Rachel Moran: Charting the Legal Landscape

Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with attorney Rachel Moran to discuss her motivations and pioneering work. Over the course of her career, she has achieved many “firsts.” She was the first Latina law professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and later the first Latina dean at UCLA School of Law. Moran shares insights into her experiences, her challenges and her aspirations. 

AALM: What motivated you to pursue a career in law?

RM: When I was in college, I struggled with whether to pursue a law degree or a Ph.D. in psychology. My father was a lawyer, but I also greatly enjoyed the psychology classes that I had taken for my major at Stanford.

As I was wrestling with my choice, two of my professors asked me to assist them with a research project. The Department of Labor had recently issued guidelines to diversify hiring in the construction industry, but there were no guidelines for women. The DOL defended the omission by saying that women were not interested in construction jobs. My professors’ research showed that women were not interested when there were no guidelines, but when there were, they were very interested. My professors testified about their findings, and the DOL ultimately included women in the guidelines.

Not too long thereafter, my family and I were traveling down the freeway past a federal highway construction project. A worker stood up, and it was a woman in a hardhat. In that moment, I realized the tremendous power of law to shape people’s lives, and I chose to become a lawyer.

AALM: How did your upbringing and diverse cultural background shape your approach to the legal profession?

RM: At the age of 10, I moved with my family to Yuma, Arizona, a town on the border between the United States and Mexico. There were a number of students who spoke English as a second language, and my mother worked as a Spanish-language interpreter in the courts. Bilingualism was a way of life at the border, and I brought an interest in that topic with me to college and law school.

During my first year at Stanford, I did research on court interpreters and access to justice for non-English-speaking defendants. Later, in law school, I continued to work on bilingual issues, this time arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court should apply an intermediate standard of review to classifications that burdened non-English speakers. That piece was published in the Yale Law Journal as a student note. Then, when I became a law professor at UC Berkeley, I worked extensively on issues related to bilingual education, and I taught a class on bilingualism and the law.

There was very little scholarship on these questions at the time, but the topic became more visible and controversial with the rise of the official English movement in the 1980s.

AALM: As the first Latina law professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and the first Latina dean of a top-ranked US law school at UCLA School of Law, what challenges did you face in breaking barriers, and how do you hope to inspire other underrepresented individuals in the legal field?

RM: When I arrived at Berkeley Law, I was the first entry-level person of color ever hired there. There were a few senior faculty of color, but no junior faculty who had gone through the tenure process. So, the law school did not have the experience of nurturing and mentoring someone like me. At the time, there were very few Latinos in the legal academy, and nearly all of them were men. As a result, there was not a lot of experience with Latino faculty at the national level, either.

In short, there really wasn’t a road map for moving forward, but in the end, I succeeded in getting tenure and eventually an endowed chair. I think several factors were key to this happy outcome.

First, I never lost sight of my own sense of purpose in pursuing an academic career. Given the small numbers of Latinos in law teaching, I thought it was imperative that I do research that would raise the visibility of issues like bilingual education and help students like the ones I grew up with in Yuma.

Second, I had a wonderful support network in my parents, who not only served as a sounding board but also steadfastly believed in my possibilities.

Third, there were colleagues who very much wanted me to succeed and to create a path for future junior faculty of color, constructing the road map I did not have.

AALM: Tell us about your work on the project, “The Future of Latinos in the United States.”

RM: When I was the inaugural William H. Neukom Fellows Research Chair in Diversity and Law at the American Bar Foundation (ABF), I worked with Robert L. Nelson, the ABF’s Director Emeritus, to launch “The Future of Latinos in the United States: Law, Opportunity, and Mobility” in 2015. The project focuses on Latinos, who are projected to make up nearly 28% of the U.S. population by 2060, while non-Hispanic whites will account for 44%, Blacks 15%, and Asian Americans 9%. The Latino population is disproportionately youthful, and it will play a vital role in the nation’s growth and prosperity in the coming years.

Faced with unprecedented demographic change, the United States must consider how to use laws and policies that can drive mobility for Latinos. Clearly, education is a major factor. The good news is that the college-going gap between Latinos and other racial and ethnic groups has been narrowing steadily; the bad news is that the college graduation gap persists. Latinos are especially dependent on community colleges to get their start in higher education, so it is critical that these institutions provide quality instruction that allows students to transfer to four-year institutions in a timely way.

