The University of Colorado Law School will welcome its newest leader on July 1 when Southern Methodist University associate dean and law professor Lolita Buckner Inniss becomes the school’s 17th dean.
Inniss replaces James Anaya. She earned a bachelor’s degree in romance languages and literature at Princeton University, a law degree at UCLA, and an LL.M. and Ph.D. at York University’s Osgoode Law School. While working as an attorney, Inniss was both a prosecutor and a defense attorney and in civil practice. During her academic career, Inniss has written widely about legal geography and legal history. Among the law school courses she has taught are critical race theory, property law and real estate transactions. Her book, The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson, was published last year.
The California native has longstanding family ties to Colorado. A great-great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran of the 116th Colored Infantry, fought in the Appomattox Campaign and was present when the Confederate Army surrendered there. He moved to Colorado after the war. Inniss’ paternal grandmother was born in Colorado.
Law Week Colorado spoke to her about her work and career and the future of CU Law School. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
LAW WEEK: What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge in adapting to the post-pandemic return to normalcy when you get to Boulder?
INNISS: In my prediction, there will not ever be a return to “normalcy.” We’re going to interact with people differently. In my role as a leader, it’ll be challenging to keep reminding people that we are not who we were. People have had a lot of opportunities to be introspective. I think we’re more conscious about the goals that we set and the ways in which we even want to spend our time. For me, that’s a big challenge because I keep hearing people say, “oh, I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” Normal is always going to be in quotes, I think.
LAW WEEK: Do you think the traditional law school experience in the classroom, where professors and instructors have tended to use the Socratic method, will continue to be a commonly used method of teaching law students how to think like lawyers or are we entering an era where at least some diversity in teaching methods is going to become more common?
INNISS: Honestly — and I’ve been in law teaching now for over 25 years — I think there has been an ongoing change in that methodology. There are many of us who have moved away from that progressively over the last few decades. There’s always been room, I think, for instructors, for professors, to use various methods in their teaching. And I think given that capacious situation in terms of the pedagogy, we have been consistently moving to a situation where professors use a variety of methods.
If I were going to predict the fate of the Socratic method in say, 20 years, I think you probably would see fewer people using it. That’s not to say that I think that it is discredited in any way. I simply think that there’s an increasing likelihood that law professors are mixing methods, and that’s a great thing.
LAW WEEK: In the past, there was concern that American law schools were producing more lawyers than the economy could readily make room for. That concern seems to have dissipated, but students still face a competitive job market. What can CU do to help its students succeed in the competitive legal industry job market they’ll face?
INNISS: I think CU Law can do a couple of things: First, it can double down on what it’s always done, and that is providing an outstanding education at an outstanding value. Keep doing the amazing things it’s always done, make that better known to people. I think the other thing that I see going on at Colorado — and that I see only increasing — is the focus on the intersection between law and technology. I think that is a place where Colorado Law is making its mark and where I think it’s going to continue to make its mark, and I think it’s going to serve our students well. When you look at programs like Silicon Flatirons, the capacity to serve students and make them more ready for the 21st century and beyond, that capacity is only going to grow. So, I am deeply excited about that aspect of our work.
LAW WEEK: Arizona has recently adopted rules for non-lawyer practice. Maybe, at some point, the Colorado Supreme Court will end up having a debate in its rules proceedings about limited non-lawyer practice to expand the availability of legal services in the community. What can law schools do to help our courts and the bar figure out how to address that particular issue?
INNISS: I’m a little bit biased as a lawyer and a law professor. I think that every person in Colorado, in the U.S., deserves and needs access to a lawyer: someone who has studied, someone who knows the law, the rules, the norms, someone who has passed the bar exam.
If your question to me is what can Colorado Law do to ensure greater access to those lawyers, we can do a lot. One of the most important mechanisms for ensuring that there’s greater access to lawyers is making sure there are enough lawyers graduating who are not just people with outstanding legal training but also don’t carry the burden of such huge debt. One of the significant reasons that people sometimes don’t have access to lawyers is that young lawyers, and even middle-aged and older lawyers, find they can’t afford to practice, for example, in smaller towns, in rural areas and places where they’re not making huge salaries that may come from certain forms of practice. A school like CU Law has the capacity to enlarge the class of lawyers who are available, who might be willing and able to represent people across the economic and social and, especially, geographic spectrum.
LAW WEEK: One of the strengths of CU’s law school for many years has been its environmental and natural resources law program. What can you do as dean to continue supporting and building that program?
INNISS: We know that we’re doing outstanding things at CU Law around environmental law and that’s always been the case. But I don’t think enough people know about that. So, that would be first and foremost. Number two, I would really like to see more students think about environmental law concerns even in the context of their non-environmental law courses. That is an example of something that I think we can do immediately. We don’t need a budget for that. We don’t need committees to form for that. That is something that we as a faculty can agree to do. And I’m looking forward to us coming together and thinking about how we can enact that sort of change.
LAW WEEK: How can the law school benefit from relationships with alumni who can serve as role models or mentors or visiting academics be to the legal community at the school?
INNISS: That is one of the tremendous benefits that we have at CU Law. We have a body of incredibly distinguished alumni. And beyond their distinction, they are incredibly devoted. One of the most moving aspects of the interview process that I undertook for this job was seeing just how many alumni showed up to meetings to talk with me — interview me, ask me questions, provide ideas about the direction for the law school. We have a legacy of people who serve as tremendous role models for us. There is a lot of connection between Colorado’s legal community and their business community and the school. That’s one of our perhaps not-so-secret weapons, the close-knit relationship with our alums have to the law school.
LAW WEEK: Since the 1990s, when the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was enacted, the state has had challenges in funding higher education. Colorado’s share of state funding for higher education is among the lowest in the nation. How do you, as a dean, plan effectively and look to the future with a program that is fiscally realistic, given the revenue limitations that the state government faces?
INNISS: If you look back over the past few decades, law schools in particular and higher education in general have been asked increasingly to do not just the same with less but to do more with less. I think there are a couple of ways that we address that: One of them, of course is that, hopefully, we can gain the ears of our legislators and of our citizens and remind them of the tremendous value that we bring them in the hopes that would create greater access to funding.
It’s important, I think, that we don’t necessarily equate an outstanding education with increased or, heaven forbid, unlimited funding. An outstanding education is one that is very thoughtfully framed and then very carefully detailed within that frame, and I don’t think, necessarily, that it requires always-enhanced funding. I think it requires a lot of creativity in the use of resources, and that’s one of the things that I hope I bring to this job. I know that I already have a faculty and staff who have creativity in abundance.
LAW WEEK: Do you foresee expanding the number of specialized research centers that the law school has?
INNISS: I will be spending lots of time in upcoming months looking very closely and carefully at what we already have. I don’t necessarily always think that new is better or more is better. For me, I will be going on a grand listening tour over the next several months, and that includes listening to faculty, the staff, students, the community, statewide stakeholders. I want to understand what people are thinking, what people are doing, and what’s really going on before I personally would be willing to commit to something new. But I have no doubt that there will be certain expansions in centers. First, I want to deeply understand and appreciate and amplify what we’re already doing.
LAW WEEK: Are you open to the idea of additional clinical services at CU Law School?
INNISS: Once again, I’m going to push back on ‘additional.’ I first have to look closely at what we’re already doing. I want to do a deep dive and part of answering your question, for me, would be listening to and understanding what those who teach in our clinical faculty think about this. I think the direction that a clinical program takes, that has to be guided by the people around who are doing that work. I am here to listen to what our clinical faculty thinks and we will take it from there.