as a science teacher in New Jersey, right after graduating from Princeton. “I knew right then that I wanted to be that woman,” López said. “So I went to law school.”
The job was as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Criminal Division, for the District of Puerto Rico, where her parents were born and the family’s home for many years. “I was actually prosecuting immigrants for marriage fraud, re-entry after deportation, for a host of immigration-related issues that compelled me to better understand what was going on,” she said.
In school, immigration law had been a small section and the casebook, a slender volume. “I realized that there was so much more to say not only about the law, but about these people – immigrants and their families, their interactions with institutions such as schools, their access to justice,” she said. The last, access to justice, became a more profound issue when López later represented battered immigrant women and low-income immigrant families.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has worked in federal courts, private practices and nonprofits, López is now recognized nationally as an expert in immigration law as well as issues involving diversity and gender. “I became interested in gender and diversity in the legal profession especially after I got into the legal academy and saw disparities between men and women as professors and as students,” López said.
She spent three years as a lecturer at the University of Missouri, Columbia School of Law and then 10 years at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law, rising to full professor. López was a state bar examiner in Indiana, one of the few academics in a practice-dominated field. She became dean of Loyola New Orleans in 2011, the first woman law dean in Louisiana, one of the few Latina deans in the U.S. and the only Puerto Rican dean outside Puerto Rico itself.
“The ability of people who do what I do to change the world – that’s what we need to recognize in legal academia,” López said. “We teach generations of students in the law, and in this way we influence the world. Students – that’s what law school is and should be all about.”
LAWDRAGON: Why did you decide to go to law school?
MARÍA PABÓN LÓPEZ: Because I didn’t want to go to medical school. Seriously. My family is Puerto Rican and my mother, a teacher, wanted me to be a doctor. I finished all the premed requirements at Princeton, even though I didn’t really want to be a doctor. Looking back, I think that’s one reason why I was in the university’s Teacher Training Program: I was the daughter of a teacher and saw it as a marketable skill. But it was also a diversion from going to medical school, in that it led me to teaching science in a New Jersey middle school.
That’s where I met the lawyer for the teacher’s union. Her ability to access knowledge and information; the way she translated what she knew into guidance made me realize that it isn’t enough to have laws in a country unless you know what they are; it isn’t enough to have a justice system unless people know how to access it.
I never forgot her advice and mentoring, which is why I decided to attend law school. I should add that I am the first lawyer in my family. I may not be the last, as I suspect that our older daughter, who is 18, wants to be a lawyer.
LD: How do you feel about that?
MPL: She knows the realities of the legal marketplace these days as well as I do. If she does decide to attend law school, she’ll do it with her eyes open about the costs and opportunities, as all would-be law students should.
LD: Why did you choose the University of Pennsylvania Law School?
MPL: I had family in New Jersey and while I wanted to be in a city, I didn’t want to live in a big city. Philadelphia seemed just the right size for me. The law school had a very good reputation it terms of courses and faculty, and I saw immediately that I would have wonderful classmates. That was important to me. And I was right; my classmates became my friends and I’ve maintained many of those friendships over the years.
LD: What propelled you into legal academia?
MPL: As a 3L at Penn Law, I competed for and won a place teaching first years legal writing. It was fantastic. I mean, there I was doing for these 1Ls what that labor union lawyer had done for me – teaching, mentoring. It was very powerful.
At the same time I was a research assistant for my torts professor, who told me straight out that I needed to be an academic. I said that I wanted to get out there in the professional world and litigate, which I did for 10 years, starting at a large Philadelphia firm. I then had the opportunity to move back to Puerto Rico, where I took the civil bar and eventually became Assistant U.S. Attorney, Criminal Division, for the District of Puerto Rico.
This is where my interest in the issues surrounding immigration began – actually prosecuting immigrants for marriage fraud, re-entry after deportation and the like. I was newly married when my husband, Gerardo, and I moved to Texas. He started on his Ph.D. in education and I began advocating for battered immigrant women and low-income immigrant families.
So early on and in a short time, I was able to see, as a lawyer, both sides of what has now become a national immigration debate. My husband’s expertise in education gave me another perspective, which is why we co-authored a book, Persistent Inequality, about education and undocumented Latino children.
Now, there’s an unwritten rule in academia that the longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back in. And for me, the 10-year-mark seemed to be pushing that limit. It was also difficult to juggle mom life with lawyer life. All those forces together signaled it was time to teach again. And when you think about it, what could be better than combining two things I loved – being a lawyer and being a teacher?
