Ellen Suni used to have a love-hate relationship with legal education.
She attended Boston University School of Law in the early 1970s and remembers a professor who’d lock his classroom door to keep out late students. She recalls another professor who’d shove papers and books off the desks of students who showed up unprepared.
Suni had nearly graduated before she saw her first real affidavit for a search warrant. That came in her third year, when she interned for a criminal defense lawyer, an experience where reciting caselaw from her classes didn’t help her.
“It was so divorced from reality,” Suni says. “I remember thinking, ‘This whole concept of law school – there’s got to be a better way.'”
Suni is now dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. She has made it her career’s goal to eliminate the disconnect between law school and the real world.
She pushes a curriculum that integrates what she calls “big-picture skills” into a more traditional approach.
“People ask, ‘Are you an academic institution or a lawyer training school?’ The answer is ‘yes,'” Suni says. “The goal is to make law school more human and maintain intellectual rigor, but not doing it through power and control.”
That is the legacy she says she hopes to leave behind.
Suni tries to emphasize the real legal world to all students as much as she can so they know what to expect, like when she gave an aspiring public defender the chance of a lifetime.
In 2004, Suni successfully argued on behalf of Rubin Weeks in the first post-conviction DNA test case before the Missouri Supreme Court. Weeks’ case became important precedent on the subject.
In 2008, Supreme Court judges appointed Suni to take on another DNA case. Suni recruited a third-year law student, Fawzy Simon, to help her.
“What kind of third-year law student gets to help write a Supreme Court law brief? There’s no student good enough,” Simon says.
They asked the court to allow a DNA test on evidence recovered from the scene of a rape at a Kansas City hotel, to help exonerate a man who’d already served more than 20 years for the crime. They won their case: The Supreme Court ordered the DNA test.
The new evidence, however, ultimately implicated Weeks, the hotel’s former cook.
Still, Simon says the experience of working with Suni was invaluable because it readied him for his current position as an assistant public defender in Lebanon.
“She doesn’t ever treat people like students. Her goal is to prepare people for practice,” he says. “She prepared me by giving me opportunities to show myself I was capable of being a lawyer, by showing me that I could do it.”
Her legacy already may have begun.