An Interview with Professor Lisa Alexander

Q. Why is your work important? 
At my most ambitious moments, I strive to become a public intellectual.  I hope that my emerging research in housing, community development and social entrepreneurship will make a difference for people in their daily lives.  I hope to identify how law can help communities develop in a more sustainable and equitable way, rather than in a manner that exacerbates existing inequalities.  I also hope to train not just competent legal technicians, but thoughtful and ethical lawyers who are prepared to confront the myriad challenges that the future may bring.


How does the law school’s law-in-action approach influence your research or your teaching?
Wisconsin has been a wonderful place to start my career precisely because of its law-in-action tradition.  The Law School has embraced my Community Economic Development Law “service learning course” because it helps students learn the “law in action.”  Students study various theories of community development law and policy in the class, but they also test those theories by visiting live CED projects and working with organizations confronting particular problems.  My scholarship is also inherently interdisciplinary, so the Law School’s tradition of interdisciplinary work that combines a variety of methodological approaches makes it a wonderful incubator for my work.


What’s the best thing about your job?
Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow said it best, “You own your own mind.”  As a law professor, you are paid to think about the really tough questions and you are free to express your ideas.  There is a real power in being able to say what you want, when you want and how you want.  That freedom is the best thing about this job.  The second best thing is that you get to be part of shaping future lawyers in the hopes that they will use what you have taught them to improve someone else’s life.

What did you do before you became a law professor?
I held a variety of jobs before I became a law professor.  Before law school, I worked on Wall Street; I received post-graduate Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs; and I worked with public interest legal non-profits as a fundraiser.  After law school, I got experience in both litigation and transactional legal work.  Then, I focused primarily as a transactional lawyer working with non-profits and small businesses on community and commercial real estate development deals.  I did this work at a small 20-person law firm in Chicago that is also the former firm of the current President Barack Obama.


How do you spend your time outside of work?
Well, I wish there were more time outside of work.  But when I get the chance, I love to take dance classes at the gym, sing, go out to dinner, shop at Hilldale Mall and watch movies with my husband at Sundance Cinemas here in Madison.


Where do you take visitors when they come to visit?
Madison has so many wonderful places to visit.  The Olbrich Gardens, the Overture Center, the Farmer’s Market, the Capitol, the UW’s Union Terrace, the bike trails or the Willy-Street Co-op.  My husband and I are from San Francisco and New York, respectively, and we’re eager to get more of our big city friends on either coast to come and experience what Madison has to offer.


Do you have any advice for an incoming 1L?
Develop your own measures of success. Law school is a new way of learning and so much emphasis is placed on grades as a measure of student aptitude.  Grades are important.  Yet, there are many valuable skills and traits that are not measured by final grades in traditional law school classes.  So do not define yourself solely by whether you are in the top 5% of the class.  Strive to be there, but also seek to learn the material, to improve your writing and performance on exams over time, and to develop critical and important relationships with professors, employers and peers. At the end of the day, whatever your grade point average, you want to feel that you have maximized your experience here.


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