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Get to Know: Bram Elias

Bram Elias
Clinical Associate Professor

At the UI since: 2014  

Hometown: San Diego, California

Alma Mater:
BA, University of Michigan, 2000
MA, Queen's University of Belfast, 2001
MPP, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2003
JD, Yale Law School, 2009

What did you do before joining Iowa Law? I previously worked as an immigration attorney in private practice in downtown Iowa City. Before that, I clerked for a federal district judge in Boston and a federal appellate judge in Pasadena, California. 

Describe your role at the university. I direct the Legal Clinic’s immigration practice. Clinical teaching is a little different from the rest of law school teaching. Our students represent real clients, in real cases, with real-world consequences. So, instead of a final exam, they’re doing things like working with clients, arguing in front of a judge, filing briefs, advising individuals and organizations about real legal issues. It’s fun, motivating, and a different kind of learning environment than the classroom experience.

What courses do you teach? In addition to teaching in the Clinic, I teach one classroom course, Professional Responsibility. I have also taught the classroom Immigration Law and Policy course. I used to teach a big, 200-student undergraduate lecture course at the UI’s Tippie College of Business called “Introduction to Law.” I also served as visiting professor at the Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China, where I ran the school’s immigration clinic.

How did you decide to join the legal profession? Honestly, for a long time, I tried not to! My dad was (and is) a lawyer and when I was growing up lots of my parents’ friends told me I was going to be a lawyer someday; I was a sort of contrary kid and I thought, “well, fine, if that’s what they say I should do, then I won’t be.” (I was blessed with parents who were not only loving but also, thank goodness, very, VERY patient.)  I went to graduate school in public policy and worked a series of policy-based jobs in local government, and it was all really fun. I loved my work. But over and over I felt drawn to the parts of my jobs that dealt most directly with justice and with legal issues.  And it turned out that in my government positions I worked with lawyers a lot, and I really liked the folks I was working with. As it turns out, if you worry about people being treated fairly and want to make government and society work in a way that’s fair, the law is actually one of the best ways to do that work day in and day out.

What do you enjoy most about working in a higher education/law school setting? Well, our students are terrific. Getting to work with people who are just starting their careers all the time keeps the job fresh, and it’s always very cool to hear what my former students are doing. There are a attorneys out there who are really good mentors and they can tell you about what a great feeling it is when they find out a young lawyer they’ve worked with has gone on to do great things.  Here at the law school, we get that feeling all the time.

What makes you passionate about your work? It’s rewarding to get to work with students when they’re being lawyers for the first time. I love classroom teaching, but it’s a different sort of feeling to be with a student as they prepare for their first client meeting, or their first hearing, or their first trial. It’s really great to watch people who are preparing to be lawyers for the rest of their lives actually get to be lawyers for the first time.

Take us through your most memorable day at the university. Last summer we had an asylum case that the clinic collectively had been working on for almost 5 years. The students I was working with stepped into the case late at the beginning of their 3L year and worked on the case really hard. They did a great job, but the court date got postponed again and again until it was scheduled out past graduation. Even though the students had graduated, they came back during the summer to argue the case and totally knocked it out of the park. We won, our client — whose life depended on it — got to stay in the country, and our students were able to see all of their hard work pay off. You know things worked out well when your student says that passing the bar exam was only the second-best thing that happened to their legal career that summer.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken—and did it pay off? The professor who was here before me, Barbara Schwartz, was amazing. She had been in the clinic for more than 30 years. My first year at the law school I co-taught with her, and I saw up close how hard she worked, how much she cared about her clients, and what a huge impact she had on her students. I don’t know if it counts as a risk, exactly, but she left really big shoes to fill and stepping into that role felt like a big deal. It was, and is, an honor, but it was also intimidating.  Of course, it turns out that having “what would Professor Schwartz do?” playing constantly on a loop in the back of my head has been pretty handy. Has it paid off? Well, it has certainly felt very satisfying to me so far, but you’d probably have to ask her how I’m actually doing. 

If you could spend a day with anyone, from any era, who would it be and why? My students, twenty years from now, to see how things have worked out. (And my clients, too, for the same reason.)

What’s your favorite book, or what are you reading right now & why do you enjoy it? Before I moved to Iowa I was wondering if there were some books I could read to get a feel for what life would be like here, and a friend recommended “Gilead” and “Home” by Marilynn Robinson (who has long been affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and I just loved them. After I moved here the third book in the trilogy came out, “Lila,” and I love that one too.  I got to see Marilynn Robinson give a reading from “Lila” at the Englert Theater. Living in the same town as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is really great.  Right now I’m reading “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley, who is a Workshop graduate and who teaches in the U of I English Department.

Name five of your favorite things. 

  • Baseball. My wife and I have been to games at every minor league stadium in Iowa; last summer our son got his first ever foul ball at a Burlington Bees game. 
  • Ice cream. (Frozen yogurt at Yotopia on the Ped Mall counts, too.) 
  • The seashore, especially on a cold day. This is the one thing I have missed most since moving to Iowa.
  • Padstow, a small fishing village in Cornwall, England, where my family and I go whenever we have time on vacation. My wife is English and we love going back to see family and friends.  Also, both the seashore and the ice cream there is fantastic. (The baseball, not so much.) 
  • The first time my students tried (and won) a case. I was probably twice as nervous as they were!

Is there anything else you want alums to know about you? Not about me individually, but I do want to help spread the word about how great and unique our clinic is here at Iowa.  Unlike many law schools, which have a series of individual clinics each focusing on its own narrow topic and led by one or two professors, our Clinic functions as more of a firm model, with all five of the professors working together and our students shared between us. Our students get broader exposure to different areas of law, different teaching styles, and the important ways in which an individual client’s legal needs can cross over into multiple areas and inform one another. Not to mention clinical teaching is more fun when you’re doing it with a bunch of great colleagues instead of all by yourself. (It’s a good thing I have great colleagues!)

Bram Elias