LWI Lives - August 2021
Jennifer Spreng: A Life Focused on Real People DOWNLOAD PDFAugust 1, 2021
By Wayne Schiess
Jennifer Spreng is a writer, music lover, and teacher who loves to travel and is devoted to her students. Sounds like a legal-writing teacher!
Jennifer was born outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but the summer before she started first grade, her family moved to Farmville, Virginia, where her father was a professor of Economics at Hampden Sydney College. Her family lived in Prince Edward County, where a segregation academy was still interfering with appropriate public-school integration, effectively leaving the public schools almost all African-American and the private schools all white. When she entered first grade, she was a student who helped integrate the public schools.
It was 1974 when genuine public-school integration began in the county, partly because people like Jennifer’s parents enrolled their children in public school. Jennifer claims no special credit because, of course, her parents chose that path. And they really don't claim any special credit, either—it was just the right thing to do.
Jennifer’s family wanted to experience living in England—just for the adventure of it—so they spent the 1978-79 school year in London which Jennifer loved. While there, at the age of ten, she earned an honorable mention from the London Observer in a children’s writing competition to write an alternate ending for Watership Down, and her desk partner in school was Rufus Sewell, with whom she appeared in the school play, Rumpelstiltskin. Yes, that Rufus Sewell, who recently starred in Victoria and The Man in the High Castle. After London, the family settled in Owensboro, Kentucky, where her father resumed his academic career in the U.S.
There, in eighth grade, Jennifer was sports editor of the middle-school newspaper. Among her more notable stories was a feature profile of her classmate, Rex Chapman. Yes, that Rex Chapman, who played basket-ball at the University of Kentucky and later for the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, and Phoenix Suns. In high school, Jennifer kept writing and reporting. She was a staff writer for Owensboro High School’s newspaper, The Scoop, and co-editor of the Owensboroan, the school yearbook.
Meanwhile, she had started playing the violin in fifth grade, continuing through high school, and was a member of the Owensboro Youth Symphony Orchestra. She continued to play in college and, after law school, played with several groups.
After high school, Jennifer attended Washington and Lee University, enrolling shortly after it changed from male only to a co-educational institution—she was in the second class of women to attend. After starting as a math major, she decided to pursue one of her many passions: Latin American history. As with many of the passions in her life, Jennifer pursued this one fully, joining the International Club and serving as its president during her junior and senior years. She also presented a paper in Monterrey, Mexico.
Jennifer had domestic interests, too. She cared deeply about U.S. government and followed elections, policy, and politics. During college, she completed an internship with Senator Richard Lugar, and upon graduating from Washington and Lee, she spent two years as a staff member for the United States Congress. From 1990-92, she worked for the House Wednesday Group, predecessor to the Tuesday Group, described as consisting of “moderate-to-liberal Republican members of the House of Representatives.” As the Group’s Executive Assistant, Jennifer performed administrative duties and research to support a major poverty policy initiative that later led to pas-sage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The Group also published her white paper, New Directions: Welfare Reform in Twelve States. The work she did there and the experiences she had were of vital importance to her and connected to a theme of her professional life: the law is about real people.
In the meantime, Jennifer’s family had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and she joined them when she enrolled at St. Louis University School of Law.
During law school, she continued writing. All three years, she worked as a stringer (a free-lance news writer paid by the job) for a local newspaper, covering the activities and meetings of school boards and town councils in southern Illinois and occasionally submitting other stories. And her major law school activity was membership on the Saint Louis University Law Journal, where she was Lead Articles Editor her third year. Her student-comment article on religious liberty, Failing Honorably: Balancing Tests, Justice O’Connor and the Free Exercise of Religion, 38 St. Louis U. L.J. 837 (1994), was selected for publication in 1994.
After law school she accepted a federal district court clerkship with Judge F.A. Little, Jr., in the Western District of Louisiana. Why Louisiana, you ask? It was a natural fit for Jennifer, who had become interested in Southern literature and was a fan of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. She enjoyed the clerkship so much that she wanted to continue, which she did by clerking with Judge Andrew Kleinfeld in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Judge Kleinfeld’s chambers are in Fair-banks, Alaska. Why Alaska, you ask? “Just because I thought it would be cool to live in Alaska!” she says. And her experiences there were valuable for a future legal-writing teacher: “Judge Kleinfeld taught me and showed me how to write and how to think the way lawyers and judges write and think.” While there she traveled a lot—including to Denali National and State Parks, Prudhoe Bay, and the Inside Passage—and cheered on the finish of the Yukon Quest dog-mushing race in Fairbanks. She also wrote two articles commenting on the
then-proposed division of the Ninth Circuit and returned to the violin, playing in the pit orchestra for the musical “Gypsy.”
After the clerkships, Jennifer returned to Owensboro, where she worked in a small firm and as a solo practitioner in bankruptcy, general civil litigation, and contract motion and appellate brief drafting. There she put into practice her knowledge and skill and her desire to make the law about real people.
