Quick study-- Law professor helps students at Academic Resource Center

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Heather Dunbar's family tree sprouts a lot of legal leaves. The sixth generation of lawyers, Dunbar follows in the footsteps of her mother, maternal grandfather, and three generations before him.

"While none of us were pushed toward the law as a career, when you grow up in a household where someone is a hands-on, loves-the-law, 'Atticus Finch' kind of lawyer, you just get hooked - and once you're hooked, there's nothing else that even compares to the law," she says.

But Dunbar--a professor at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills--wasn't always so inspired. In first grade, she watched her mother commute from West Branch to Cooley Law School in Lansing and study hard to enter the legal profession.

"Watching her go through law school made me want to be anything but a lawyer," Dunbar says. "However, when she was elected prosecutor in 1980 in Ogemaw County, right after graduating and passing the bar, I found her job amazingly interesting and even awe-inspiring at times."

After earning an undergrad degree from James Madison College at Michigan State University, Dunbar attended her mother's alma mater, earning her J.D. from Cooley in 2001. She clerked for Judge Louise Alderson in 54-A District Court in Lansing, was an associate attorney with a small East Lansing firm, and then practiced as a solo practitioner.

"I liked feeling I was helping my clients," she says. "It's not that lawyers necessarily love all of their clients, but most clients are grateful for the help and the support in working through their legal problems. Feeling you've made a positive difference for someone who needed your expertise is a happy thing."

Inspired by the zeal of some of her undergrad and law professors, Dunbar set her sights on teaching. She spent five years as an adjunct professor on Cooley's Lansing campus, teaching Pretrial Skills and Introduction to Law, and then almost five years serving as Deputy Director of the school's Academic Resource Center (ARC) prior to becoming full time visiting faculty in 2011.

"I got really lucky in sort of falling into this job," she says. "I was interested enough, and it provided additional income, but little did I know that I would love working on the skills part of law-school learning. It quickly became my passion, and I've never looked back. The opportunity to get inside the students' heads to see how they're thinking, not merely what they're thinking, is endlessly fascinating."

Joining the Cooley tenure-track faculty full-time in January, she is now an assistant professor and a faculty specialist with the ARC on the Auburn Hills campus, where all incoming students have to take Introduction to Law.

"So the first-term Auburn Hills students get stuck with me for that class," she says. "However, they're typically grateful for the guidance in how to build the skills that coincide with their substantive knowledge."

When teaching seminars and individual appointments, Dunbar gets a kick out of seeing a "light bulb" go on inside a student's head.

"That one moment when a student 'gets it'--whatever 'it' might be--makes up for anything else that may have happened that day," she says.

Teaching gives Dunbar the same rush as being in a courtroom.

"You always have to be on your toes and think quickly and logically," she says. "No matter how much preparation you do, you're never totally in control of how things go. The students ask questions, and you don't know ahead of time what those questions are going to be. So teaching provides that nice adrenaline high."

She also enjoys helping students begin the transformation from student to lawyer.

"Most students work very hard while they're in law school, but not all students know how to work smartly and build different skills," she says. "Seeing a student start to pick up a skill you know they can eventually master is very rewarding."

Teaching is a two-way street, and Dunbar learns a lot on a daily basis from her students.

"I'm a big old nerd at heart," she says. "Students are always showing me new approaches to learning the material and strengthening their skills, and that gives me more tools in my toolbox to work with future students--it's a great payoff!"

According to Dunbar, organizational skills can be a big challenge for students - because almost everything lawyers do requires the ability to sort material and make sense of pieces and parts and how they fit together.

"For instance, reading and briefing cases requires students and lawyers to pull out the relevant information and fit it into a useful framework that's relevant to current and future cases," she says. "This starts with critical reading but also requires the ability to see things like general rules, connected sub-rules, and exceptions.

"Also, successful law students build outlines to learn the material for their classes; and constructing outlines requires students to have the 'big picture' of their classes and what concepts are being covered while at the same time delving into the details to connect all of the parts of each concept together. In some ways, you have to like puzzles and logic games to really enjoy building outlines."

Dunbar - who finds it "amazing" to be a part of Cooley as a professor after having been through there as student - believes strongly in Cooley's mission to provide broad access to those who wish to study law, while meeting the school's rigorous academic standards.

"We see time and again that the LSAT is not the only thing that determines success in law school," she says. "Plus, because I know I got a top-notch education at Cooley from professors who were highly dedicated and brilliant in their respective fields and in teaching the materials, it's nice to be part of the team and provide that same strong education to others. It's sort of a 'pay it forward' kind of feeling."

She took part in Cooley's recent College Pre-Law Summer Institute (CPSI), where 19 underprivileged students from 13 colleges and universities in five states and the country of Lebanon came to the Auburn Hills campus.

The best part of the program was seeing students improve in logical reasoning in the space of one month, she says.

"Our CPSI students are really put to the test with everything we throw at them," she says.

The West Branch native, who now makes her home in Auburn Hills, is an avid reader, with "Good Omens," by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and "The Stupidest Angel," by Christopher Moore, topping her list. She also enjoys playing pool, as well as logic puzzles and word games.

"My ideal evening is spending it with friends playing Trivial Pursuit or some such nonsense." she says.

Published: Mon, Jul 22, 2013

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