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. It’s my hope that the clinic provides students with a realistic picture into what it’s like to work in federal indigent defense from case preparation and client communication, to case litigation and court expectations. In addition to case mechanics, I’m also hopeful that the clinic’s work will build an understanding of the larger social and policy concerns that overshadow public defenders’ work nationwide.

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. I have also taught 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? I’m really looking forward to the energy of students who have yet to become jaded by the way that the law applies most often in the real world. 

Law school tries to convey a sense of reality, but is also encourages optimism in a way that is not as prevalent in the practicing world. 

I also think that it’s important to impress upon law students that there is a very real need for lawyers who are dedicated to ensuring individuals in the criminal system get, and feel they are getting, the best possible outcomes they could within an at-times flawed existing legal structure. And so, I’m enthusiastic about encouraging students to become zealous, creative advocates who work toward that goal. 

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? The book that I’m reading right now is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. It’s all about the moral impulses that underlie human decision-making and how we persuade one another, which is a fundamental part of what I do as a criminal defense attorney. It’s kind of a know thy enemy sort of read, which is enjoyable but also relevant to my practice. 

My favorite author is Jim Harrison. I am a fan of almost the entirety of his work, but I really like a novella he’s written called The Woman Lit by Fireflies

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