My first teaching post was in 1999 at the University of Missouri. My husband was offered a job there. We went as an academic couple. Then the University of Indiana recruited us away. In 2002, I joined the faculty at the university’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
I was later invited to be a bar examiner – the only professor in the state who served at the time. The rest were practicing lawyers or judges.
LD: Why leave teaching to become a dean, primarily an administrative job?
MPL: I suppose that the flippant answer would be because I was asked to apply. In reality, I was moving in that direction, though more slowly. In part, I wanted the job because I thought that as dean I could do more good for more constituents – faculty, staff, students, alumni, everyone – but especially the students.
I have a yellow yield sign on my desk that says, “And this is good for the students, why?” It’s a reminder that I always need to be able to answer that question with a strong affirmation that the students will benefit from whatever we decide to do.
Now, the appeal of Loyola itself was undeniable to someone like me – and it goes beyond its being located in New Orleans. As a graduate of Catholic schools, I liked Loyola’s Jesuit mission of caring and community involvement, especially with the Spanish-speaking immigrant community here. I also see in the law school what I hope I embody – an ethic of care, and an ability to recognize and nurture each person’s unique talents.
LD: What else distinguishes your institution from other law schools?
MPL: I’ll start with our certificate programs. These are for enrolled students who want to go deep into a particular area of law. We currently offer certificates in Civil Law; Common Law; Environmental Law; International Legal Studies; Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship; Social Justice; Taxation Law; Health Law; Immigration and Citizenship Law and Practice. These have obvious benefits for students and obvious appeal to potential employers.
Our Skills and Experiential Learning Program was created in 2011 as part of a larger initiative to modernize and expand opportunities for students to learn essential lawyering skills, such as drafting pleadings and wordsmithing them together with a professor, or taking depositions. These courses constitute eight credit hours beyond the 90 needed to graduate, and students’ transcripts reflect the skills that the students master.
We’re extremely proud of our longstanding history of skills courses and experiences for students. Our skills office dates back to 1992 and we’ve had clinics since the 1970s. We’re proud, too, of the fact that they are taught by dedicated clinical professors willing to instruct, coach, guide, advise and mentor. Another important responsibility of the program is overseeing externships, which provide incredible opportunities to learn in context: Students are mentored by a professor and a field placement supervisor who guide them through the rigor and expectations of practice.
Our Clinic, The Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice, is a fully functioning live-client legal program, housed in its own building, that allows third-year law students the opportunity to represent indigent clients under the supervision of experienced attorneys. Students may also participate in other opportunities, such as the Street Law Program, in which they bring a “know your rights, know the law” presentation into local high schools in the expectation that these teenagers will bring the information home to their families.
The Gillis Long Poverty Law Center is an endowed program that offers a number of experiential opportunities, starting with a summer internship program that so far has awarded more than $2 million to students who work in legal services offices around the U.S. Last year, the center placed 38 students in 13 offices in 6 states. This year Gillis plans to fund 50 students for 10 weeks with $5,000 stipends.
Gillis provides a loan repayment assistance program for students pursuing public interest law careers. It also publishes the Louisiana Legal Services and Pro Bono Desk Manual as a guide for lawyers who want to help indigent clients. Our goal is to have a manual in every public library in the state so that it is readily accessible.
Through Gillis, our students may also fulfill the so-called Law and Poverty requirement needed for graduation by performing at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services to the poor in approved settings and during a single academic year. Students, by the way, may take as an alternative the Law and Poverty Seminar, or Street Law, or they can represent low-income people in the Clinical Seminar. But many prefer to do pro bono work, and quite a few voluntarily exceed the 50 hours.
I don’t know if this requirement is unique, but it is something we consider distinctly our own.
Our Incubator Program is a new initiative for recent Loyola graduates working in a social justice-oriented solo practice in the Greater New Orleans area. The program will support self-employed Loyola Law School graduates (0-3 years in practice) while addressing, through a pro bono requirement, the need for increased affordable legal services for low-income and moderate-means people. Incubator Program participants receive free office space in the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice, in addition to the support of the faculty, to independently operate their own law firms. In essence, we take care of their overhead. The first year of the two-year pilot program is running from January through December 2015.
A key component of Loyola’s Incubator Program is training new attorneys who are committed to addressing the unmet legal needs of low-income and moderate-means people while building law practices that will continue to serve those populations over time. The Incubator Program includes a requirement that at least of a quarter of participants’ time be spent on cases that fall into the “justice gap,” those who are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Participants receive a modest stipend to support the year of pro bono work.
