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Professional identity, legal aid, and cheesesteaks: Q&A with Professor Ossei-Owusu

October 16, 2019

Presidential Assistant Professor of Law Shaun Ossei-Owusu joined the Penn Law faculty in the Fall of 2019 from Columbia Law, where he was an Academic Fellow and a Kellis E. Parker Teaching Fellow. His research and scholarship focuses on legal history, criminal law and procedure, civil rights, and the legal profession. His most recent article, “The Sixth Amendment Façade: The Racial Evolution of the Right to Counsel,” was published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review earlier this year.

Here are some highlights of the interview with Professor Ossei-Owusu.

Office of Communications: What brought you to Penn Law?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: I’m from New York City, the Bronx, and I went to Northwestern for undergrad. Initially, I wanted to go to law school, but I took some classes in legal studies that really got me interested in graduate education. I decided to hold off on law school, and I taught for a year in North Philadelphia at a charter school and did a master’s here at Penn. So I’m very familiar with the city, and I think that experience concretized the belief that higher education was the place for me.

I enrolled in the Ph.D program in African-American studies at Berkeley but still retained an interest in the law and the legal profession. I wrote my dissertation about the historical development of legal aid organizations, public defender offices, and their unexplored connections to race. I was writing about an inherently legal topic, and I had some excellent law professors on my dissertation committee. I ultimately ended up matriculating into the JD program at Berkeley during my doctoral program.

Afterward, I wanted some practical experience, particularly in the private sector because I already had a good grasp of the public interest side of the profession. I practiced at Sidley Austin in D.C., and while I was there I also did a secondment, which is when a law firm loans out an associate to another organization. I worked at the Legal Aid Society in D.C., which was pretty apt given my intellectual interests.

I did a fellowship at Columbia Law School that’s designed for people who want to go into legal academia, and I was fortunate to get a job here afterward.

Office of Communications: What are you working on?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: Primarily on a book project, tentatively titled The People’s Champ: Legal Aid from Slavery to Mass Incarceration, which stretches back a little further than my Sixth Amendment paper, which focused primarily on the early 20th century and forward. In the larger book project, I’m arguing that although many historians and legal scholars trace the origins of legal aid to Progressive Era-organizations like the New York Legal Aid Society that began out of concerns for southern and eastern European immigrants and evolved into the organizations that exist today, I maintain there’s an earlier history of organized assistance that stretches back a century earlier.

I’m referring to organizations like abolitionist societies that provided legal aid to fugitive slaves and their abettors, most notably the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society here in Philadelphia, operated mainly by Quakers, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, which developed after the Civil War to help free blacks transition to citizenship. Most people recognize their medical efforts in terms of creating hospitals, their educational efforts in terms of creating historically black colleges and universities like Howard University, but they also had a legal aid arm that provided legal assistance to blacks transitioning into citizenship that only a few people have written about. And so part of what I’m trying to do in the book is chronicle this history of race and organized legal assistance and think about how it shaped the trajectory of the legal profession, American civil rights and criminal law and procedure.

Office of Communications: In your work, you also address issues in the legal profession, correct?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: Yes, I am currently teaching a legal profession seminar to 2Ls and 3Ls that is focused on the interface of professional identity and personal identity and the way in which the bodies we occupy influence how we lawyer. And so we look at questions of race, class, gender, religion, disability, sexuality, and sexual orientation and think about how that plays out in different sectors of the legal profession. For example, what does it mean to be someone who comes from a poor working-class background who goes to law school and works in public interest? What does it mean to be a person from privilege who goes into public interest work?

We talk about Big Law. What does the glass ceiling look like for women who go to corporate law firms? What does it mean for racial minorities? What does being in the legal profession mean for first-generation professionals irrespective of their racial identity, who may not have certain kinds of insights about how to navigate professional worlds when compared to their colleagues who may have parents who were doctors or lawyers?

We have a week on progressive prosecution, which has become a pretty relevant theme here in Philadelphia with Larry Krasner, who is considered to be the leader of the movement. We have a week on religion and spirituality and ethics across different areas of law.

We have a week on mental health, emotions, and happiness, which is pretty relevant given some of the programming that’s happening here at Penn Law as it relates to students.

There’s a week on law firm recruiting and the rich sociological literature on how women, racial minorities and first-generation professionals navigate that experience.

Office of Communications: What made you choose to come to Penn Law?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: What was particularly attractive to me was the strong group of legal historians here. That has been at the core of what I do, and faculty like Professor Lee, Professor Mayeri, Professor Gordon, Professor Tani, who is coming is exciting, and this is just in one of my subject matter areas. Also, having spent time in Philadelphia, I really enjoy the city. It’s very livable. The food’s great, and it’s situated well geographically for the kinds of things I’m interested in, close to New York City, where I’m from, and D.C., where I’ve worked. So I would say primarily the kind of subject matter expertise of scholars here as well as the geographical location.

Office of Communications: What’s your favorite thing to do in Philly?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: Trying out new places to eat. There are some places I enjoyed 10 years ago that are still here, but the city has changed so much. If I had to pick a favorite food place, I might say Angelo’s in South Philly on 9th Street.

Office of Communications: And what kind of food is that?

Professor Ossei-Owusu: Naughty! Cheesesteaks, pizza, and the like.