Tuesday, October 12, 2021
By Suzi Morales

They come from all over the country and teach on subjects from first year classes to niche subjects. Some say they always aspired to become professors, and some came to academia by a more winding route. They have been in private practice and clerkships, and one even helped Al Gore write a book.

These are some of the many Iowa Law alumni who now make their mark as professors.

Many paths to professorship

Professor Jill Lens (JD05), who was recently promoted to an endowed position as Robert A. Leflar Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, was a first-generation law student. “I didn’t know anything,” she says about law school and legal practice. “I worked really hard but I was also really lucky.”

When Lens was on Law Review at Iowa Law, she had fleeting thoughts about becoming a professor. She practiced for about four years after law school in commercial and appellate litigation.

But Lens wasn’t happy in the practice. Her husband, also Iowa Law class of 2005, reminded her, “Hey, weren’t you also thinking about [academia]?”

“At that point, I was able to go back to professors at Iowa and learn a lot more about what professors actually did,” Lens says. One of those professors was Todd Pettys, who she calls a “mentor extraordinaire.” At the age of 29, Lens landed her first teaching position at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.

In contrast to Lens, Professor Jonathan Cardi’s (JD98) father and uncle were law professors and his mother was a professor of education. “I grew up having dinner conversations about political issues and civil rights and the law,” he recalls.

When Cardi was young, he asked his mom why his dad chose to become a professor instead of going into private legal practice. Cardi’s mother told him that his father chose the life and hours of a professor so he could have time for the family. “As a kid, that just made me so happy and proud,” Cardi notes.

Now, as a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, Cardi believes he still works as many hours as he did as a law firm junior associate, but he’s able to set his own schedule and prioritize his relationships with his daughters. “I haven’t been a perfect parent,” Cardi says. “But I’ve always been there.”

While Cardi had always thought of becoming a law professor, Professor Adam Abelkop (JD10) took a different path. He wasn’t sure what his next step after college would be, but as a successful collegiate debater and sociology and history major, he enjoyed writing, research, and argumentation. Law school seemed like a good fit.

Abelkop was offered tuition assistance at Iowa Law in exchange for coaching debate. “They sent me some swag in the mail,” he laughs. “After I visited, I kind of fell in love with the place.”

After law school, to pursue his interest and environmental and other policy issues, Abelkop earned a PhD in public policy at Indiana University. Then, his combination of advocacy and policy interests led Abelkop to a research position with former Vice President Al Gore.

Abelkop recalls sitting in Gore’s living room in Nashville as he and other researchers conducted research and even debated Gore on “every field changing the world” for Gore’s book “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.” “It was a really big idea to work on,” Abelkop says.

Gore’s renaissance approach to his book is similar to Abelkop’s own academic career. He has taught everything from political science to undergraduate students at Indiana University to environmental law and policy at Stanford Law School. He is currently teaching legal writing at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “I take a really broad view of what I do,” Abelkop comments. In addition to teaching writing and research skills in his current position, he has been able to continue to research on a topic that has interested him since law school: the “role of litigation as a complement to other public policy approaches.”

The influence of Iowa Law professors

Cardi says he is now at Wake Forest “in large part” because of Professor Michael Green, who had been Cardi’s professor at Iowa Law and has taught at Wake Forest since 2000. He also was influenced by his jurisprudence professor Gerald Wetlaufer, remedies professor Jean Love, and international and comparative law professor Adrien Wing. When he’s teaching, Cardi says, “I can picture them teaching along with me.”

Lens says she was also influenced by Love. “I teach like her,” she says, from the way Love wrote the elements of the tort on the board to the way she encourages students to consider “broader ideas of how the law worked and how it could work.”

“I grew up a big Iowa Hawkeye fan,” recalls Professor Megan W. Shaner (JD05) of the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Like Cardi, she comes from a teaching family. Her mother was a middle school teacher and her father taught for a few years at the university level. 

Shaner took corporations with former Iowa Law Professor Hillary Sale because she knew the subject matter would be on the bar exam, but, “I think it was the one class I fell in love with.” She worked in both litigation and transactions at a Delaware law firm. Having litigation and transactional experience helped her to have a broader perspective on issues, Shaner says.

As a professor, she continues to be involved on the practical side of corporate legal practice. Shaner gives CLE lectures and participates in ABA committees, including with her former professor and now friend Hillary Sale. She jokes that it’s difficult even now to call her former professor “Hillary” instead of “Professor Sale” when they see each other at conferences.

Importance of writing experience for future professors

“I kind of did Law Review because I thought I should,” Shaner remembers. But the experience sparked an interest in academia. As a 3L, she enjoyed helping 2Ls formulate the theses for their notes. Plus, she made lifelong friends, including Lens and other classmates who are now professors.

“It was, I won’t lie, sometimes tedious work,” Lens recalls about Law Review. “But I made good friends.”

Lens wrote her first academic paper as a 3L on Law Review, unknowingly laying the groundwork for future expertise. That paper was “Second Hand Choice: An Incompetent Pregnant Womans Constitutional Right to Choose Abortion.”

In 2017, Lens’ third pregnancy ended in stillbirth. “It changed everything,” she recalls. Before then, she mainly taught tort law. Although she had been interested in reproductive rights since law school, she’d never taught the subject. After her son was stillborn, Lens began researching issues surrounding stillbirth, teaching and writing on the subject.

Two years ago, Iowa Law Review published an article by Lens about stillbirth and informed medical consent. “It was so sweet to me to be able to publish there,” Lens says. The article was dedicated to Caleb, her stillborn son.

Advice for Iowa Law students

“Have a close relationship with your professors and write as much as you can,” Cardi advises students who have their eyes on work in academia.

“There are a few different paths you can take,” Abelkop notes. He says that earning a doctorate like he did is not necessary in order to teach law school, but it does help to formulate research questions. “Being a law professor is about answering bigger questions.”

“It’s a great place for legal education to prepare you for your place in the academy,” Lens says of Iowa Law. Just as she turned to Professor Pettys for advice, Lens encourages others to reach out to fellow alumni. “There are enough of us out there that are willing to help.”

Shaner advises aspiring professors to consider “What type of academic do you want to be? What type of scholar?,” rather than trying to shape a career like someone else’s. “Measure you success and happiness based on your own goals.”