We were one of only two law schools picked for a year of an American Bar Association Catalyst Grant for this program. We’ve raised money for a second year, and I know we’ll be able to sustain this moving forward.
I should say here that we’re delighted to help other law schools replicate what we are doing. Just give us a call.
LD: What are your biggest challenges and how are you meeting them?
MPL: My biggest challenges have been 1) preparing our students to take the bar exam, 2) addressing students’ financial concerns and the cost of our law school education, and 3) finding a good work/life balance.
Now the bar exam in Louisiana is different from the exams given in all the other states. Louisiana’s justice system is based on civil law, not the common law practiced elsewhere, and the bar exam takes three days, not the usual two.
I think you’ll find a measure of agreement among law schools here that the bar exam has gotten way harder in recent years. That’s one reason why in April 2013, Loyola created a Bar Preparation and Learning Initiatives Department. Suzanne K. Scalise, a Loyola Law alumna and former central staff attorney in the Louisiana Supreme Court, serves as our Bar Prep Director. The sole focus of the department is to assist all Loyola students and alumni in their preparation for any bar examination.
Loyola now offers bar preparation courses, lectures, workshops and individual tutoring for all. For all graduates, Loyola offers Blackboard courses in civil law, which again is the basis for Louisiana law, and common law, which is what’s practiced in all the other states. Blackboard courses allow graduates to ask questions online about any bar examination and to receive answers from Loyola professors.
Our bar-pass push has begun to pay off. Loyola New Orleans graduates had a bar-pass rate of 73 percent in July 2014, our highest pass rate since July 2006. And we’re not stopping there.
The exam is given during the summer, when it’s crazy hot, in an uncomfortable building that doesn’t have a place to eat. So we’ve decided to cater a box lunch right there on site. It’s another way to show that we care; that we’re supporting their success. And we know that they will succeed. We’ve gotten them ready; they are prepared. They will pass – the first time.
Regarding financial and career concerns, like many deans I’m working to increase available scholarships based on need, the resources of our own Loan Repayment Assistance Program and any other money available to graduates pursuing public interest law. At the same time, I’m working to keep our costs contained.
In terms of career and employment assistance, we have already started Career Services taking first-year students in hand and showing them how to build their resumes. In fact, all students attend a mandatory career development meeting after which they must submit resumes to their legal writing instructor, who helps ensure that they are top quality. Professors are helping, too. And I’m meeting with Career Services every week to identify graduates’ interests and match them with our alumni listings. I want us actively promoting our students throughout our alumni network.
Clinics have been helpful in this regard. Not only does a student’s transcript reflect the reality of what they know from experience, but the student has an advocate in the professionals who teach and oversee those clinics, who will use their networks to steer students to job openings.
I see the strength of being a clinic student when I see students actually arguing on behalf of indigent clients in court; our students have even appeared before the state Supreme Court. Judges see them and know them. That’s invaluable in terms of exposure and connections.
As to work/life balance, I hope to serve as a good role model from where I am in my career and life. I encourage stress management and work-life balance through relaxation and spirituality techniques. I always work to place my family first and to take time from my busy schedule to focus on my physical health through exercise.
LD: Are you seeing any trends in the jobs students are taking?
MPL: Yes – solo practice and in communities that need lawyers. I also see an increasing need for affordable legal services for low-income and moderate-means people. That’s what makes our Incubator program unique and timely: With 25 percent of participants’ time devoted to pro bono legal work, it’s enabling our graduates to help with those unmet legal needs.
LD: What do you do outside law school when you’re not being dean?
MPL: I always seem to be writing. Right now I’m examining U.S. and European immigration laws. I want to look at the history and status of women lawyers in Louisiana, and diversity in the legal profession during the economic downturn. I love to read. Some of my recent favorites are Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I also enjoy classical and Spanish music, opera (I serve as a board member for the New Orleans Opera Association), and watching basketball games – especially those of my 14-year-old younger daughter.
I’ve started an exercise regimen that, thankfully, includes walks through Audubon Park here in New Orleans. And I admit to occasionally missing litigation, which is why I plan to start doing pro bono work for Spanish-speaking indigents who can’t afford a lawyer. It makes complete sense to me that as someone who once prosecuted illegal immigrants I can represent them once again in court.
Contact Margot Slade at (914) 396-4248 or email@example.com.