An Interview with Professor Marsha Mansfield

Q. How do you bring your experiences from private practice, your pro bono work, and your public service into your classroom?

My private practice experience helps me teach students what it means to be a professional—how to perform in the courtroom, how to deal with judges, opposing counsel, difficult clients, and how to manage a caseload. At the same time, I try to model a commitment to service, as do all of our faculty. Our hope is that students remember the importance of service when they leave UW Law School and begin their work in the legal community.

What drew you to the access to justice issue?

I started out as a learning disabilities teacher in the public schools because I noticed early on how kids with disabilities were set apart and often treated differently. After I decided to attend law school, I recognized that school systems face some of the same challenges as the legal system, where cuts in services disproportionately impact low-income populations, minorities and people with disabilities. Yet in our clinics, we see the long-range benefits of serving people who wouldn't otherwise have access to counsel. When they connect with the tools needed to solve their legal problems, people are able to turn their lives around. They’re more likely to become productive members of society and less likely to be an economic and emotional drain on resources.  

What are you working on now?

I’m looking into the idea that not all civil cases need to follow the traditional model, with counsel representing a client from the start to finish of a case. Sometimes lawyers might better serve litigants by simply helping them file court papers, prepare for a court appearance or review a contract—by “unbundling” services the way we have always done at the Economic Justice Institute. With that in mind, I’m surveying litigants who have used our family law services to determine whether they came through our program feeling more satisfied with the court process, whether their time frame to resolution was longer or shorter, whether their concerns were addressed within the court system. My hypothesis is that, beyond being more affordable for litigants, unbundled services can often meet their needs effectively.

What's the best thing about your job?

Each group of students coming through our program is so different, and with each I think, “This is just the best group.” We have a wonderfully diverse law school, as well as a supportive dean who encourages creativity and innovation. To watch students become imaginative, thoughtful, independent lawyers who spread their wings and fly—and to know I played some small role in that—that’s the best thing. 

Do you have any advice for a first-year student?

It’s important to build a life beyond law school. Try not to get overwhelmed right away by the number of courses and assignments, because everything does eventually fall into place. Find your balance, whether through exercise or social experiences or, like so many of my students are doing now, by serving the community through student organizations or other volunteer opportunities.

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