An Interview with Professor Thomas Mitchell

Q. What do you study and how did you first get involved in it?
I study property law, land use, and community development law (especially in rural communities) and am especially interested in how the law in these areas impacts poor and minority communities. I first became involved in this as I worked on my thesis as a Hastie Fellow at UW Law School. At the same time, I was working with the University’s Land Tenure Center to build a program that put law students to work on behalf of rural communities in many different parts of the country that lacked access to legal services to maintain their property.

Why is your work important?
For the most part, poor and minority communities have not been able to utilize the legal tools wealthy people use to structure their property ownership to protect their property and real estate wealth.  As a consequence, these communities have lost valuable property rights, wealth, and cultural assets.  One significant obstacle they face is that many policy makers and legal scholars consider it normal – if unfortunate – for these communities to have very unstable property rights that can result in many within these communities losing property.  In contrast, I believe that ensuring that these communities have strong property rights enhances the ability of these communities to participate in civic and political life, which in turn serves the common good.  I also believe that legal reform, though difficult, is possible, but that people like me need to make it happen.

What was the evolution of the new model for family property you were involved in?
The Associated Press published a series on black land loss in the South in 2001 that led many to decry the "legalized stealing" of African-American-owned family property. The A.P. series inspired the American Bar Association to form the Property Preservation Task Force. The task force which I served on submitted a proposal to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 2006 to reform a law governing forced sales of commonly-owned property which had been identified as a major source of land loss in poor and minority communities. In 2007, our proposal was accepted and shortly after, I was selected to be the primary drafter of the uniform act. Our drafting committee then spent three years drafting the Act. The Uniform Law Commission unanimously approved the Act, called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, at its 2010 annual meeting. In February 2011, the A.B.A. endorsed the Act at its Midyear Meeting.

How does the Law School’s law-in-action approach influence your research or your teaching?
I tend to research understudied property issues that exist below the legal radar screen of many property professors and which sometimes can only be identified by working with people on the ground. Such study often reveals that economic and political power and issues of race are mediated through property law, providing some with very strong property rights and others with uncertain rights. I take the law-in-action approach seriously in terms of trying to help students realize that the legal outcome of many cases we study should not necessarily be considered normal or fair and by working to devise real-world solutions to the problems I study, whether that's through creating service learning projects and externships for students or through participating in legal reform initiatives on the national level.

What’s the best thing about your job?
I think the best part of the job is the opportunity we have to use the knowledge and influence we have to make a positive difference both within the law school and in the world at large.  I particularly enjoy working with students and utilizing the research and expertise I’ve acquired to work with lawyers and others on legal reform, community legal education, and other legal projects. This is especially important when it pertains to the legal needs of communities that have not had much access to legal services.

Do you have any advice for an incoming 1L?
Strive to be an active, engaged student who aims for excellence both within and outside the classroom. Work hard to find out what areas or types of work really interest you by taking a range of different courses and clinical offerings (perhaps including a course offered in another department, whether a language class or a course at the business school), and by seeking out opportunities to do legal work for private firms, the government, judges, or nonprofits organizations. Finally, work very hard to get to know your professors outside of the classroom. In addition to helping clarify an issue you might not have understood during class or reviewing past exams with you as you prepare for upcoming exams, faculty members can offer advice on a wide range of matters, from selecting courses or concentrations to pursuing career options.

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