Recently Attorney at Law Magazine had the opportunity to speak with L. Song Richardson, dean and chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. A dedicated civil rights attorney and activist, Richardson enjoys joint appointments in the UCI’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society and in the Department of Asian American Studies. Under her leadership, UCI Law broke records and achieved unprecedented success, including becoming the only law school less than 10 years old to achieve the rank of No. 21 by U.S. News and World Report.
A brilliant scholar, vibrant speaker, acclaimed author and gifted musician, Richardson seems to encompass not only a wealth of knowledge and talent, but a profound wisdom in how to best utilize all these skills.
AALM: What drew you to a career in law?
SR: I had a transformative experience during college when I worked at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. It was there that I saw first-hand how racism works. I learned that while the quintessential racist, who treats people differently based on their race in an open and obvious way exists, people can also engage in racism with a smile and a kind word. Working with lawyers who fought against both types of racism was inspiring. While working at MCAD, I decided to become a civil rights lawyer and to devote my career to uncovering racism and challenging racism in all of its forms.
AALM: What prompted your transition from practicing law to academics?
SR: During my time as a public defender and then partner in a small criminal defense practice, I was fortunate to meet incredible lawyers and clinical law professors from across the country. One of these professors invited me to apply to a visiting professor position that had opened up at her school. At the time, I had just completed a brutally long murder trial and was ready for a break. I applied and was offered the position to teach criminal procedure in the Fall semester. I discovered that I loved teaching. I applied for a permanent position and the school offered me a tenure track position teaching criminal procedure and criminal law.
AALM: You have been described as an “expert in implicit racial and gender bias” and indeed frequently called upon by various organizations for this expertise. Can you tell us about your own personal experiences with this?
SR: I’ve had too many personal experiences with implicit racial and gender bias to recount. I’ll simply share one recurring one. My name, “Song Richardson,” is ambiguous as to gender. Since becoming dean, I’ve noticed that when people who don’t know me are referring to me in the third person, they often assume that I am male and use the pronoun “he.” I can’t help but wonder if this is because unconsciously, they think that the person holding the position of dean must be male.
AALM: How has being a woman and minority impacted your career?
SR: As a result of my identity as a mixed-race female person of color, I have had experiences throughout my life that informed my career choices. I’ve been very fortunate to feel like I haven’t worked a day in my life because I’ve always been able to spend my career fighting for racial and gender equity.
AALM: When you became the dean of UCI School of Law it was noted that you were the only “woman of color” leading a Top 30 law school. What significance does that hold for you?
SR: There are many incredible females of color who could be leading top law schools. The fact that I was the only woman of color to lead a top law school at the time of my appointment speaks volumes about how much more progress we still have to make to achieve gender and racial equity. We all have a responsibility to make the personal, institutional and systemic changes that are necessary to address this problem. It won’t be easy, but it is critically important.
AALM: You are also a gifted musician. You won the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra’s Concerto Competition in college and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. How do you feel this facet of your life impacted your life and career?
SR: I think the primary way this has impacted my life is that it helped me develop grit and discipline. Growing up, I practiced six to eight hours on school days, and eight to ten hours on weekends. I had one day off from practicing – the day before school started after summer break. This discipline and hard work has served me well in every job I’ve held. I also learned never to back away from a challenge. No matter how difficult a new piece might appear, I knew that I could conquer it if I broke it up into smaller pieces and kept at it until I succeeded. I carry this lesson with me to this day. Finally, and most importantly, I learned to fail. When I was on stage performing with an orchestra, it simply wasn’t an option to give up and walk off when I made a mistake. I had to keep going. And, after the performance, I would have to ask myself why I failed and learn from the experience. While I do not like to fail, I also know that it is part of achieving success and that if I don’t fail, it means that I’m not pushing myself hard enough.
AALM: How do you think law schools can better prepare students for the practice of law in the areas of discrimination?
SR: I think that discussion of race and racism should be a part of every law school class. Too often, discussions of race are silo’d into specialized classes on race and the law. These specialized classes are important because they allow students to dig deeper into the issues. However, given the racialized history of our country, issues of race touch every area of the law and I think that students should be exposed to it. Otherwise, it is too easy to believe that these issues do not continue impact our world today.
AALM: While you were attending law school, what kind of career did you imagine attaining? How does your career differ today from those ambitions?
SR: I attended law school because I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I was fortunate to achieve my dream once I graduated. I never once thought that I would be a law professor or a dean of a top law school. My own career trajectory demonstrates that we never really know what we are capable of doing with our lives and that we should remain open to new opportunities that we never would have imagined possible.
AALM: You have initiated so many original programs to expand the law student experience. What is your inspiration for these programs?
SR: One of UCI Law’s strengths is that we challenge the status quo and we are not mired in tradition. As a school, we are committed to diversity and inclusion, and we are courageous and innovative. We create these programs because we want to ensure that students at UCI Law dream big, see their potential, and believe that they are capable of doing anything they set their minds to doing.
AALM: Tell us about one of the most important lessons you learned from a personal or professional mentor.
SR: I learned to “Say yes at the door.” That is, when a new experience or opportunity is made available to you, don’t let your own insecurities and fear of failure prevent you from jumping in and trying it.
AALM: What is the most important lesson your parents taught you?
SR: They taught be the important of tolerance, empathy, and never giving up no matter what challenges one might face.
AALM: You are a celebrated and prolific writer. Could you tell us about the book you’re currently working on?
SR: The publisher asked me to write a short, provocative book that speaks to the zeitgeist of the current moment. The book will be based in part on my personal experiences navigating race and gender, in part on my research and in part on my experiences and the lessons I have learned giving talks and consulting across the country on the topic of implicit racial and gender bias.
AALM: What advice would you give to new attorneys, particularly women and minorities?
SR: The advice I would give is to dream big and to never give up no matter what challenges may be placed in one’s path. If we are open to new experiences and push ourselves to achieve more than we thought we ever could, then we will inevitably experience failure, we will experience times when we don’t live up to our high expectations for ourselves. In my view, this is a positive thing. If we don’t experience failure, it means we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough and that we are afraid of taking risks. The key is to learn from our mistakes. Additionally, I would also say to ignore the critics. Instead, find people you respect and trust who will tell you when you have failed to live your values and when you have done something well. These are the people whose advice and good counsel you should take into account. Ignore the others. Finally, you should seek out mentors and sponsors. These might be people who have walked in your shoes, or these might be people who are very different from you. The key is to find people who are honest with you, who provide you with constructive advice and feedback, and who will sponsor you for opportunities that will help you to grow in your profession.
AALM: Tell us about your life outside academia. Do you have any hobbies or interests that you are passionate about?
SR: I am passionate about eating and cooking delicious food and I’m passionate about puzzles, whether it is sudoku, logic games or the more traditional 3000-piece puzzles. I love to karaoke with friends. It is very difficult to pry the mic from my hands once I have it.