Five Questions for Prof. Tamar Birckhead

Prof. Birckhead with UNC Law clinic students.

Prof. Birckhead with UNC Law clinic students.

Recently I was interviewed for the new Clinical Law Prof Blog .  The text of the interview appears below:

 

 

 

Last month the University of North Carolina School of Law appointed Professor Tamar Birckhead as Director of Clinical Programs.   Today she is the first subject of a new series for the blog, Five Questions, in which we ask professors to reflect on their work and life in the academy.

1. What first drew you to clinical legal education?

I had been practicing as a public defender for ten years (in both state and federal court), and I was ready to take a step back and think about the broader questions and issues raised by my experiences in and observations of the criminal justice system.  Legal academia was very appealing to me, though I wanted to find a way to continue to spend time in the courtroom as well as serve the same client population.  I had loved my clinical experiences during law school and I come from a family of teachers, so clinical legal education seemed to be a natural fit.  Also, I was an English major in college and have always loved writing and research, so I have appreciated the opportunity to write traditional legal scholarship; several years ago, I switched to the tenure track and then became a tenured member of the faculty.

2.  What advice about teaching would you give to yourself if you could chat with you as a rookie prof? 

I would emphasize that the “political” aspects of serving as a law school faculty member – including establishing good working relationships with administrators, deans, and faculty outside of the clinic – are vitally important, and that the way in which I teach my students to advocate on behalf of their clients is not necessarily the best strategy for approaching advocacy for one’s self or one’s program within the legal academy.  Most of my faculty colleagues are not and have not been practicing lawyers, meaning that the culture and the tenor of the institution can be very different than that which exists among litigators.  I’d encourage carefully picking one’s battles and remaining focused on the aspects of the job that I most enjoy – working closely with and serving as a mentor to my students, advancing social justice, and contributing to the welfare of underserved communities.  In other words, I’ve mellowed and matured within the past ten years; I try to maintain a positive attitude no matter what the circumstance and to enter potentially difficult situations with an expectation that understanding and agreement can and will be reached.

 3. What adjustments in your own work do you anticipate as you take responsibility for directing the program?

As the director of clinical programs, I now supervise six students per semester in the Youth Justice Clinic instead of eight.  I also still teach the companion course to the Clinic with my wonderful colleague, Barbara Fedders, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.  I do anticipate, however, that given my administrative responsibilities it will be much more difficult to be a productive scholar, though I also don’t want to stop contributing to the conversation around issues of juvenile justice and the criminalization of poverty.

4.  What plans do you have for UNC’s clinical program?

I served as interim director this past year, and I have tried to develop more collaboration and cohesion among the seven clinical faculty who teach in our five clinics and to improve morale.  We began the school year with an all-day faculty retreat, during which we discussed our short and long-term professional goals, our individual and collective needs as clinical faculty, and our ideas for what it takes to be a great clinical program.  We had nine monthly clinic faculty meetings, focusing on such topics as clinical teaching, scholarship (clinical and traditional), supervisory rounds, and administrative issues and concerns.  We also held meetings with other units in the law school, thereby building bridges beyond the Clinic by opening lines of communication and encouraging collaboration with faculty from the Externship Program and the Writing, Learning, and Research Center as well as meeting with the staff from the Development Office to discuss fundraising for Clinical Programs via an electronic mail solicitation in the fall.

Initiatives that directly benefitted the sixty-five students participating in UNC’s Clinical Programs this year included an all-clinic case rounds session, which was introduced in the spring and will be repeated once/semester next year, and an end-of-year awards celebration and luncheon in which each faculty member spoke of the work their clinic students had accomplished and the Second Annual CLEA Outstanding Student Award was presented.    We also restructured our fall orientation meeting for students and our clinic informational and lottery meetings in the spring so that each faculty member addressed the group and a panel of current clinic students spoke about their experiences and took questions.

As for administration and staff, in July we hired a new program assistant who worked with our current program assistant under the supervision of our business manager to ensure that our program runs smoothly and efficiently.  We successfully implemented a new phone system, allowing for individual voicemail accounts for each student, and we abandoned our old intercom system.  Working in collaboration with Communications, our website has been updated (see http://www.law.unc.edu/academics/clinic/)  and the work of our clinic faculty and students was highlighted in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Carolina Law alumni magazine, which focused on the ways in which the law school serves the people and communities of North Carolina.

In addition to the new initiatives described above, we have several other developments planned for the upcoming year. We recently began a Clinical Programs blog, which will serve as the primary source for a twice/annual electronic newsletter to be distributed to the UNC Law community as well as the national law school clinic listserv (see http://blogs.law.unc.edu/clinic/).  Also, we have partnered with faculty in the N.C. State University School of Social Work to serve as a field placement for an MSW student for the 2014-15 academic year.  We have hired a second year MSW student, who will be on site for 24 hours/week, primarily assisting law students in the Youth Justice Clinic with advocacy on behalf of children in the delinquency court and school disciplinary proceedings in which we appear.  We are also in the planning stages of refurbishing the clinical suite and are outfitting two of our rooms with video cameras that will record client interviews for both real-time viewing by faculty supervisors as well as subsequent review by students.

In short, we are building on the expansion of our Clinical Programs in recent years with initiatives that enhance the quality of the educational experience for our students and, as a result, the rigor with which we represent our clients.

5. Since 2004, have you cultivated a thorough hatred for Duke basketball?

I can answer that question with only four words: LET’S GO TAR HEELS!

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About Tamar Birckhead

School of Law
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One Response to Five Questions for Prof. Tamar Birckhead

  1. Jonathan says:

    A wonderful interview Tamar, and keep up the great work with the clinical programs! Participating in a clinic in law school was probably the most rewarding experience of my law school career. I learned more practical skills about the practice of law in that one semester doing clinical work than the rest of law school combined. I advise every law student I meet to take advantage of clinical opportunities.