University of Tennessee College of Law Dean Melanie D. Wilson, the Lindsay Young Distinguished Professor of Law, enjoyed 13 years of law practice in both the private and public sectors, including six years as an assistant United States attorney and four years as an assistant attorney general for the state of Georgia. Recipient of the Howard M. and Susan Immel Award for Teaching Excellence and named Outstanding Woman Educator of 2015 by the University of Kansas, she has also co-authored three books on criminal procedure and has published more than a dozen articles and essays addressing prosecutorial ethics and the Fourth and Sixth Amendments. Attorney at Law Magazine had the privilege of speaking with her.
AALM: Can you give us a brief overview of your career in law?
MW: I feel so fortunate to have chosen law as my professional career path. I have enjoyed so many wonderful and challenging professional opportunities because of my law degree. Among those opportunities — a judicial clerkship for a federal district court judge in Atlanta; some big firm litigation experiences; work as an assistant state attorney general; work representing the United States as an assistant U.S. attorney. But the best of all of those enjoyable experiences has been the privilege to teach budding lawyers and to lead a team of law faculty and administrators dedicated to educating the next generation of lawyers and leaders.
AALM: What prompted the transition from private practice to academia?
MW: The transition was a natural one for me. I grew up in a family that placed tremendous value on education. During my undergraduate work, I tutored other student athletes (I was a college golfer). And, when I was given a chance to break into legal education as a professor, I was incredibly grateful. I remain just as excited for that opportunity today as on my first day as a law teacher.
AALM: What do you perceive as the most significant changes among law schools over the past decade?
MW: Definitely a move toward preparing law students to practice law, as opposed to theorize about law. Now the challenge is how to find a balance of teaching analytical and problem-solving skills while also teaching practical skills. The emphasis on the practical will continue, in my opinion, as technology continues to advance.
Now the challenge is how to find a balance of teaching analytical and problem-solving skills while also teaching practical skills.
AALM: What is the biggest change you see coming ahead for law schools?
MW: I taught the last quarter of my course in criminal procedure through Zoom, supplemented with video and audio recordings. This crisis has forced us to take a giant step forward in thinking about how we deliver legal education in non-traditional ways. As with every challenge, COVID-19 has offered us an opportunity to see first-hand how technology is making it possible, and even mandatory, that we reimagine how we approach teaching and learning and that we adapt while keeping our educational goals.
AALM: How do you think law schools can better prepare students for the practice of law?
MW: Law professors and lawyers are among the brightest and best problem solvers in our country. And, by its nature, the future is unknown. I think that law schools can best prepare for the future when faculty, staff, and administrators within the school, work together. When you convince a law school full of smart people to imagine what the best law schools will look like in 2050 and then set goals for moving in that direction, you are certain to remain ready to prepare students well for the ever-changing legal practice.
When you convince a law school full of smart people to imagine what the best law schools will look like in 2050 and then set goals for moving in that direction
AALM: While you were attending law school, what kind of career did you imagine attaining? How does your career differ today from those ambitions?
MW: I’m a first-generation college and law student, so I did not have clear expectations for my future. I lacked role models who were lawyers. But I chose law school because I knew that it was a strong educational base that would open a number of professional doors. I knew that I wanted to make a positive difference in the community and to serve people, but the rest was very fuzzy. So, I could have never imagined that I would eventually become dean at a great public law school.
AALM: You have initiated so many original programs to expand the law student experience. What is your inspiration for these programs?
MW: My first priority and my greatest inspiration is students. Our students arrive having accomplished so much and with such promise for even greater success. They bring new energy and ideas with them every semester. They inspire me and each other. And, when you meet with them, engage with them, and hear from them, you begin to notice opportunities to fill gaps in services we provide. As one example, we created a voluntary pre-orientation program for non-traditional students, defined broadly. That program, which ensures that every student, no matter their background, starts her first law school class prepared to learn and grow, was born from a need to level the field for 1L students.
AALM: You are recognized as a dedicated and effective proponent of diversity, specifically within the leadership team in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. Could you talk about your experience in your efforts?
MW: I believe strongly in hiring, promoting, and mentoring the best and brightest. When you minimize implicit bias in these processes, you almost always end up with a strong and diverse pool of candidates. I work with a diverse and talented team, most of whom I selected or promoted. It’s both fun and rewarding to work with such a strong team, and diversity of cultures, ideas, backgrounds, and other traits help us reach better outcomes for our students and the institution.
AALM: How would you rate/evaluate the progress of diversity in this area in general among all law schools?
MW: Law schools continue to strive to diversify faculty, staff, and students, but there is more work to do, especially around attracting more diverse students. Minorities have traditionally been underrepresented in the legal profession and continue to be. The ABA released a report in 2019 indicating that the percentage of women lawyers remains at 36 percent and that only five percent of lawyers are African-American. These numbers remain disappointingly low, given the increase in diversity in our country.
AALM: What advice would you give to new attorneys, particularly women and minorities?
Find mentors. Find champions …
MW: Find mentors. Find champions, and find some that look like you and think like you. But also find many who do not look like you or share your background. We all need supporters, women and minorities especially. And, we need support from members of the majority.
AALM: Who is the Melanie who lets down her hair and cuts loose?
MW: I love to laugh. I like to dance. I don’t take myself too seriously. I enjoy almost anything outdoors – paddle boarding, running, golfing, walking, hiking, gardening, anything. I also enjoy putting together puzzles and reading. I have three large dogs – Stella Mae (English Mastiff), Leaper (English Mastiff), and Choden (Great Dane) – and two cats (Howie and Calloway). They are all wonderful. My partner and I spend a lot of time with all of them.