Q&A with Dean Melanie Wilson Meet Melanie Wilson, the next dean of W&L Law. Her appointment is effective July 1.
Earlier this year, Melanie Wilson was named dean of W&L Law. She will also hold the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professorship in Law. A highly respected scholar on issues of criminal procedure, Wilson is currently dean emerita and Lindsay Young Distinguished Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Wilson completed a successful five-year term as dean of the University of Tennessee College of Law in 2020 before stepping down to return to teaching.
Where are you from? Where did you go to college and law school?
When I was elementary-school age, my family moved around a bit. We lived in the Florida Panhandle, Georgetown, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Once I reached middle school, we settled on the Gulf Coast of Florida. After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Georgia in Athens for both my undergraduate work—in journalism and business—and for law school.
You were a member of the SEC Championship women’s golf team. How has the experience of competing at such a high level of collegiate sports impacted your professional career?
Golf has taught me so many important life lessons. Through golf, I learned self-discipline, focus, resilience, the importance of a good temperament, and the imperative of integrity. Playing competitively and on a team taught me the value and the benefits of working together, including that we make better decisions when we collaborate with others on a common goal. I also think that competition instilled in me a tenacity and determination to reach goals. I definitely have a competitive streak.
What are some of the big lessons from your time as an AUSA and AAG?
My public service representing the United States and the State of Georgia as counsel was interesting and rewarding work. I was given significant responsibility from the first day in these offices. I worked with incredibly talented lawyers, and my job was to ensure that justice was done in every matter. I carry that ideal with me still. I certainly encourage all of my students to consider spending some time in a governmental position. It is important work, and we need great young minds working for the public’s interest.
How has your practice career impacted your teaching and scholarship?
I practiced law for almost fifteen years before beginning my academic career. You can see the influence of this practical legal experience in both my teaching and my scholarship. In my teaching, I ask my students to consider not only the legal theories and policies, but also to think about the real-life consequences of legal decisions and legal advice. I’m mindful that the vast majority of our students are going to practice law and advise clients, and I teach them to think about legal issues with those perspectives in mind. My scholarship is also informed by my experience trying cases, arguing motions and appeals, interviewing witnesses and victims, working with law enforcement, and advocating for my clients. I want my research and scholarship to have an influence on issues that matter to real people who are navigating the justice system.
There are so many reasons. I’m attracted to the close-knit, collegial community. I’m impressed with the scholarly faculty who prioritize their teaching and students above other values. The students are incredibly well-credentialed and have a strong social conscience. I had the chance to talk to a number of students during the interview process. They care deeply about each other and about the community. The alumni are committed and supportive of the law school; the staff are loyal and hard-working. The University sits in an absolutely gorgeous area. I could go on and on. W&L is a special place, and this is a time of great opportunity.
What are the greatest challenges facing legal education today?
Keeping student and graduate debt manageable is a major challenge, so is ensuring that we are preparing our students for an ever-changing world. On the first point, we want to attract outstanding students without regard to their socioeconomic status or ability to pay. But, law schools are expensive. It’s so important to be able to provide grants and scholarships to students, so that upon graduation, they have the option to choose not only high-paying corporate and law firm positions, but also work in non-profit organizations and in government agencies and other public interest work. We also are continuously challenged to adapt our curriculum to educate students on technology relevant to law practice and to ensure that students are equipped to represent a diverse array of clients. Part of the diversity challenge is ensuring that our community includes and retains voices from all backgrounds and cultures.
What are your plans for the Law School’s future?
I certainly have some ideas about how to build on the law school’s outstanding reputation and its upward trajectory. If I boiled those ideas down to core concepts, I would say that I’m focused on fostering excellence and building community. But, it’s going to be important that I hear from all of the law school’s constituents before we chart a path for our future and set our goals. I certainly will continue to prioritize the hiring of exceptional faculty scholars who are great teachers, the recruitment of amazing students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and outreach to alumni and friends of the law school. We will continue to ensure that our students are well prepared for the practice of law upon graduation and that they have options for their chosen career paths. Together, we will set ambitious goals, and then work with the entire W&L community to achieve them.
What book(s) would you hope every incoming law student would have read?
Answer: There are so many influential books. But for those who choose law school, I would urge them to read “Just Mercy“ by Bryan Stevenson. It’s easy to read, and the story is compelling. The book is based on Stevenson’s inspiring life, and demonstrates how much one lawyer can accomplish when she commits to a worthy cause. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The organization has achieved a number of exonerations of death row inmates and has helped numerous other inmates obtain sentencing and other relief.
How do you spend your downtime?
I enjoy almost anything outdoors. I like nature walks, and I do some light hiking. I jog. I still enjoy golf. I embrace all sorts of exercise and recreation. I also like to read the (paper) newspaper on the weekends. I watch too much sports on television – any sport involving my (Georgia) Dawgs – and I like to watch legal dramas in the evenings to wind down.
I also have two giant dogs – Choden, a Great Dane, and Leaper, an English Mastiff. Most of my downtime is spent wiping up slobber.
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