Susan Duncan (Class of 1987)

  • Susan Duncanmajor in Speech Communications
  • minor in Political Science
  • Associate Professor of Law, Brandeis School of Law, University of Louisville
"Don't rush! … Just relax and learn for learning's sake."

Susan was interviewed by former Director of Miami's Pre-Law Program, Yvette Simpson, on May 18, 2008.

YS: What is your name?

SD: Susan Duncan

YS: What is your title?

SD: I am an associate professor of law at the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law.

YS: How many years have you been a professor?

SD: My first job as a professor was at the [University of Memphis] in 1994 and then I returned to the University of Louisville in 1997 and have been a professor in some capacity or another since '97.

YS: When did you realize you wanted to be a lawyer?

SD: Probably ever since I was a little girl. My father is a lawyer; my grandfather was a lawyer; so it was part of our family. At Miami I studied speech communication and thought about advertising for a little bit, but always seemed to gravitate back towards the law.

YS: What advice would you give to students who are considering law as a career?

SD: I think the first advice I would give to them is to study something they really love so they can do well academically because obviously their grades matter a great deal in the admissions process. So if they love what they're doing in college they'll usually succeed.

Any kind of class that requires critical thinking or problem solving skills will be very important. I also tell them to concentrate on writing skills, oral communication skills, research, and reading critically. Those are all important skills that we would like to see our graduates and our students have.

YS: Did you practice before teaching?

SD: Yes.

YS: For how many years and in what areas?

SD: I practiced for a year and a half at an insurance defense firm and I primarily worked on cases involving product liability. One of our clients was Eli Lilly and we worked on a Prozac case. When the CSX railroad was sued, we represented them. And we also did attorney malpractice so I represented attorneys who were sued.

YS: Wow. What advice would you give to students who are interested in entering the academic field?

SD: I think it's very different advice than you would give to someone who wants to practice … I wish someone had told me some of these things before I entered into the academic world.

Susan DuncanYou definitely have to be in the top of your class, say in the top 10%. Apply for the law journal and do as many extracurricular activities as you can and then, after you've graduated, think about either clerking for a federal judge or getting an LLM.

When you're picking a law school, pick the best one you can go to … that is very different from what I would tell students planning on a practice in their local markets. I went to the University of Louisville and I ended up teaching there—that's very rare that someone would be able to do that. My U of L degree probably would have been more helpful if I had practiced in Louisville than trying to get on the faculty at Louisville.

YS: Well, tell me how that happened. How did you become interested and get started in that area?

SD: I practiced for a year and a half and then we moved to Tennessee. I did not have enough practice years to get reciprocity yet so I took the TN bar thinking that I might want to practice. But plans changed and, when I started having children, I wanted a more flexible work situation to allow more time at home with them.

That's why I started teaching as an adjunct. It was then that I realized I enjoyed teaching much more than I did practicing. I really liked being around students. It was such a luxury to be able to read and write and learn in that setting—you didn't have the pressure of billable hours or anything like that. It was a very family-friendly position and I always loved school, so I felt I was well-suited to be a professor.

When I came back to Louisville I was an adjunct for 5 semesters, a visitor for a year, and then on long-term contracts, but that is not the traditional way of getting a tenure-track position. It is more typical, for candidates to attend a large conference in November in DC where the law schools interview for academic positions. The schools select their top candidates for academic positions and invite them for more thorough interviews. Some people affectionately call this process the 'meat market'.

Being a professor is a great job and I think a lot of people know that now. If you're going to practice for a while, it would help to develop expertise in a specific subject area, as well as write some articles while you're working. Schools will want to see whether you can be a productive scholar. They would be very impressed with a practicing attorney who is also publishing.

YS: Very interesting. You talked a little bit about the skills you think a student should have coming into law school … What are some of the personality traits that you think the students need if they are going to pursue law?

SD: Well, I really believe in a commitment to service. Even if your job is not a public interest position you still should do some pro bono or other charitable work. I believe you have been given a lot and a lot is expected from you now that you have this privilege … this degree. It is important to serve other people … to donate your expertise to people that need legal representation … even if you are going to work for a big firm.

You have to be well organized, I think, and a good time manager. You have to be very conscious of communicating with your senior partner, your clients, staff or whoever it is. Most attorneys get in trouble because they don't return calls or simple things like that.

Being intellectually curious and creative is important because a lot of times you need to create convincing arguments in your role as an advocate for your client.

Finally, I think to be happy in law, you have to know about balance, and that's one thing lawyers might not be good at. So, strike a balance among your family life, your firm life, and your personal development.

YS: What about skills and personality traits for students who want to be law professors?

