Office Hours with Professor Angela P. Harris

This week, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Angela P. Harris, distinguished professor at the UC Davis School of Law, Boochever and Bird endowed chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom of Equality, and director of Aoki Center for Critical Race and Nation Studies. A warm welcome and many thanks for her willingness to contribute to this series with the following interview:

Office Hours

What drew you to law school? First as a law student and then as a professor.

I went to law school for a terrible reason, but a terrible reason that was very common in the 1980s: I couldn’t figure out what else to do! I was a creative writing major at the University of Michigan, and had always planned to become a fiction writer. After living in New York City (well, Teaneck, New Jersey) for a year with a million cockroaches, working as a medical transcriber and trying to write and find jobs in publishing on the side, I decided it was just not going to work out, and I went back to graduate school at the University of Chicago to regroup. I fell in love with critical theory while in graduate school in the social sciences at the U of C.  But after a year I was worried again, having met a Ph.D. student driving a taxi. It was a close choice between law school and a Ph.D. in Social Thought, but in the end I decided a law degree would be more practical. I had heard that it would be a versatile degree as well.

Three years later, I graduated from law school at the University of Chicago still not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I went and worked for a big corporate law firm in San Francisco because it seemed like a way to make good money while still figuring out what I wanted to do. I was pretty unhappy almost immediately. I was too introverted to enjoy litigation, and transactional work for the firm’s corporate clients was boring and stressful at the same time. In my quest to get out of my law firm, I went back and talked to a professor who had mentored me in law school. He told me there was an opening on the tenure-track faculty at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and he knew the chair of the hiring committee. I interviewed for the position and lo and behold, was hired. My supervisor at the law firm was incredulous. I wasn’t much of a corporate attorney, but it turned out that my love for critical social theory was good preparation for being a law professor!

How has your career trajectory evolved to include writing extensively in the field of critical legal theory, and what does this field entail?

The legal scholar Gerald Wetlaufer once wrote something to the effect that the law’s first client is always itself. Critical legal theory doesn’t buy the law’s hype about itself; it’s a way of studying both the positive and the negative effects of the legal system we have, and understanding how law operates in its historical and social context. Law is not only a series of rules and procedures for settling disputes; it also functions, as the critical legal studies people say, as a tool of “legitimation.”  Legitimation means that legal insiders – advocates, legislators, and judges – constantly reassure themselves and the public that our legal system is fair, neutral, objective, and provides right answers to hard questions. Critical legal theorists, informed by morality and ethics, try to expose the ways in which this is not true. We challenge the law in the name of justice.

Critical legal theory has a lot of offshoots, and the two I have been most involved with are critical race theory and feminist theory. Critical race theory examines the way in which law – even anti-discrimination law -- capitulates to and sometimes facilitates racism. Feminist legal theory has a similar objective based on sex/gender. And since all forms of subordination on the basis of identity are entwined, being critical about law’s potential for racism and sexism also draws one’s attention to the limits of the law with respect to political and social relations around sexuality, disability, nationality, and other axes of oppression.

You have pioneered a seminar called “Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact.” Could you give an example of one concept you teach students in this seminar?

One of the most important ideas that I try to leave students with is something that they really already know, but are not encouraged to reflect upon: Law school only explicitly teaches and values a tiny sliver of the qualities necessary for being a good lawyer.  We professors focus almost exclusively on teaching students how to “think like a lawyer,” which is an extremely technical and intellectual skill usually absorbed by the end of the first year. In the real world, the most successful and beloved lawyers are often not the ones who are best at manipulating doctrine. They’re the ones who have the “soft skills” of being able to relate in a human way to clients, colleagues, and professional contacts. They’re the ones who are aware of their own emotional baggage and can deal with it appropriately rather than retreating into overwork, substance abuse, and burnout. They have a sense of humility and humor about themselves. And they are pursuing their work because of its intrinsic rewards – because they find their field, whatever it is, compelling, not because being a lawyer is prestigious or pays well.  

Giving students the space and time to think about why they are really in law school can be transformative. Some students are reassured; they know they are on the right path for them. Other students realize that they don’t really want to be lawyers at all. Sometimes they’re there just to make a lot of money, to please their parents – or, like me some decades ago, because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. I try to give those people permission to follow their passion, even if it has nothing to do with the law.

What does it mean to succeed and thrive as a law student?

The key to thriving in law school goes back to this idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward. Law school has a very elaborate system of extrinsic rewards.  As a first-year law student, of course, everyone is taking the same courses and competing for grades. Getting good grades opens the door for other kinds of merit badges, like job offers and clerkships and research assistantships. Then there are other kinds of competitive activities that offer resume value, like moot court competitions and law review. It’s very easy to get caught up in trying to win at all of these activities because that’s what everyone else is doing. But real success means understanding that these activities don’t determine your ultimate worth. They are means to an end. The happiest and most successful law students are often, I find, students who didn’t come right from college, but spent time working for a while and maybe even starting a family before going to law school. They’re happy and successful because they’ve really thought about why they want to be a lawyer, and because they have a life outside law school. Don’t do it for the cookie; do it for yourself!

Do you have any recommendations for pre-law students as they prepare for law school, particularly as the summer approaches?

There’s not really any good way to prepare for the experience of law school itself – it’s so unique and overwhelming. I think the best way to prepare is to make sure you have a solid support system of friends, family, and activities that make you feel happy and healthy.

How have you integrated work-life balance in your endeavors, and what advice do you have for those who are about to immerse themselves in such a demanding career?

I like the advice that “you can’t have it all, at least not all at once.” There’s no such thing as striking a perfect balance every moment between “work” and “life.” Life is long, and I think it’s good to recognize that sometimes work is going to come first, and sometimes other things.

A few years after becoming a law professor, for instance, I decided to have a child on my own. Parenting is incredibly time-consuming, and I ended up reducing my working hours while my daughter was small. It worked for me to keep my job when I became a parent, because teaching has that inherent flexibility. But others might find themselves giving up a job that’s incompatible with their other activities and changing to something more forgiving. Every career has its twists and turns, and sometimes you won’t be able to foresee what they are. Life is a crazy journey!

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