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Leading the Interdisciplinary Legal Academy

January 19, 2023

Three interdisciplinary legal academics reflect on the role Penn Carey Law has played in their professional journeys.

Legal scholarship produces far-reaching effects that transcend the walls of academic institutions. From Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs to innovative thought leadership that challenges the status quo, legal academia can act as both a tool and catalyst for change. In many ways, it is inextricable from advocacy as we know it.

At the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, our students and academic fellows engage directly with world-class faculty on cutting-edge and cross-disciplinary legal issues, positioning them well for careers as innovative legal thought leaders. These relationships foster a community that invites creative legal minds to explore, collaborate, and shed light on the most important questions impacting tomorrow’s legal landscape.

Here we highlight a few among many Penn Carey Law alumni who are generating scholarship that contributes to vital conversations in boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms, and grassroots organizing spaces across the country.

S. David Mitchell G’99, L’02, GR’12, University of Missouri School of Law

S. David Mitchell G’99, L’02, GR’12 always intended to pursue a career in legal academia. In particular, his interdisciplinary interest in the intersection of law and sociology grew out of the time he spent teaching at Collegiate School in New York City, his alma mater.

David Mitchell G'99, L'02, GR'12 David Mitchell G’99, L’02, GR’12“Because I was working in a privileged educational environment, I experienced and saw firsthand how challenging it was for many of the students of color, I decided that I wanted to study the impact of affirmative action from both a legal and sociological perspective,” Mitchell said. “Hence, I applied and was accepted at Penn in both programs.”

At the University of Missouri School of Law, Mitchell is the Ruth L. Hulston Professor of Law and the Director of the Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship & Justice. He is also an affiliate faculty member of the MU Black Studies Department and the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy and a member of the graduate faculty of the Sociology Department.

Mitchell applies a legal and sociological lens to his work on the criminal justice system, where his focus is on the collateral consequences of sentencing, the reentry and reintegration of the formerly incarcerated, felon disenfranchisement, zero-tolerance policies, and the retroactive application of laws.

In part, Mitchell’s shift to the criminal justice system came as a result of his experience learning from Regina Austin, William A. Schnader Professor of Law, Emeritus. Reflecting on his career path, Mitchell emphasized the importance of the relationships he developed with professors, such as Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, and with the Honorable Andre M. Davis, former U.S. Circuit Court Judge for the Fourth Circuit, whom Mitchell clerked for when Davis was a district court judge. More than any one particular resume line, the community he cultivated helped and supported him throughout the process of working toward becoming a legal scholar.

For Mitchell, one of the most rewarding aspects of a career as a law professor is engaging with law students who will go on to make up the next generation of lawyers and legal thinkers.

“Serving as a law professor for the last seventeen years, I have taught a number of students and thus am afforded the opportunity to educate future lawyers thereby leaving a living legacy through my teaching and non-classroom relationships,” Mitchell said.

Rachel J. Wechsler L’09, University of Missouri School of Law

“A major reason underlying my decision to pursue an academic career is that I am passionate about identifying weaknesses in our legal system and thinking deeply about how to ameliorate them,” said Rachel J. Wechsler L’09.

Rachel J. Wechsler L'09 Rachel J. Wechsler L’09Also at the University of Missouri, Wechsler is an Associate Professor of Law, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution, and an affiliate faculty member in the School of Social Work and Department of Sociology. In addition to her JD from Penn Carey Law, Wechsler holds a doctorate in criminology and a master’s degree in evidence-based social work from Oxford. Her work focuses on gender-based violence and the criminal legal system.

“Academia has provided me with meaningful opportunities to develop interdisciplinary legal scholarship, connect and collaborate with other scholars, and teach engaged and thoughtful students,” Wechsler said.

As a law student, Wechsler appreciated the Law School’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary study, which she said has “informed and strengthened” her scholarly approach.

“While at Penn, I took classes at Wharton and engaged with professors who also had degrees in other fields. Seeing the usefulness of tackling complex issues with tools and knowledge from multiple disciplines, I decided to pursue a doctorate in Criminology after practicing law for several years,” Wechsler said. “My legal and social science background now provides a helpful lens for analyzing gender-based violence and how the law intersects with survivors’ complex lived realities.”

Wechsler encourages anyone considering a career in legal academia to seek out opportunities to develop research, practice teaching, and forge connections with mentors working on projects that interest them.

“My advice to lawyers considering an academic career would be to pursue a fellowship or Visiting Assistant Professor position that allows you to gain teaching experience and spend time on legal scholarship,” she said. “These opportunities are incredibly helpful for figuring out whether academia is right for you and for finding mentors in your field. My time at NYU Law as a Lawyering professor and fellow was invaluable, and I am so grateful for the wonderful mentors I met while there.”

Wechsler’s latest article, “Victims as Instruments,” was recently published in the Washington Law Review. She has previously published in the Fordham International Law Journal, British Journal of Criminology, and Theoretical Criminology.

Allison M. Whelan, Georgia State University College of Law

Allison M. Whelan, a Sharswood Fellow from 2021-2022, initially aimed to pursue a career in medicine; however, a passion for the legal, ethical, and policy issues intertwined with medicine led her to law school at University of Minnesota, where she also earned a Masters in Bioethics. At the University of Minnesota, she met important mentors who helped her shape her journey in legal academia, where she continues to focus on the intersections of medicine and the law.

As a professor at Georgia State Law, Whelan hopes she can give back to students the inspiration and encouragement that many of her professors have given to her over the years.

Allison M. Whelan, Sharswood 2021-2022 “Academia allows me to mentor, advise, and offer research and learning opportunities for individuals historically excluded from or underrepresented in the legal profession. I also seek to extend my role as a mentor outside of the law school through engagement with the broader community,” said Whelan. “In all aspects of my life, I strive to provide opportunities to those who are all too frequently and unfairly knocked down or shut out, through no fault of their own. A career in academia gives me these opportunities and so much more.”

Whelan noted that the Sharswood Fellowship, named for George Sharswood, provided her with the space, time, resources, and support to develop her scholarship while also allowing her to gain experience teaching and developing her scholarly identity. An interdisciplinary scholar with an interest in law, medicine, and bioethics, Whelan also served as an Associate Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, where she worked on projects with colleagues at the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

As a legal academic, Whelan “strives to produce research that can be distilled for a lay audience and that has the potential to inform policy change that works towards the creation of a more just and equitable society.” In engaging in this work, she enjoys daily opportunities to collaborate with other legal scholars as well as “the next generation of lawyers” who are “excited and passionate about changing our world for the better.”

Whelan’s publications include articles in the Vanderbilt Law Review and the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender among many others. A current work-in-progress was selected for presentation at January’s annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools during the “New Voices in Law, Medicine and Health Care” workshop.

Read about more Penn Carey Law alumni shaping the legal academy.