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Law School Professor Maureen Weston Puts a Human Face on Every Case
It was a moment in history. In quiet northern Minnesota, a group of female coal miners resisted their aggressive, male-dominated work environment and filed the first class action sexual harassment suit in American history. Documented in the book Class Action and fictionalized in the Academy Award-nominated film North Country, the Jenson v. Eveleth Mines case spent more than a decade in the courts and set a new standard in litigation. And in the middle of the trial, engaged in research for the defendant mining company, was attorney Maureen Weston.
An associate at the time with Minneapolis-based law firm Faegre & Benson, Weston was learning to navigate the murky waters of nascent sexual harassment policies. While interviewing miners in the Jensen case, she observed how perceptions of the same situation could be so different.
"What I took from that case was the knowledge that while representing your client, however unpopular he or she may be, we can use our role as attorneys to counsel and educate them."
Following Jenson, when corporate clients contacted her firm with similar complaints, Weston conducted on-site sexual harassment training sessions. "Too often attorneys try to deny complaints on their client's behalf, but it's not just about abdicating responsibility. I say, let's take this seriously and see what happened. The training was an opportunity to reflect on behavior and policies, then be proctive about keeping the workplace free from harassment and discrimination."
In addition to this work, the University of Colorado School of Law graduate also practiced employment law, probate law, and commercial litigation at the large firm’s Denver office. She witnessed cutting-edge cases like Jenson and observed staggering trends. She was startled by the number of probate cases in which family members excluded women from their wills, assuming that they would be cared for by future husbands.
Throughout her years in this busy practice, Weston began nurturing two passions that would become benchmarks of her legal career: a concern for access to justice, and an abiding interest in the people and the stories behind her cases. These days, they dominate her teaching philosophy. In 1996 Weston accepted a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma College of Law and moved to the Pepperdine School of Law in 2001.
Some attorneys argue that a legal education not only teaches the law, but also how to think like a lawyer. Weston, now associate professor of law, concurs: “It is my responsibility to help students understand core legal principles and methods for legal analysis, but foremost to teach students to approach our work as lawyers with care and to serve clients and society in a responsible, competent, and ethical manner.”
Weston teaches that the best attorneys think not only critically, but also humanely. She gravitates towards legal issues with a story, cases in which she fights to help the people involved. This emphasis, too infrequently stressed in law school, rouses students in the classroom. “I like to get students to think about who these people are and how they are affected.” She observes, “It’s too easy to get detached as a lawyer.”
Such detachment can be compounded by clients’ confusion about their cases. They often feel bogged down by legal jargon and complex details. “The legal system shouldn’t be overly complicated,” Weston argues. “It should be accessible to people in terms of both cost and comprehension.” In addition, clients should be able to trust their attorneys.
These are lessons she imparts especially to her first-year students, whom she instructs in Civil Procedure, or on the structure of the legal system, and Ethical Lawyering, the issues that face practicing attorneys. “It’s thrilling to watch first-year students grow, and gratifying to see them graduate. It feels parental; I am so proud of their accomplishments and intellectual development.”
Now in her sixth year at Pepperdine, Weston devotes most of her scholarly attention to two areas of her particular expertise: Sports Law and Dispute Resolution.
Often misunderstood, sports law includes many bodies of law such as anti-trust, labor, and intellectual property law. A sports lawyer attends to merchandise copyrights, athlete publicity, event broadcasting, regulations promulgated by governing associations, and more. Weston, who recently published a casebook on sports law and advises the Pepperdine Sports Law Society, has written articles on the rise of international athletes in college sports and reasonable accommodation for athletes with disabilities.
She also specializes and instructs in Dispute Resolution at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. The areas of keenest scholarly interest to Weston include negotiation, mediation, and arbitration, a binding form of private dispute resolution in which parties agree to have their dispute resolved by a neutral body. She primarily researches the issues that have arisen in the trend to privatize justice. Arbitration, Weston explains, is a consensual procedure in theory, but in practice often mandated by contract. Thus contrary to its intended purpose, today arbitration occurs between parties who do not have equal bargaining powers.
Involved in issues of dispute resolution throughout her career, Weston was attracted to Pepperdine by the prestigious reputation, strong resources, and unique opportunities available at the School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. While teaching at the University of Oklahoma, Weston attended a course at the Institute and impressed former director Randy Lowry and co-director Peter Robinson. When a teaching spot opened at Pepperdine, Weston seemed to fit.
She jumped at the chance. Though motivated by professional reasons, she also recognized the peripheral benefits of moving to Pepperdine. “When I got the call it was a freezing, drizzly day,” she recalls, “and I was trying to get sleet off my windows. I thought: Now I can live in warm weather!”
In the years since their move from Oklahoma, Weston and her family have certainly thrived in Malibu. She and her husband Brian, an attorney in wind energy development, live on the Drescher Graduate Campus with their son Cedric, 6. Weston takes Cedric to and from school and volunteers in his classroom once a week. They are also active members at Our Lady of Malibu.
An avid tennis player, Weston participates in a competitive women’s league that plays at the Malibu Racquet Club and on the Pepperdine courts. In touch with her Colorado roots and passion for athletics, Weston and her family also love to get outdoors and hike.
Weston credits Pepperdine with helping her find a successful and indeed joyful work-life balance. Her job keeps her mind active and stimulated, while allowing her time to be a fully engaged mom. Living on campus also helps her feel a strong sense of community with her neighbors and engagement with student life.
A regular attendee at Center for the Arts performances, she also enjoys interesting speakers at Convocation, group fitness classes at the campus gym, and kid-friendly opportunities like Halloween events on the Seaver campus. As a faculty advisor for the Sports Law Society, Straus Institute LLM candidates, and first-year small sections, Weston invites students to her home for dinner or get-togethers. She brings speakers to her classes, and helps students with the tricky task of finding jobs after graduation.
In pursuit of programs to involve, instruct, and inspire law students, Weston helped develop a nationwide student mediation competition with the American Bar Association Section on Dispute Resolution. She worked with people all over the country to build the program, which introduces students to the mediation process and gives them the experience of being an advocate. Currently on sabbatical as the national coordinator and chair, Weston praises the competition as a unique opportunity for students to get feedback from professionals in dispute resolution.
Weston is also a frequent speaker at conferences. She recently attended a symposium at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she discussed ways to provide more meaningful remedies for arbitration. Weston is now combining her expertise in sports law and dispute resolution to research Olympic arbitration, the only recourse Olympic athletes have to challenge their eligibility if they become barred from competition due to allegations like steroid use.
Although Weston considers it unlikely, she may someday return to practicing law. “I think it’s important to stay involved, but I’d only do it for a great story.” In the meantime, she feels a sense of satisfaction in teaching that closely resembles her affection for practice. “I develop the same concern for my students as I did for my clients. I worry about their needs and their growth, and ultimately I’m educating myself and my students or clients at the same time. It’s all about learning.”
by Megan Huard