An Interview with Professor Michele LaVigne

Portrait of Michele LaVigne in the classroom

"Law matters because of the effect
it has on the individuals it touches."

Q. What do you study?
"Study" is the right word, because it means that I still have a lot to learn. I study deafness and hearing loss, their impact on language acquisition, and what that all means when deaf and hard of hearing people come into the legal system. I've been lucky enough to work with many talented individuals from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and they have been very generous with their knowledge.

Why is your work important?
I obviously hope my work has some positive impact on the quality of justice for deaf and hard of hearing people, not only because it influences how lawyers and judges deal with deaf people, but because it encourages more deaf and hard of hearing people to go to law school.

How does the Law School's law-in-action approach influence your research or your teaching?
For me, law only exists in-action. Law matters because of the effect it has on the individuals it touches. Every one of those people has a story and that's where the excitement and the truth can be found. So, when I write or talk about deafness and due process, I tell stories about a deaf person who was misunderstood and why, or about one of the brilliant kids at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf. And when I teach about the Fourth Amendment, I tell stories about the cop facing a situation on the street or the judge who assesses the situation from the distance of the bench.

What did you do before you became a law professor?
I was a public defender in Wisconsin for ten years. It's a title I still wear with pride. Once a public defender, always a public defender, I guess.

Why did you go to law school?
Honestly, I was one of those political science majors who sort of fell into law school. But I as soon as I walked into my first clinical after my first year, I knew I'd made the right choice.

How do you spend your time outside of work?
I have an out of control garden. I'm trying to learn jazz improvisation on the piano. I knit (my Irish aunt taught me when I was 10), read, and hang out with my husband and friends. And I have a son in high school. I spend time nagging and worrying.

What's the best thing about your job?
I work for an institution that encourages us to follow our passions. When I said that I wanted to try a mock trial program for high school kids at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, the law school's reaction was "Great. What can we do to make it happen?" The law school is a place where energy and innovation rule. I still marvel that they actually pay me to do this.

If you could choose one person (living or dead) to take to lunch, who would it be?
Tim Jaech, the former superintendent at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf. He had an abundance of insight and wisdom and was always happy to share. Tim was one of the best teachers I've ever had.

What do you like best about living in Madison?
I live in the city, fairly close to downtown. I can hop on my bike and go to one of our many farmers' markets, to a movie, or to visit a friend. When I walk my dog at night, I look across the lake, see the capitol and the Monona Terrace lit up, and I am reminded once again that Madison is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.

Do you have any advice for an incoming 1L?
Take advantage of the wide range of opportunities the law school has to offer. And of course, get involved with one, or two, or three of our clinics. Regardless of the kind of law you want to go into, working in a clinic will teach you valuable lessons about lawyering. Outside of law school, I recommend that you read at least one novel a semester. It will keep you in touch with reality.

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