Brandeis Spotlight: Professor Laura McNeal
Professor Laura McNeal teaches civil procedure, education law and employment discrimination courses. Her scholarly interests examine issues of access and equity in employment and education law, with a particular emphasis on issues of access and equity for individuals from traditionally marginalized populations.
What’s the best career advice you ever received?
“If a door of opportunity doesn’t present itself, build one.
“A lot of times, as I was on my career path and just starting out, I knew what my long-term goals and dreams were but often, the school where I wanted to work didn’t have an available position. Since I understood the importance of building doors of opportunity, I made sure people were familiar with my work, reached out to faculty at that particular institution, and looked for other ways that I could increase my opportunities.
“I think a lot of times, people sit and wait for the opportunity to present itself, and I’ve always been an advocate of, when you can, trying to create those doors.”
How has law school changed since you were a student?
“Law schools still have a lot of the traditions such as the Socratic teaching method, but I think today’s law schools are a lot more student-centered.
“When I was a student I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to my professor’s office, except to ask a quick question and even under those circumstances I was trying to get out as soon as possible. In today’s law school environment, there’s definitely a more in-depth relationship between students and faculty.
“I also appreciate the fact that our law school has done a wonderful job trying to maintain an encouraging and positive environment. I know that we’ve had Mardi Gras celebrations here at the law school and we’ve got Lawlapaloosa. I really admire the fact that the law school has made a concerted effort to create not just a great educational experience but kind of an extended family environment.
“My law school was kind of rigid: You go to class, you go home. There wasn’t that sense of community as we see now.”
What was your first job?
“The very, very first one was at a grocery store bagging groceries. I lasted one day.
“I was 16, and people were very demanding about how I bagged their groceries. What pushed me over was this lady came through the checkout line and she said, 'I want you to double bag the paper bags and then put them in plastic bags and I want you to put them in order based on the cabinet, refrigeration, etc.'
“I looked at her, I smiled and I said, 'Ma’am, if you need your groceries bagged with that level of specificity, you should probably bag them yourself.' I looked at the cashier, I said, 'I quit' and I left.
"The downside is my mother grounded me because she said, 'You don’t commit to something and not fulfill that commitment. You should’ve given proper notice.'
“That was a valuable lesson for me. In life, sometimes you’re going to meet challenging people, but you can’t let that deter you from your dreams, your goals, your responsibility, your commitments.”
What’s your favorite spot on campus?
“There’s a little mini quad right behind the president’s administration building. It has benches and it’s like a little memorial. I love that place because to me, it’s kind of like an oasis in the midst of this huge campus.
“Students are passing by, but in that little space people are typically reading. It’s quiet. It’s always pretty because it’s surrounded by beautiful flowers and landscape. I love the benches because they remind me of being in a big beautiful park. The way that the trees overhang and kind of create a canopy it’s just very peaceful. It is beautiful, it's serene. I feel a sense of serenity when I’m there.
“It’s such a short walk from the law school. I go there a lot to just sit and read over notes before class or just to take a breather.”
How do you stay motivated?
“I think I have a drive to fulfill my potential and I don’t think I’m there yet.
“I know how hard people worked that believed in me, that supported me – my grandmother being one. When I look at how hard she worked to be a school teacher and principal and the barriers that she had to overcome to achieve those things, I am so grateful. I am in awe of her accomplishments in light of the difficult social and political climate during her era. She worked hard so that I’d have the opportunities that I have today.
“Her unyielding commitment to excellence definitely motivates me. I want her to be proud of me. I was named after her, so I feel like I am in a sense carrying on her legacy in the field of education."
“Oh, that’s easy – the students.
“I was so incredibly moved by how brutally honest, candid and genuine the students were who interviewed me. They described the law school environment like an extended family.
“When I asked them about their perceptions of the professors here, everyone shared stories of professors taking all the students out after class to hang out or the professors holding socials in their homes and how kind the dean was.
“So really, the environment they described sounded so much unlike my law school experience, to me it was a no-brainier. The students are the ones who sold me on the law school. I knew this was the place I wanted to call home.”