Bonnie Mitchell Reflects

After 28 years at the College of Law, a popular and influential clinical professor looks back on a legacy of service and innovation

Bonnie Mitchell, a beloved clinical professor at the College of Law, will retire in 2015 after almost 30 years of service to the college. In this interview, she candidly reflects on her experiences, describes the changes she helped introduce to legal education, and reveals how the idea for the Fordham Debate was hatched over a chili dinner at her house. Due to space restrictions, with Bonnie’s consent and cooperation, her thoughtful responses here have been edited for length. To read the full interview, visit law.utah.edu

Before joining the faculty, for eight years you held several senior administrative appointments. Most are not aware of this part of your law school career. What are some of your most memorable accomplishments?

A bit of history for context: Ned Spurgeon was appointed dean of the College of Law in 1984, and his consummate administrative talents were exactly what the college needed at that pivotal point in legal education. The University was on the quarter system and the law school was on the semester system, which created a bureaucratic nightmare for everyone. And U.S. News premiered its annual law school ranking in 1987, disrupting the way law schools “did business.” I joined Ned’s administrative team first as director and then Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Services. Later I served as Associate Dean for Program Development and Communications.

Admissions – My charge was to expand recruiting geographically, increase the applicant pool, and improve diversity among the student body where we had struggled to enroll more minority students and women. During my last year in Admissions, there was a record number of applications, the enrolled class had record high academic predictors, 18% were students of color. And—drum roll— 51% were women.

Student Services – By the time I moved on to my next administrative appointment, law students no longer had to trek up to the Student Services building for registration, financial aid, transcripts, and other transactions, often to discover their registration hadn’t been processed correctly or their financial aid check was lost in the system. Student Services was its own administrative unit at the law school, fully staffed by law school personnel.

Program Development – This position involved fundraising, and seeking major gifts and grant writing. It was my honor to travel and work closely with Dean Lee Teitelbaum, a most gracious, humble, and absolutely fascinating person.

What I consider my administrative legacy at the law school is pitching the idea to acquire Wallace Stegner’s name for the Energy Law Center. Bob Keiter, the Center’s director, jumped at the idea. Before the day’s end, we had a one-page memo that we walked up to the president’s office. I thought if we could just get the name, the money would come. And we did get the name and the money did come.

You were involved in the development of the annual Fordham Debate, now one of the college’s signature events. Can you talk about that history and what the inspiration was to create a debate focused on important contemporary issues?  

For decades, student publications at the college were the Law Review and the Journal. The Journal comprised both the Journal of Energy Law and Policy (JELP) and the Journal of Contemporary Law (JCL), with separate editorial boards but a combined staff. When I was an editor of JELP, I invited several journal alums over for chili dinner. I convinced them they needed to form a Journal Alumni Association to provide mentorship and continuity of transition for new editorial boards. Of course, the Journal Alumni Association also needed an annual event because the Law Review had one. And of course the event had to be radically different from the Law Review’s academic symposium. We decided what the law school needed was an event that would attract not only the law school community but also the University community, the bar and the bench, and the local community. A provocative debate about contemporary issues was the most likely format to accomplish the goal. Naming it in honor of Professor Jefferson B. Fordham was a no-brainer. He was a renowned national figure who championed individual rights and civil liberties. Most important, though, the charter members of the Journal Alumni Association at the chili dinner that night—Russ Fericks, Patrick O’Hara, and my husband Tom Mitchell—were Fordham devotees. (Seriously. Russ named his first son Jefferson Fordham Fericks).

We knew the first debate topic would be important and set the tone for future debates. I think we nailed it. “Be it resolved: The Practice of Law is Contrary to the Public Interest.”

When you were appointed to the faculty, how did you take what was a pretty traditional approach to teaching legal writing and transform it into today’s lauded Legal Methods program? 

The wellspring of transformation and innovation may be a person’s idea. But there is no transformation or innovation unless the idea is developed, implemented, and tested. That’s the hard part and it takes time and team effort. When I made the move from full-time administration to teach in the legal writing program, Professor Kate Lahey had been at the helm for several years, laboring to develop the program with limited resources. It was just Kate and a handful of TAs, at a time when most law schools had no formal legal writing program. Kate hired two half-time clinical faculty to allow the program to be fully graded, and in short order, I and then Bill Richards joined Kate. When Kate left soon after, Bill and I teamed for the next 20 years to build, remodel, add, demolish, and update the Legal Methods Program based on the solid footings Kate had established.