Next, Jennifer made the move to academia, joining the faculty at Arizona Summit School of Law in 2006, where she taught full-time for nine years. She taught many courses, including Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Bankruptcy, consistently trying to incorporate experiences and practice-related activities into these traditionally doctrinal courses. (I sense a legal-writing teacher in the making!) It was at Arizona Summit that she honed and implemented ide-as about how authentic practice activities could facilitate learning in doctrinal courses, which nurtured her interest in teaching authentic practice skills directly, something she has continued to do throughout her academic career.
For example, she integrated Torts and Civil Procedure into a year-long Introduction to Civil Litigation course. It was, essentially, Torts and Civil Procedure with a Client Perspective, a continuing practicum based on diet-drug product-liability litigation The client-based perspective, she realized, enhanced learning, aided knowledge transfer, strengthened practice-readiness, and increased student motivation. This was her way of bringing alive her philosophy that the law should be about re-al people.
She also adopted other forms of “learning by doing,” such as The Great Civil Procedure Shootout!, a student-hosted game-show-style competition among teams answering procedure questions, playing procedure-themed games, wearing procedure-inspired costumes, and eating refreshments with procedure-reminiscent names.
Just before and during her time at Arizona Summit, Jennifer published a dozen law review articles, on a wide variety of topics, including religious liberties and pharmacists’ conscience rights, representing mentally ill mothers in juvenile dependency actions, legal education, and genetically modified animal feed regulation. She won Arizona Summit’s Faculty Scholarship Award for 2013-14. And in 2004, she published a book entitled Abortion and Divorce Law in Ireland, paying homage to her Irish heritage. Her current scholarship focuses on law teaching.
Jennifer earned her LL.M in Biotechnology and Genomics from Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in 2014. In 2015, she joined the faculty at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School for one year. The next year, Jennifer joined the faculty at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas.
At St. Mary’s, Jennifer has fulfilled at least three different educational roles, sometimes separately and sometimes all at once: Legal Writing Professor, Academic Success Professional, and Student Advisor. In these roles, and as part of the school’s Law Success Program (aspects of which Jennifer helped design and create), faculty members work individually and frequently with students, helping them focus on academic and professional success. In 2020-21, she also took on the responsibility of creating a year-long writing scenario and assignment set for Legal Communication, Analysis and Professionalism, the first-year research and writing sequence at St. Mary’s, and she previously created a semester-long scenario with assignments for the second-year Experiential Le-gal Analysis course she designed.
Jennifer says, “What I do is strive hard to become very good at teaching le-gal writing,” and, like so many in the legal-writing field, she values her students’ success more than her own. This year, one of her students won the “Super Brief” award for the best brief written in the first-year class—the second in a row for one of her students.
In her teaching, Jennifer is committed to the idea of “anchored” courses, which she defines this way: “’Anchored instruction’ is a strategy for delivering authentic learning opportunities. An anchor is a meaningful, factually rich, highly realistic story or ‘macrocontext’ that situates opportunities for students to encounter concepts, hone skills, and solve problems in a single realistic context over an extended period.” And she has to be considered a pioneer of this teaching practice, given her work at Arizona Summit and St. Mary’s. By the way, that quotation comes from a chapter entitled “Suppose the Class Began the Day the Case Walked in the Door . . . Integrating Authentic Anchors into Doctrinal Courses” that Jennifer recently wrote for the book Lawyering Skills in the Doctrinal Classroom: Using Legal Writing Pedagogy to Enhance Teaching Across the Law School Curriculum.
Jennifer loves to travel. She has been to Rome twice, once primarily to see the ancient Roman sites and the second time to tour religious sites, which included midnight Mass at the Vatican. She made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2012 and visited Turkey, mostly Istanbul, in 2013. She has returned to the U.K. and visited Ireland many times, and in 2015, presented at a conference for the Centre for Legal Education at Nottingham Law School and later published in the Nottingham Law Review, both of which were huge thrills. She has attended Wimbledon several times.
Lately, she has become interested in East Asian culture, particularly Korea. She had been taking Korean language classes at the Korean American Cultural Center of San Antonio when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She hopes to be able to visit the country soon. Her recent year-long writing scenario involved a fictional Korean DACA recipient challenging his conviction for possessing a gun while not legally in the United States under the Second Amendment.
She has been a longtime fan of the Van Cliburn piano competition, so in 2005 (and again in 2017), she decided to go. In 2005, she attended the entire competition and many of the “fringe” events that go on around it, such as recitals, lectures, master classes, meetings with competitors at the stage door, and social activities. “My seat was way up in the rafters of the recital Hall, but the fantastic part was that large numbers of music students and piano teachers also sat there, creating a tremendous milieu.” Jennifer discussed the competition with these people and fondly recalls that, “[t]he favorite in our section, Alexander Kobrin, was the winner, and in the context of the moment, it seemed like a vindication of important ideas about gifts of the self, honor, integrity, and craft/artistry. I’ll always remember the heady feeling when what seemed like our entire section met him at the stage door after his performance of ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.’ One of life’s pure and good moments.”
You can visit Jennifer’s faculty page at law.stmarytx.edu/academics/faculty/jennifer-spreng/.