SD: You work on your own a lot. As a law professor, there is nobody looking over you. You don't have billable hours. You have to be able to write on your own and get your classes together. The only way I will see if I am doing poorly is through student evaluations or if I don't get an article published. You need to be a self-starter, because you are alone a lot of times.

Susan DuncanYou have to adapt to different adult learning styles because in order to get your point across, you might have to use a different teaching style for different students. So you have to be flexible.

I think you need to be compassionate. Law is a very difficult, rigorous course of study that can seem foreign and be emotionally trying to a lot of students. Because I teach writing, I see them one-on-one more than my colleagues. So I often become the first person that hears about problems they are having.

Even though I am demanding and try to challenge them, I believe you also have to have a soft side to your personality so they feel they can confide in you and tell you their fears. Many fear they are going to fail or are concerned that they're not the smartest students in the class. I think they often lose confidence because they have never gotten a C, but a C will not necessarily make them a horrible lawyer.

YS: I think you have an amazing perspective that our students can value because you work with law students. What is the one thing that you wish more students would focus on before they come to law school?

SD: Writing. I teach writing so obviously that is probably going to be the most important skill to me. Students are often not familiar enough with even simple grammar rules. That is something that they need to address in order to write well.

Editing and proofing skills are also very important. They rely too much on electronic spell checks—these will not catch a word that's spelled correctly but is not the appropriate word in context. So I will see "statue" instead of "statute" a lot. I think they need to learn how to read legal material word by word and allow themselves enough time to do that.

In undergraduate school, a lot of intelligent people could complete course work at the last minute and come out okay—but they won't be able to do that in law school. If they do wait until the last minute, it is obvious that they have not taken adequate time to proofread. Since law often requires a higher level of analysis, more time is needed to organize written material.

It needs to be done in the proper format—a format that is new to most students. Learning this format is essentially like learning a new language to many students. It requires different skills—skills such as synthesis and making meaningful analogies and distinctions. So I think they underestimate the amount of time they need.

The more students can develop their writing skills in college, the better off they will be when they get to law school and, of course, they need to make sure they leave themselves enough time to do it properly once they get there.

YS: Now you've worked with quite a few students in their most important year, which is the first year. Is there something that you see now in students coming in that will let you know right away if the student is going to be okay?

SD: If a student comes to see me that's a really good sign. When I was at Miami, professors had an open-door policy and we took advantage of that. We were rarely taught by TAs, so maybe Miami students are better than others when it comes to talking with professors; they're used to visiting professors' offices, discussing test results and so forth.

I am surprised at the number of students who are hesitant to come see me—I can help students with their writing so much better if it is one-to-one, as compared to the classroom environment.

So in my experience the students that typically do well are the students that make regular appointments with me and are willing to listen to constructive criticism to make their writing better and are open to suggestions on how to improve their writing. They don't take criticism personally. They understand that I am trying to help them improve their writing and that my comments are not a reflection on them as a person or even what I think about them.

The students who won't make it or will have major difficulties are the ones that I never see. If I don't see them, I can't help them—and I don't know them, because we grade anonymously. So I don't know what their problems are. If they don't take any initiative, then they probably don't really want to be in law school.

YS: Tell me more about those students.

SD: I think that, for many of these students, their parents were attorneys or they are being somehow pressured from the outside. Or maybe some students weren't sure what to do after graduation, so they went into law school without thinking it out.

Law school is very rigorous; so if you don't want to be there and you don't enjoy the mental challenge, then you probably won't do well. And you'll be disappointed. I think too, the people in law school tend to be very type-A, driven people. Some students are not used to the egos and competitiveness of their fellow law students. And that can affect them.

Having said that, there are also lots of law students that are extremely generous with their time because they want to make a difference in the world, and I just love these students. More and more, I see students who provide support to the rest of their colleagues—so they are not all competitive.

YS: You'll like this next question. What books would you recommend for students if they want to learn more about lawyers and the profession?

SD: Well, we actually have some suggested readings on our website. I can't recall them all off the top of my head. We chose some fiction and some non-fiction.

Susan DuncanOne of the best books I like is Buffalo Creek Disaster; I used it as a part of my legal writing class one year. It's about 130 pages long and concerns a plaintiff's attorney's journey in relation to a coal mining disaster in West Virginia. We actually had that attorney visit our school and that was fascinating. It deals with Civil Procedure and ethical issues. It's a great quick read and it's wonderful for students.

And, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird; everybody who ever went to law school probably wants to be Atticus Finch. A Civil Action is another good one to read for fiction. But then there are some good books about law school and about fear.

Strunk & White, Elements of Style is one that I always tell them they should read and there are other ones covering a spectrum of things that would be helpful to students. They should read poetry and good fiction—quality writing no matter what it is.

