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Get to Know: Alison Guernsey

Alison K. Guernsey, Clinical Associate Professor of Law

At the UI since: October 2017

Alma Mater:
BA, University of Michigan, 2001
JD, University of Iowa College of Law, 2008

What did you do before joining Iowa Law? Before joining the faculty, I was employed as the Supervising Attorney for the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, where I provided direct representation to indigent individuals charged with federal crimes at every stage of the criminal process, including bail hearings, preliminary hearings, motions hearings, jury trials, and sentencings. I have also represented indigent defendants before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on direct appeal and in post-conviction proceedings.

Describe your role at the university. In Spring 2018, I started the nation’s second trial-level federal criminal defense clinic where students practice under my supervision in the U.S. District Courts for the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa. Over the past two years, my students and I have represented individuals charged with felony offenses ranging from immigration and firearms-related offenses to escape and supervised-release violations. Handling these cases from initial appearance through post-conviction has provided my students with a realistic picture into what it’s like to work in federal indigent defense. In addition to learning to negotiate the boundaries of complex attorney-client relationships, my students have appeared in court on a regular basis, arguing motions to dismiss, cross examining law enforcement officers during contested hearings, and even arguing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

What courses do you teach? My clinic work includes teaching students the substantive and procedural law associated with defending a federal criminal case, in addition to lawyering skills like negotiation, client counseling, and litigation preparation and planning. In the Fall of 2018, I co-founded the law school’s Voting Rights Restoration Clinic, which represents individuals seeking citizenship-rights restoration with the Governor’s Office. I also teach Trial Advocacy.

How did you decide to join the legal profession? I grew up in a house of lawyers, in fact, much worse, of law professors, and I tried for a really long time not to become a lawyer. I wanted to make my own path and explore my own individual interests, but there is something inescapable about growing up in a house of two lawyers. I think that path always overshadowed my decision-making. 

Then, I was on a Fulbright in Chile, and realized that I really liked doing social science research, but I felt like I lacked the skills or tools to effect the change I thought was necessary. And I thought law school would give me a set of practical skills that would work within a system to benefit an individual, or in some cases a community, in a way my work in the social science field could not. So, the inevitable happened, but it happened on my own terms.

What do you enjoy most about working in a higher education/law school setting? When I started in this position, I expected to be motivated by the energy of students who had not yet become jaded by the way that the law applies most often in the real world, and I have not been disappointed. My students approach each case with an enviable curiosity and zeal. I have learned (and re-learned) a lot about being an advocate through my collaborations with them.

You’re an alum. What do you like about being back at Iowa Law so far? What’s really unique about this is coming back to a place that was the start of my legal career. It has been both exciting and intimidating. Presenting my practice and speaking in front of some of the professors who taught me the substance of what I now practice is almost poetic in a sense. I don’t quite know how else to describe it. 

If you could get rid of one invention in the world, what would you choose? Why? The smart phone. I think it sort of eliminated the separation between work and pleasure and altered the expectations of availability to a level that’s unsustainable for quality work life balance or quality interactions with humans outside of your professional life. 

What’s your favorite book, or what are you reading right now & why do you enjoy it? I just finished reading the Two Medicine Trilogy by Ivan Doig. Although I enjoy living in Iowa, I really do miss the West. Doig’s novels transport me back to big-sky and sagebrush country like none other.

Name five of your favorite things. 

  • Backpacking
  • Spending as much time outdoors as I possibly can
  • Watching my husband try to train our 3-year-old daughter to be the next Juli Furtado.
  • I am an enthusiastic listener of music 
  • I speak fluent Spanish


Alison Guernsey