How did students’ approach to learning change during your time as a professor, and how did you adapt to those changes when developing curriculum? 

In general, how students learn hasn’t really changed, but recent advances in learning sciences provide insight into how students learn so we can adapt teaching to better match what we know about learning. Here’s the rub—we’re not entirely hard-wired at birth to learn in a specific way. Rather, the brain circuitry wires itself in different areas in response to each person’s motor and sensory experiences, aided by some key chemicals. Our technology-infused life definitely has been a game changer in how students are wired to learn. Over the last decade, faculty have had to teach students who, in the same course, are digital natives, digital immigrants, and digital deniers. And nearly all of us teaching are digital immigrants. That’s definitely been a challenge. Most students now don’t know life before technology immersion, but in secondary school, more are learning how to use technology as a tool, not a toy, so I think it will get easier. Besides, the law school has the most amazing IT and educational instruction staff to assist faculty in becoming proficient with technology, and adapt to the student learners of today. Most interesting is recent research showing that when digital natives begin college, which requires more than Googling for the superficial, they prefer books—actual paper they can touch—rather than e-materials. This is surprising data, and I’m curious to see how it will affect learning and teaching.

From your perspective, what is clinical legal education doing well? What could it do better or differently?

I think clinical education at the law school has always done well within the constraints of resources allocated and under the long-time direction of professor Linda Smith. It continues to improve by providing more opportunities for students to apply their knowledge of the law in supervised, professional contexts. I think “non-clinical” legal education is improving because more faculty understand skills education is not something tied only to clinical education.

You have been a tremendously popular professor at the College of Law and have provided support and pep talks to countless stressed-out 1Ls. What was the secret of your seemingly endless positive energy?

It takes as much energy to be negative as it does to be positive, so I don’t think there’s any secret: only a mindful choice that, granted, sometimes is a lot harder to make than at other times. Working one-on-one and supporting stressed-out students re-charged me to continue the grueling work of editing and grading legal methods papers for so many years. And I never forgot how miserable, lost, and insecure I was in law school and would share that with students.

What are your retirement plans? 

Who retires from the law faculty the semester before the college of law moves into a new building that also is designed to be the “Gateway to the University?” Obviously, retirement wasn’t on my radar until my health unexpectedly took me on a roller coaster ride, and it became clear that it wouldn’t return me to pick up where I left off. I’m still on the roller coaster—aren’t we all? But I no longer think about when or where it will end. Instead, I’m learning to find joy and satisfaction in the present. I’ve come to appreciate what is most important in life is relationships—spending time with family and friends, making new friends, and reconnecting with lost ones. I know I could not have maintained the energy I have to continue to fight the fight with vigor if not for those relationships and the unflagging support of the most fantastic husband and daughter one could ever hope to have.

Of course, I have a bucket list, too. I will find a way to stay connected with the law school family I already achingly miss, and especially with students and former TA’s; that is a big chunk of who I am, and I’ve poured my heart and soul into this amazing institution. Similar to Ned Spurgeon at the time, Bob Adler’s talents and leadership are exactly what this law school needs during this disruptive time in legal education and law practice. I hope to continue working on legal education reform, but I will miss being a central part of the exciting work the faculty is doing now examining curricular and teaching methods and proposing thoughtful changes. I also plan to pursue my interest in complex adaptive systems theory applied to the legal system and in particular the judicial process, hoping to expand civics education outside of law school.

A new direction is my involvement with the Ehlers Danlos National Foundation to raise awareness about the rare inherited collagen disorder I have (EDS). My efforts will be focused on educating physicians in Utah. I’ve yet to find a single one—and I’ve lost track of how many doctors I’ve seen in Utah in the last two years—that has accurate or more than trivial knowledge about EDS. Certainly none understand how complicated EDS can be because it affects every system in the body that has collagen—which is every system in the body. My endgame will be to identify primary care and specialists in Utah who are intellectually curious and motivated to learn, and have them connect as a team so those of us with EDS in Utah don’t have to go out of state for treatment if they can afford it, or have to hold fundraisers to go out of state, or what is sadly most common, receive inappropriate treatment.

For information about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) visit www.ednf.org