When I teach persuasive writing (as opposed to objective writing), we listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" and we discuss the various persuasive techniques King uses. King uses them much more than we can use them in legal writing but I want them to start thinking about how they could use persuasive techniques.

In objective writing, the students follow IRAC (Issue Rule-Analysis-Conclusion). In contrast, with persuasive writing I want them to tell the story … really make their client come alive and use some of these persuasive writing techniques with short sentences, vivid verbs, and imagery.

If you read good fiction and good poetry you'll start to write better. It's just hard to find the time in law school to prepare for classes and read good fiction.

YS: What is your favorite movie, of the legal profession?

SD: I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, so … probably that. Since we teach Ethical CLEs (Continuing Legal Education), I like My Cousin Vinny, because that's a great one to illustrate ethical problems and it is hilarious, too. Class Action is about father and daughter attorneys facing each other in court; it covers some good ethical issues, too.

Because most legal movies are so unlike real practice, it is difficult to watch them as an attorney—you always want to correct them.

YS: I really liked watching LA Law. When I was sitting for the bar exam, I found that a lot of the objections were close to what I was learning in my Evidence class. But, of course, none of the melodrama was authentic.

What was your major at Miami?

SD: It was Speech Communication with a minor in Political Science.

YS: What was your most memorable moment as a student at Miami?

SD: For me it was going to Luxembourg. I just loved my time there—it was life defining for me.

I also really enjoyed Laws Hall and serving as a Marcum Rep. That was really neat because you got to meet all these people from different companies and different fields and talk to them while you ate lunch or breakfast with them or gave them campus tours.

I was also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and was really involved in that sorority—I really liked those girls.

YS: What is your most memorable career moment?

SD: It's probably when you get a visit from that student who was so insecure and lost at the beginning of law school … and these students come back and tell you that they got to file a brief with the Kentucky Supreme Court or their client won and they thank you for your part in it.

As a teacher you always hope that you impact students positively. So I think all of us want to see our students do well—even if they don't thank us—and sharing in their successes are our greatest moments. In that way we have played some tiny part in affecting the world. This is much more satisfying than personal career milestones such as promotions.

I've enjoyed my foreign exchanges as a professor. It has opened my eyes to how other people in the world view America and our legal system and especially how they view the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech—it's fascinating to see a European's or a South African's perspective.

YS: If you weren't a lawyer, what would you do?

SD: Gosh, probably … something in advertising. I always liked advertising—or even Mass Communication. I thought of being a newscaster or something like that.

And I love being a mom, I think that was another job I have done well. I have 7 children in a blended family—6 daughters and a stepson. So I enjoy that job too. It keeps me busy.

YS: Oh my goodness … When you're not working and you're not being a mom what kind of things do you like to do?

SD: I like to play tennis and golf. I love to read—I am in a great book discussion group with some other lawyers and we read great books. And I love to travel.

YS: If you could go back in time, and tell yourself something when you were in college that would benefit you now, what would you tell yourself?

SD: Don't rush! I graduated in 3½ years … because I came in with college credits. So I think that's what I would tell myself … I'd ask myself why I was in such a hurry to get out. And I went straight to law school so I think I would tell myself to slow down and that I can get things done and it doesn't have to be ahead of everybody else.

Just relax and learn for learning's sake. I mean that's what is so great about being a professor is you're getting paid just to learn. I find it hard to believe that someone pays me just to learn every day. I learn from my students and from my colleagues.

I have time to read and write when a lot of people in the legal profession don't have that luxury because either the clients want to keep costs down or because of the time constraints and their need to meet their deadlines. Learning is really a luxury for a professor.

YS: I have one more question. You are a member of our Alumni Advisory Board. Why did you decide to serve on that board?

SD: Well, first of all, I was honored that they would even ask me. I don't know how they picked me. I welcomed the opportunity because I thought I could bring a different perspective than many who are typically on such boards.

I could bring the academic perspective—especially if they were interested in encouraging students to go to law school, since I have been on admissions committees and worked with first-year law students.

I also thought it would be nice to bring some former Miami students, now at the University of Louisville back home to Miami. The pre-law students here would learn a great deal about what the first year of law school is really like.

I love Miami and want to give back to the school that I think really shaped who I am today.

YS: Thank you so much for your time.

SD: You're welcome.

YS: Anything you want to add?

SD: No not really, I mean I think it's fantastic you are doing something like this and it seems like it is off to a great start. And it will be very helpful to students to have a picture of what they are getting into.

And I love that you are working with freshmen and sophomores because so many of the admissions files I have reviewed reveal that many students get off to a troubled start and that has a lasting negative effect on their post-graduate prospects. And when you are making close calls, that grade point average makes such a difference. If they had only known that it would make such a difference I think they would go back and do it over.

YS: Yes, we see that very often. That is one reason why we are working with students from the very beginning.