Law professor honored for 'extraordinary' workl

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The culture of the ‘60s is far removed from where Michigan State University College of Law Professor Mae Kuykendall finds herself today.

Kuykendall, honored in June by the Georgia House of Representatives for her “extraordinary accomplishments” – commitment to higher education and students, expertise in a wide range of legal fields, and scholarly publications and writings – had plenty of uphill challenges.

The South Texas native earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, summa cum laude, from the University of Houston. While she had no concrete plans, she loved to write, a passion inherited from her grandfather and great-grandfather, who wrote memoirs about his early days in Texas.

“I thought more about how to be creative than about a specific job,” she says.

Her post-college options were: law school, graduate school, or work – in an era when local ads were organized under “Men Wanted” and “Women Wanted,” the latter offering minimal opportunities. 
“Young women still got lectured they were useless in the work force if they did not learn to type very fast – so I concluded quickly that jobs were not a likely alternative,” she says.

Law was not on her radar.

“In 1969, I didn’t think law would be an intellectually interesting field,” she says. “At the bookstore at the University of Houston, the people buying law casebooks all had crew cuts and wore white short-sleeved shirts. They
didn’t strike me as my peer group.”

Enrollment at Harvard Law School was nominal and women were treated as curiosities, with a legacy of only calling on them on “Ladies’ Day.”

“That wouldn’t have worked for me,” she says. 

Not that the law school in Ann Arbor had a stellar record.

“I know an MSU prof who started at Michigan Law School in the 1960s and quit because of the overt disrespect for women there,” she says. “They were not allowed to eat in the dining hall for the law school and were told they would not get jobs.” 
Interestingly, MSU Law College’s corporate predecessor, Detroit College of Law, was one of the first law schools to graduate a woman—in 1893.

Kuykendall earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science at the University of North Carolina, where a professor told her it was difficult to evaluate women. Another professor wrote, “Mae is a woman who wears well.” 

“I was both gratified to hear it but likewise puzzled at the extent of interest in my gender rather than my work by those purporting to mentor me,” she says.

Her political science subfield – judicial process and judicial behavior – made for a natural transition to law. A professor at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, she applied to be one of the first crop of Judicial Fellows at the Supreme Court – parallel to judicial clerks but focusing on administration of the courts and drawing on training in fields besides law. She withdrew her name in favor of a friend who became a finalist; but the powers-that-be thought it unwise to “hire a woman” in the program’s first year.

Kuykendall applied to be a staff member at the National Center for State Courts, starting her on an 8-year career in the company of lawyers and on the path to becoming one.

Her first two years were spent visiting Virginia courthouses on behalf of the Virginia Supreme Court. She opened the National Center’s first office in Williamsburg, Va., on the William & Mary campus. Her first task was spending a week in Tazewell, Va., examining the procedures of the district court. She also helped design a docketing system for the limited jurisdiction courts in Virginia, a caseload reporting system for the circuit courts, a jury system for the territorial courts of the Virgin Islands, and standard forms for the Virginia courts. She produced a juror-orientation film; and wrote reports for both the D.C. court system and the Virginia courts proposing an agenda for administrative reforms, including the creation of an intermediate appellate court for each system.

“Both D.C. and Virginia acted on those reports to establish their intermediate appellate courts,” she says.
In 1979, when she became the first woman and also the first non-lawyer to serve as a regional director, the National Center’s director told her, “You earned it.”

Yet still she found herself in the middle of cultural transition. 

“There was a certain male mystique to the role and male bonding, since it involved selling services and meeting with state judges and having a friendly competition with other regional directors,” she says. “At that time, most judges were men. Perhaps today the sense of novelty at having a woman fill a management position with authority to do business with the state courts in a whole region would be less, but the expectation that certain roles are mainly filled by males certainly does persist. 

“As for being a non-lawyer, anyone today who works in an institution dominated by lawyers probably experiences much of the same challenge of being accepted by lawyers as having the skills necessary to understand the mission of the organization. I’m not sure there’s a cultural shift at all, though the idea of interdisciplinary skills and knowledge has penetrated the law school curriculum design. 

“At any rate, the novelty of my sex and my non-lawyer professional training gave me an early opportunity to navigate an environment in which one of the tasks was simply to deflect the cultural hangover of entrenched hierarchies that had low correspondence with merit.”

Women in the 1970s faced an uphill battle, she says.

“A term for sexual harassment didn’t exist,” Kuykendall says. “More than once, I encountered relationships in small offices that created problems, and I was a direct witness to a sexual harassment case that became an item in professional responsibility casebooks.”

Kuykendall debated with law professors about the problem of mixing romantic and professional relations in an office environment.

“They were totally resistant to the idea that sex in the workplace might create concerns about the fair treatment of other employees or the object of the supervisor’s amorous attention,” she says. “After a few years, the concept of sexual harassment got a name and a basis for a legal remedy instead of the self-help approach of moving fast or joining the party and hoping to participate in the spoils.”   

In 1980, she moved to the Office for Improvements in the Administration of Justice, a “think tank” at the U.S. Department of Justice that was replaced during the Reagan presidency with an office that screened candidates for the federal judiciary.

