A Series of Surprises

Surprise in the good sense of that word has shaped my career as a law professor, researcher and author. Surprise played a role in how I became a law professor, and it continues to be a factor in my current research about our eloquent American presidents.

The first surprise was law school itself. I wasn’t sure what lawyers did when I applied to law school. I didn’t really know any lawyers except for a high school classmate’s father who was a judge in our small northwestern Minnesota town. But I was finishing college at the University of Minnesota, Duluth with majors in English and communications, and I didn’t have a plan. My brother was in law school, he seemed to like it, and we had many intellectual traits in common, so I decided to give it a try. I am amazed that many of my first-year law students decided in grade school that they wanted to become lawyers, which shows that successful legal careers start from many different beginnings.

Once I was in law school I knew that I was on the right path. I remember thinking, “These people approach problems the way that I do. Plus you write all the time. And you constantly learn new things. This is great!” Even while I was in law school I thought about a career in academia. I did what was expected for law professors by writing for the Law Review, graduating Order of the Coif, working for the Hennepin County Attorney’s office and a large law firm, and clerking for Judge John T. Noonan Jr. at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. I returned to Minneapolis and practiced in a law firm’s business litigation department for five years. My husband recently had started his career as a pediatrician, and two demanding professions did not work for us, so I stayed home raising our three children for 13 years. I stored one box of my legal books in our attic, thinking that I may never need them again.

The second surprise was finding the University of St. Thomas. I loved my years at home, but I knew I was ready for something new when I was volunteering for playground duty at my children’s school and a kindergartener asked me to tie his shoe. I wanted to reply, “Tie it yourself,” which I knew was not the correct response to a perfectly reasonable request.

That shoelace was the impetus for change in my life. I had followed the opening of the UST School of Law with great interest. I felt drawn to the mission of the law school and the opportunity it gave to law students to integrate all aspects of their lives into their profession. I planned to volunteer, but instead ended up with a tenure-track faculty position all that preparation for an academic career 20 years earlier had paid off.

When I told my family that I had been hired my then-13-year-old son said, “Oh, no, Mom. Couldn’t the dean find anybody better than you?” Luckily he didn’t know the dean’s phone number to alert him to his grave mistake, so I was able to unpack that box of law books in the beautiful law school building. Incidentally, that son, Danny Oseid, just graduated from UST with a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience.

The third surprise was how my current scholarship project about our eloquent American presidents developed. Six years ago I was stranded in the Milwaukee airport for several hours on my way home from a conference in Indiana. Abraham Lincoln was on my mind because Indiana (along with many other states) claims him, so I spent hours looking at Lincoln books in Renaissance Books (highly recommended if you ever find yourself with time at the Milwaukee airport).

Two weeks later I was waiting for a child at the dentist’s office while I paged through a National Geographic article about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I felt like Lincoln was tapping me on the shoulder, so I wrote an article about his use of brevity to persuade his audiences.

The Lincoln article launched a series of five articles about eloquent American presidents and each president’s persuasive writing quality: Thomas Jefferson (metaphor), James Madison (rigor), Abraham Lincoln (brevity), Ulysses Grant (clarity) and Teddy Roosevelt (zeal). I will spend the 2014-15 academic year on sabbatical writing "Communicators-in-Chief: Lessons in Persuasion from Eloquent American Presidents," which will collect and expand on my published series and add chapters on the ethics and morality of persuasion, letter writing in developing presidential friendships, eloquent American presidents from the 20th century, the common writing habits of eloquent presidents and practical tips for persuasive writing. I have made several national and international presentations based on the articles to academics and judges.

The last surprise should perhaps not have been unexpected this is all so much fun. Teaching is the most amazing, joy-filled endeavor in my professional life. But this is an essay about my scholarship, which is also full of joy. Not every minute, of course, because it is also just really hard, but it is fun a whole lot of the time. I get to read and think and write about fascinating people. I get to struggle with making new connections based on other scholars’ work. I get to teach the well-worn maxims about persuasion in a new way. I get to discover unexpected things like the fact that Grant wrote with such clarity that it is impossible to read his military orders without knowing exactly what he meant. I get to travel to talk about fascinating people with other fascinating people.

Many of those fascinating people are UST law students. I have worked with student research assistants for every article and each student has contributed insight and enthusiasm to my project. My research reaches every single one of my students in the classroom. I teach legal writing and analysis, and there is nothing like struggling myself with writing to build empathy for my students, which then challenges me to think about the writing habits that will help my students be successful. My experience presenting at judicial conferences helps me convince my students that their efforts at improving their writing and analysis is the key to their future success in practice. I also share the particular results of my research in the classroom. It is a confidence builder to learn that someone as articulate as Lincoln had to work very hard for his eloquence. It gives us all hope.

Just recently, my research also has reached an audience in the larger legal community judges and lawyers. I learn much more than I teach during these conferences, and I am constantly finding new areas to research through my interactions with judges and lawyers.

I tell my students that it is impossible to look ahead and know which people and experiences will shape your career, so it is best to assume that each person and every experience might play a role. Looking back, I can see that all the people and all the experiences made a difference in my career. That makes me smile and makes me look forward to seeing what the next surprises will be.

Professor Julie Oseid, J.D., teaches in UST’s School of Law. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.