January 10, 2017

The strangest thing happened at the AALS last week

I have attended the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting for many of the 17+ years I have been a law professor, but I experienced something at last week's annual conference in San Francisco that I had never before seen or heard, something that came as a pleasant surprise.   Attendees were actually talking about rural people and places--including in a plenary session on the future of the legal profession.

For more than a decade now, I have worked to establish as a sub-discipline what I call "law and rural livelihoods" (I've taught a seminar by that name for eight years), and my Legal Ruralism blog is part of that effort.  One of my overarching arguments is that most legal scholarship implicitly embraces an urban norm--and that some legal scholarship is explicitly urbanormative.  Yet in all my years of attending gatherings of law professors, I have consistently been the only person in the room talking about rural people and places--I've literally been the only person using the word "rural."  I've often joked that I'm the "rural lady," perhaps analogous to SNL's "church lady," a character with a one-track mind who keeps showing up and making the same overarching point. Over the years, this approach has attracted a lot of eye-rolling, ongoing marginalization.  But it has remained the case that rural people and places have been omitted from so many scholarly conversations about law--and from so many scholarly works on topics that, to my mind, have an obvious rural or spatial angle, e.g., reproductive justice, poverty.

So, imagine my surprise when, following the plenary on "Preparing a Diverse Profession to Serve a Diverse World," with key note by Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Corporation (and, incidentally, my boss at Covington & Burling London in 1992 and later my client, from 1996-98, when I returned to Covington and he was in house at Microsoft),  Lauren Robel of Indiana University School of Law asked the first question, which was essentially "what about rural?"  She noted that she had recently been in southern Indiana, which is quite rural, and that shortages of broadband and lawyers are two challenges plaguing the region.  She also referenced the recent NPR story about the "epic" shortage of rural lawyers, a story that quoted me and mentioned the work I have done on the rural lawyer shortage.  After Robel broke the ice with a reference to rural Indiana, several others referenced "rural" in the ensuing conversation.  This was interesting in part because Smith had, early in his talk, referenced a small town in southwest Virginia where Microsoft has a server farm, but he had not used the word "rural."  As the conversation unfolded, however, the word became part of the discussion in a way that seemed, well, natural.

This was somewhat similar to what had happened the day before in a discussion session in which I participated:   Community Development Law and Economic Justice--Why Law Matters.  About a dozen scholars were invited in advance to participate in this discussion, including me.  Because I don't "do" community development law or work as such, I assumed I was invited to participate because of my work on rurality, including rural poverty, thus implicating issues of economic justice.  Once I got the ball rolling by talking about my rural-focused scholarship, several other participants mentioned "rural," including "rural and urban," as in referencing the prospect of intra-regional CED collaborations and such.  (Let me be clear that this usually doesn't happen; when I'm on a panel talkig about "rural," I typically remain silo-ed as such).  I commented that I thought much of the attention to "rural and urban" was racially coded (though it is not necessarily accurate to conflate rurality with whiteness, it is a common phenomenon), as a way to get at cross-racial collaborations, which I very much support (indeed, cross-racial cooperation among low-income folks is a big focus of my scholarship right now).  I also joked that I had not heard as many mentions of "rural" in my entire 17 years of attending law prof. conferences as I had in that 1.75 hour-long session!  Perhaps colleagues in this session--where I was invited to the conversation because I am a ruralist--were humoring me. 

So, is this attention to rurality among legal educators the wave of the future?  or just a temporary dalliance, a moment of intrigue and curiosity, as we absorb the results of the 2016 election and the role that rural America apparently played in Trump's win?  I'm hoping for the former because mainstream (even liberal! highly educated! elite!) attention to rural issues and rural people might help us avert another electoral disaster in two years, or four.  

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.