Problems of financing a college degree also loom large for Latinos, whose families typically command less income and wealth than non-Hispanic white families do. With respect to immigration, undocumented status poses significant obstacles to pursuing a college degree and securing gainful employment. The rates of college- going among undocumented youth remain low, even with some federal protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

As for economic participation, Latinos are the most entrepreneurial racial or ethnic group in the country, but their aspirations for business success are thwarted by extremely limited access to capital.

Finally, Latinos’ rates of voter registration and turnout have increased in recent years. In a closely divided electorate, Latino support can be the key to victory, especially in critical swing states. Unlike African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, a significant minority of Latinos vote Republican. One consultant has called Latinos “the last wild card” in American politics, and both the Democratic and Republican parties should be thinking about how to enlist this ever more important constituency’s support.

AALM: Your expertise includes educational policy-making and the law, among other areas. Could you elaborate on the significance of this field and its impact on shaping society?

RM: I have taught educational policy and the law for many years, and I have never seen as much division and discord over schooling as in recent years. As philosopher Amy Gutman explained in her book on “Democratic Education,” the authority to make decisions about schooling rests with the State, parents, and children themselves. The challenge is to find the right balance among these three decision-makers, and lately, there have been increasingly acrimonious disputes over who should have the final word.

Parents have demanded more say over their children’s education, and state legislators have been passing laws to establish a parental bill of rights.  At the same time, the school population has grown increasingly diverse, meaning that parents may have widely divergent notions of how children should be educated. That puts school administrators and teachers in the crosshairs as they try to forge a common school in divided times.

Some parents have responded by finding ways to pursue private alternatives to public schools. Arizona recently passed legislation giving every family in the state the option of receiving a voucher to pay for private school tuition. These ideological battles are happening as issues of unequal education persist and have even worsened due to the pandemic. The push to privatize education threatens the resources that public schools need to support learning for the most disadvantaged students.

Schools serve many purposes: They are engines of upward mobility, they are places to develop a sense of common identity and shared fate, and they offer an opportunity to encounter a range of backgrounds and perspectives. Schools are facing unprecedented challenges even as they remain essential to educating a productive workforce and a healthy polity.

AALM: As a faculty member at UC Berkeley School of Law for 25 years, could you share some of the most memorable moments or achievements from your time there?

RM: There are two highlights from my career at Berkeley Law that I will share with you. I was fortunate that Dean Herma Hill Kay nominated me for the Robert D. and Leslie-Kay Raven Chair at the law school.  As part of receiving the chair, I was asked to deliver a lecture on my research. I gave a speech on work that I was doing for my book on “Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance.” It was a thrill to share my findings, which challenged the traditional focus on race in public law by showing how the most private parts of our lives—ones we might think were beyond law’s reach—in fact were integral to regulating racial identity.

The second highlight came when I received the Distinguished Teaching Award, again under Dean Kay’s leadership. This was a campus-wide honor, given to just a few Berkeley faculty each year.  When I was asked to prepare a statement on teaching, I was able to honor my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lola Clevenger, who had meant so much to me as a child.  Mrs. Clevenger nurtured my love of learning in a deep and abiding way, and I have carried her kindness and her confidence in me for a lifetime.

AALM: With your extensive research and contributions to the legal field, what advice do you have for aspiring law students and young legal professionals who aim to make a positive impact on society through their work?

RM: I am always impressed with the optimism and idealism of the law students I teach. They make thoughtful and deliberate decisions about how to prepare themselves to provide the highest quality representation to their clients. Knowledge and skills are foundational, but there is more to success than that. It’s important to understand the comparative advantages you have in making a difference. You have your law degree with the credibility and authority that brings. You will have different work environments that offer distinct opportunities. A public interest or government position may allow you to work full-time on issues you care about. A law firm job can give you access to pro bono cases as well as the in-depth support necessary to litigate them.

Even with the finest preparation and ample resources, there will be setbacks, and it’s important to learn from these disappointments. It’s critical to keep your larger goals in mind and remain resilient in the face of defeat. Failure should neither define nor deter you; instead, it should help you to grow as a lawyer and a person. If you have a strong network of support, your trusted confidantes can help you regroup and return to the fray.

While you may tend to focus on the big wins or losses, there will be many small victories along the way. Don’t forget to savor them, too.

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