“After a short time in a small bureau devoted to gathering and analyzing justice statistics, I decamped to Harvard Law School,” she says. “Even in 1982, Harvard Law had only one-third enrollment of women.”

She clerked for Judge Joseph Hatchett, the first African-American elected to statewide office in the South after Reconstruction, appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Eleventh Circuit. She had previously met the judge when, as a co-director at the National Center for State Courts of the implementation of the ABA Standards for Judicial Administration, she and a colleague advised the Florida legislature about revising the appellate jurisdiction of the Florida Supreme Court.

Kuykendall spent six years in the New York City firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, practicing in corporate finance with a focus on large private placements and occasional public offerings, and a $1.2 billion workout of a Mexican steel company, Hylsa S.A. de C.V.

“It was natural when I went into law teaching to offer a corporations class, although I had plenty to learn about the soup-to-nuts menu of basic corporate law for a survey course,” she says. “I was assigned to teach corporate finance with it and wound up learning a lot from the complex casebook written by my former professor, Victor Brudney. I found an article excerpted in it by Stephen Schulman, my then colleague at Wayne Law School. He had no idea that his article was in the book, so that was a nice discovery.” 

Kuykendall also taught at Florida State University College of Law, Wayne State University Law School, for Professor David Shapiro in the legal writing class at Harvard University Law School, College of William and Mary (as an adjunct in political science), University of South Carolina College of Criminal Justice, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and the University of North Carolina.

When she visited at Florida State, she brought back her course in Mergers & Acquisitions, and added it to her MSU curriculum.
“Having a background in political science and teaching corporate law and constitutional law makes good sense, since all the fields concern institutional arrangements,” she says.

Kuykendall, who served as Senior Associate Dean of MSU Law from 2003-06, also teaches courses on Law and Gender. She has been, variously over time, a faculty adviser for the Women’s Legal Forum and Gender Review, Women’s Law Association, and Triangle Bar Association; and in 2000 spoke at Diversity Day about the legal status of sexual minorities.

“Teaching is a process of learning how to make students comfortable in the classroom and also challenge them,” she says. “You learn a lot from the students about what works and doesn’t.

“One enjoyable feature is the serendipity of having students volunteer to work with you and then become a gratifying professional connection while they’re here and even later. I had a great helper when I worked on revising the nonprofit act in Michigan to incorporate years of changes in the Business Corporation Act; he was great at managing a big manuscript. I recently had a teaching assistant for two years in constitutional law, who was excellent in many ways.”

The MSU Law College has gone through numerous changes, starting around the time Kuykendall arrived in 1993.
“It’s been an interesting period, with the opportunity to see how an institutional culture adapts to significant and continuing change and to the ongoing challenge to find the right approach to legal education under the pressure of jarring disruptions in law practice and in the overall economy,” she says. 

“Today, there is far too much of ‘Follow the Crowd’ in law school administration; everyone tries to do much of the same thing and somehow market it as extra special while taking comfort in not being different,” she says. “The future presumably lies with those who genuinely innovate rather than trying to conform. Simply reacting to the latest new thing in law schools’ competition for students and relying on appearances over substance is not a recipe for delivering value to students or building strength.”

Kuykendall, who helped revise the Michigan Nonprofit Corporation Act and has been the reporter of the Michigan Business Corporation Act, also directs the Legal E-Marriage Project, created with MSU Law Professor Adam Candeub.

“This project was a chance to combine my experience as a drafter of the Michigan Business Corporation, specifically the distance, or electronic, communications authorization that was added to the Code around 10 years ago, with my theoretical work on marriage. The project also draws on my background in political science,” she says. 

“It’s been an opportunity to serve as a possible source of practical legal reform and fresh theoretical perspectives on ways that marriage substance is affected by marriage procedure.” 
 
Last November’s symposium “Modernizing Marriage through E-Marriage” held with the MSU Law Review, brought together policy-makers and legal academics, and a couple who had “tried” e-marriage through an expansive reading of the D.C. marriage law. As a result of her outreach on the e-marriage project, a Georgia legislator who found her work impressive introduced a resolution honoring Kuykendall.

President of the MSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, she has given talks at AAUP national conferences. 

“I’ve developed an interest in theories of governance of institutions that do not have a clear underlying premise for authority, such as ownership or divine right,” she says. “Writing about the question is on my agenda of big projects. The experiences of seeing change at the Law College have been quite helpful in bringing together a theoretical perspective with practical knowledge. Strong group input into the governance of such institutions is absolutely critical to societal health, and always under siege – by folks who think they have an ownership claim, or perhaps divine ordination.”

Kuykendall enjoyed a typical 1950s childhood in Texas, playing baseball and climbing trees with her brother.

“We had a bulldog named Duke and occasional encounters with poisonous snakes. It was great fun.”

She is a fan of dogs; she and her husband Bob Rich have a miniature longhaired dachshund and a bichon frise.

“They expect constant service, viewing the two of us as the staff of a luxury hotel and themselves as rich potentates with a suite and an open tab,” she jokes. “I left snakes behind in Texas, where I hear they are in retreat under the forces of Texan civilization.”

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