Law prof recalls days as former newshound

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Native Texan, former journalist, attorney -- three strikes against her, jokes Julia Belian.

Not that being a member of fun-to-hate cultural groups fazes her. Nor does teaching law students as an associate professor at University of Detroit Mercy Law School.

After earning a bachelor's degree in Philosophy in 1980 from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Belian worked in retail, then in the composing department of the San Angelo Standard-Times, where she became copy editor, then news editor, and wrote features.

"My years on the desk included so many incredible stories, and it was that proximity to the drama of human life that I relished," she says.

One memorable story was in 1987 when 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, about 100 miles away.

Belian's newshound years also included the assassination of Indira Ghandi; U.S. invasion of Panama; Exxon Valdez oil spill; explosion of the space shuttle Challenger; Iran-Contra hearings; AIDS crisis; bank closures; rising oil prices -- even the scoring of a competitive bull ride in order to edit rodeo coverage.

"We covered the news in 44 counties -- almost a quarter of the state -- and ran coverage of every high school football game we could get our hands on -- a weekly explosion of chaos we called 'Football Friday.'"

Active in her Episcopal parish, a sense of call became stronger. Encouraged by her priest and bishop, she enrolled at Yale and completed a Master of Divinity degree in 1993, while also working at the New Haven Register.

The controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians heated up, and her home diocese took a conservative stance.

"Because I did not feel comfortable either concealing my identity or being a likely-to-lose test case, I decided to surrender my postulancy," she says.

A Yale teaching assistant suggested law school.

"After learning about what lawyers actually do -- like copy editors, lawyers spend much of their time looking things up and crafting good writing -- I decided to give it a try," she says. "It seems to have worked out pretty well so far!"

She earned her law degree in 1996 from Emory University in Atlanta, was honored with the Clark Boardman Callaghan Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Law School and was elected to the Order of the Coif.

Her law career took her to Minnesota, California, and Nebraska, where she was on the faculty at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha. She was a visiting associate professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, received the Tiera Farrow Faculty Award from the Association of Women Law Students and was named Most Outstanding Professor by the graduating class of 2008.

In 2008 she joined the UDM faculty and teaches property law, elder law, and the law of estates and trusts.

Property law has roots dating back to medieval England. "I love the fact that certain thousand-year-old principles of property law remain viable today; not many areas of law can make that claim. Estates and Trusts is much the same in the age of its origins. Both also require learning a complex landscape of rules and concepts, which unfold in a perfectly logical way."

Estates and trusts offer a chance to be a real counselor at law, she says. "The goal is to assist clients to provide for loved ones through the orderly transmission of earthly effects. It requires clients, and attorneys, to face life's most fundamental truth--that it eventually ends. That is a sobering and humbling fact, and walking down that road with another human being is a privilege as well as a wonderfully fun intellectual challenge.

"To be of service as they make this journey is, I believe, a real ministry--I just don't wear a collar to do it."

This past year, Belian, who was nominated as a Best Law Teacher in a national study under way at Washburn University School of Law, and in April named an Outstanding Faculty Member by the Black Law Students Association, approaches students with high expectations and helps them reach logical conclusions of their own devising; and enjoys watching talented minds develop new skills.

"I'm extremely lucky--blessed--to be allowed the opportunity to do that every working day. Frankly, I feel I'm getting paid to play and I hope I continue to get away with it!"

Published: Fri, Jul 23, 2010