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Cyndi Nance: Teaching the Heart of Legal Service

3 min read

That Cyndi Nance is an inveterate user of Twitter isn’t in itself remarkable. More piquantly, as the dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, she uses her Twitter feed to propel discussion on topics ranging from the incongruent sentencing of crack and powder cocaine offenders, to workplace discrimination, to the effects of the Census on poverty.

Like most dedicated microbloggers – and at more than 3,200 tweets and counting, Nance is prolific – she illustrates a worldview pointillistically, one compact sentence or link at a time. Those brief bursts of thought reveal an intellect concerned with matters of employment, gender, race, immigration, government and, above all, law. Rich in information and slim on rhetoric, her tweets allow her to be outspoken while diplomatically remaining neutral.

"I do have to pull back a little bit," Nance says. "The tweets from the law school are completely all business. If you’ve looked at my tweets, they tend to have an orientation: progressive, about immigrants’ rights and people of color. This is my account. I am the dean, but I bring some unique characteristics to that role."

Indeed, she asks, what is the point of diversity if people from uncommon backgrounds don’t speak up? Nance, 51, the first woman and first African-American dean of Arkansas’ oldest law school, encourages lawyers to give voice to groups who have none. In a speech last year at Pepperdine University’s law school about the role of faith in the practice of law, she encouraged students to approach law "with the heart of a servant," combining humility with steadfastness and, when needed, action.

Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Nance earned her law degree and a master’s degree in finance at the University of Iowa and joined the faculty at Arkansas in 1994 as a specialist in labor and employment law. Since 1990 she has been a member of the American Bar Association’s Labor & Employment Law Section, and for a decade she has presented an annual overview of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals labor and employment cases to the Arkansas Bar Association’s section on the same.

When Nance was appointed dean in 2006, she became the first African-American woman to head a school or college at the University of Arkansas and one of only two such law school deans in the country. Almost four years later, those ranks have tripled. At a recent American Bar Association meeting, Nance gathered all six for a photo and sent each of the others a print in a University of Arkansas frame.

Increasing minority representation in her field is more than cosmetic, Nance says. She felt the import of her status when she joined an American Law Institute discussion of law enforcement’s disproportionate inquiries and arrests of black people. The data were there, she said, but the attorneys trying to formulate a policy on the issue was "not a very diverse group." She addressed her colleagues as a member of a community that had been targeted. "As one of these people disproportionately impacted," she told them, "we need to get this right."

Her position affords her a visibility that has carried her beyond professional circles. Through a UA professor with ties to the American embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, she was invited there last year to deliver eight lectures on topics ranging from affirmative action to running a placement office. In 2007, an African-American club in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands invited her for a series of speeches on women in the civil rights movement for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Nance encourages students to donate their expertise to those in need. UA law students can study and train in any of nine legal clinics; last year those students volunteered more than 2,500 hours of pro bono work. "In all areas of the curriculum, we get back to this notion of professionalism, civility and leadership," she says. "It’s a trend in legal education. There was a sense that lawyers were too much head and hands and needed a little more heart."

Among the school’s clinics is one on immigration law, a topic so dear to Nance that she routinely attends the swearing-in of new citizens. In that way, she raises the law school’s visibility not only in national legal circles, but among those who, as they raise their hands for the Oath of Allegiance, may just be gaining their voice.


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