Prof. Scarnecchia: Teaching at the Law School is a "Privilege"
By Lori Atherton
Suellyn Scarnecchia, '81, remembers that as a law student, she was discouraged from taking a clinic, because she was told it wouldn't look good on her resume. "Which is now, of course, the opposite of what we normally advise students," she said. She also never took a trial practice class—it was always full—even though she wanted to be a litigator.
Scarnecchia, who served as the vice president and general counsel of U-M from 2008 to 2012, has returned home after leaving the Law School 10 years ago. She is a clinical professor of law in the Human Trafficking Clinic, where she works with her former student and current clinic director Bridgette Carr, '02, who said she is "elated to have the chance to learn alongside Suellyn now that she is my colleague. I know firsthand the wonderful teacher, supervisor, and mentor she will be to the students in the Human Trafficking Clinic."
Scarnecchia previously served as a clinical professor of law from 1993 to 2002, and as associate dean for clinical affairs from 1996 to 2002.
"There's nothing like leaving and coming back to remind you of what a privilege it is to go to law school here and to teach our students," Scarnecchia said. "Michigan is an extraordinary law school, and I'm excited about the opportunity to teach and mentor at this very different stage of my career. Having been out in the field, I can bring to students a wider view of how I might help them to become good lawyers."
That view includes sharing insights from her work as a litigator. Following law school, Scarnecchia joined McCroskey, Feldman, Cochrane & Brock, P.C., a small employment law firm based in Muskegon, Michigan. As one of three lawyers working in the firm's Battle Creek office, she handled cases from the initial interview through trial and appeal, becoming a partner in 1987.
"A lot of my peers went to large firms, where it took longer to be able to try cases," Scarnecchia said. "I was able to try cases in federal and state court, so it gave me litigation experience that was extremely valuable."
Seeking work-life balance and a return to Ann Arbor after the birth of her son, Scarnecchia applied for a job as a clinical assistant professor in Michigan Law's Child Advocacy Law Clinic (CALC) in 1987 through an unorthodox means: by responding to an ad in the Michigan State Bar Journal
. "No clinical professor would ever find their job that way today," she laughed. "I did none of the clinical preparation that people do now, because clinical teaching really wasn't a developed career path at that point."
Scarnecchia worked with clinical professor Don Duquette, CALC's founder and director, on child protection cases. One of Scarnecchia's notable cases was the high-profile 1993 "Baby Jessica" custody case, in which the supreme courts of Michigan and Iowa ruled that young Jessica, as she was named by her adoptive parents, be returned to her biological parents. Scarnecchia, who represented the adoptive parents, said it was an important case, because it helped states to define clearer adoption laws and better ways of resolving adoption issues.
"I loved our practice in the Child Advocacy Clinic," Scarnecchia said. "It wasn't until later that I realized what a terrific combination of cases we had because students represented children, parents, and the state in different Michigan counties. We were teaching our students to have a critical view of their own clients' cases and the opposing parties' cases, and it was a great way to teach."
Scarnecchia's interest in the Southwest drew her to the University of New Mexico School of Law, where she became professor of law and dean in 2003. Though she had the distinction of being the first woman dean of the law school, "I didn't feel like it was that big a deal," she said. "Women were making inroads into deanships, so it wasn't shocking to me that they hired a woman. But it was interesting to hear how alumni and students reacted. They would say how happy they were that I was there and how much it meant to them to have a woman in a leadership position, so I liked that alumni and students could feel that progress was being made by my being in that role."
In 2008, Scarnecchia returned to Ann Arbor to be closer to family and assumed the role of U-M's vice president and general counsel. She remarked that her younger self would be surprised at her career evolution, because as a student, she was interested in representing individual clients and had no desire to be in academic leadership.
"I was very motivated to do something that I thought was worthwhile to society," she reflected. "The academic management piece came along later. I do a lot of talking to students about not trying to predict in a hard and fast way while they are in law school what their career is going to be like, because there are so many different paths they can take, and they don't really know yet what doors will open and what will excite them."
Read more feature stories.