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WJA 2020: Lyrissa Lidsky, Woman of the Year

When Lyrissa Lidsky was an undergraduate student at Texas A&M, the dean of the University of Texas School of Law came to speak to students interested in the law. He mentioned a scholarship “aimed at keeping Texans in Texas,” and Lidsky was intrigued enough that she followed the dean back to his car to learn more.

That encounter led to a written correspondence with the dean, Mark Yudof, and eventually Lidsky got the scholarship. It’s hard to think of an aspect of Lidsky’s career that hasn’t flowed from that decision. It wasn’t just that law school introduced her to the subject matter that would dominate her scholarship, or that it quickly led to a career in academia spent entirely at public institutions.

Lyrissa Lidsky

Lidsky

Law school imbued Lidsky with an enduring concern for not just the education but also the well-being of her students. She relishes the moment when the analytical framework of the law suddenly clicks in a 1L’s mind, something Lidsky said you can almost see happening in the moment. She also keenly understands how the monetary cost of that education shapes students’ choices, preventing them from doing what they truly want to do.

“I was in my dream job at 25 because I graduated law school without debt,” Lidsky said. As the dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, its Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law and Missouri Lawyers Media’s 2020 Woman of the Year, she’s working to make that a reality for as many students as she can.

“I feel like being a professor is my dream job. It’s what I was meant to do in life,” she said. “I absolutely love inspiring students and watching them learn and grow and find what they’re meant to do. I thought I could make an even bigger difference for students as a dean.”

Learning passion

Lidsky’s scholarship didn’t keep her in Texas forever. After earning her law degree in 1993, Lidsky clerked for a judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before joining the faculty at the University of Florida, where she served in a variety of roles before becoming dean of the University of Missouri School of Law in July 2017.

Her career path in that time, however, was a direct outgrowth of her studies in Texas, and of one class in particular. Her media law class was the first subject that really captivated Lidsky, and she has gone on to become an acclaimed First Amendment scholar, publishing on issues ranging from defamation and privacy to the emerging issues in the world of social media.

Her professor in that fateful class, David Anderson, later partnered with her in co-authoring a well-known media law casebook. Lidsky said she learned from Anderson not only a subject she loves but also how the teacher’s love for the subject impacts the students.

“He always conveyed that he really enjoyed the students. And I know that shouldn’t sound like such an extraordinary thing, but not every professor conveys that, and not every professor conveys that they’re passionate about what they’re teaching and that they love it,” Lidsky said.

During the pandemic this year, Lidsky became an early proponent of allowing graduating law students to practice under a lawyer’s supervision without having to sit for the bar exam. She signed onto a letter by some 300 students pushing for such a “diploma privilege” this year, then reiterated that proposal in another letter signed by the deans of all four of Missouri’s law schools.

Nonetheless, Lidsky also had urged students to continue studying as if the exam would take place, advice that turned out to be prescient when the Missouri Supreme Court said the July exam would proceed as scheduled with safety precautions in place.

“I thought there was a good chance the judges would hold the bar exam as scheduled, given how much work everybody has put in up to this point,” a disappointed Lidsky said after the court’s decision was announced.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended routines at the University of Missouri School of Law just as thoroughly as it has everywhere else. She praised her staff, faculty and students for making the transition to remote learning almost overnight. She is even able to see a silver lining: that once things return to some kind of normalcy, more schools will be open to hybrid classes that blend live and online learning, which could ultimately make law school more affordable.

Still, Lidsky is worried that the things that truly matter might suffer. It’s hard to inspire somebody in an online setting, particularly if the professor and the student never meet in person.

“In education, it’s relationships that matter,” she said.

‘Lidsky Strong’

Lidsky knows that better than anyone, for the pandemic is not the first curveball thrown at her since she joined MU in 2017. About a year and a half after she became dean, Lidsky was diagnosed with an early stage but aggressive form of breast cancer. That’s a daunting challenge under any circumstances, but it’s even harder in a state where she has just started to feel at home.

“I had friends on the faculty at Florida who were in the delivery room when my son was born, who were with me when my infant son had neurosurgery, for example,” she said. “If you’re going through something hard, you want people who know you at a deep, deep level.”

The outpouring from the school and community is still something that makes her cry. The faculty, she said, brought her family dinner every Friday for six months. Students sent flowers. People at school wore wristbands that said: “I am Lidsky Strong.”

“Even strangers extended acts of kindness that are just unforgettable,” she said. “Somebody here in town that I don’t even know well gave me a novel with a beautiful card to distract me from what was going on.”

During her treatment, Lidsky continued to administer the school and teach, a process she documented in detail on her popular Twitter account. By June 2019, she was declared cancer-free.

“It sounds strange to say, but there are lots of gifts from a cancer diagnosis, particularly if you are fortunate enough to survive it,” she said. If Lidsky can survive cancer, she can survive a pandemic. too.

“Honestly, going through that has made the challenges of this period easier,” she said. “One of the things when you’re in the midst of a cancer treatment is you can’t look too far ahead, and you can’t think too much about the future, and you just have to concentrate on making the best decision you can with the information you have. It has helped give me the perspective to get through this period.”

She thought back to a class she taught while undergoing chemotherapy.

“I think that class probably saved me,” she said. “When you’re in the classroom, you can’t think of anything else except the students and how you’re engaged in the classroom. When I was teaching through chemo, I got to spend an hour where I didn’t have cancer.”

2020 Women's Justice Awards