By Andrew Cohen
Professor Melissa Murray is the latest recipient of Berkeley Law’s annual Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction. Established in 1995 by the late William Rutter—a philanthropist, lawyer, educator, and author—the award honors a professor who has shown an outstanding commitment to teaching and who is an inspiration to students.
Murray has taught a range of courses since joining the law school faculty in 2006, including Family Law, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law. She has won several awards for articles on how law articulates the legal parameters of intimate life—scholarship encompassing topics such as marriage equality, the legal regulation of sex and sexuality, and the legal recognition of caregiving.
While balancing her classroom and publishing obligations presents challenges—especially with two young children—Murray welcomes her employer’s expectations. “It’s important to be a strong scholar, but Berkeley Law has always made it clear that you have to be a great teacher,” she said.
To effectively prepare the next generation of lawyers, Murray uses the Socratic Method—which asks students a series of questions rather than providing information directly. She picks seven students to call on in each class session and uses their last names when doing so.
“I try to model a professional environment as though the students were already lawyers,” Murray said. “When I was a law student at Yale, classes that didn’t use the Socratic Method were often dominated by a handful of voices. There is something more democratic about the Socratic Method, especially if it’s done consistently and conscientiously. I don’t privilege a few voices. I make sure that everyone speaks and is involved in the discussion. I want all of my students to be engaged and to learn how to think and respond on the spot—that’s what lawyers do.”
The approach has earned rave reviews from her students. “Professor Murray’s brilliance as a professor stems from her ability to involve the entire class in the process of deep learning,” said Sean Darling-Hammond ’14, who took her Family Law course. “She knew each of our names by the end of the first week and would call on us not to embarrass us or test us, but to pull us in. She was engaging and dynamic and made the content come to life.”
Sheila Menz ’15, a student in Murray’s Criminal Law course, called her “an incredible teacher and mentor” and said her “intellect, humor, and passion for her work made it exciting to go to class every day.”
In each course she teaches, Murray gives her students a mid-term evaluation that asks two simple questions: What do you like about this class, and what do you think should be changed?
One semester she learned that some students had trouble seeing her slides. In a different class that discussed sexual assault, students used the evaluation to raise their own difficult experiences. “One had been a victim of sexual assault and another had been falsely accused of rape,” Murray says. “That was valuable for me to learn.”
Murray herself learned a great deal working for two federal judges after law school. She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—then of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit—and Judge Stefan Underhill of the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.
“Both were remarkable mentors,” Murray said. “Judge Underhill was like a dad to me and was relentless in helping me hone my writing. Judge Sotomayor emphasized the value of bringing along the next generation. We both had fathers who died young, we both came from immigrant families, and there were other odd commonalities. I really looked up to her, and she was very supportive of my career goals.”
Murray has certainly met those goals. Her article “What’s So New About the New Illegitimacy?” received the Dukeminier Awards’ Michael Cunningham Prize as one of the best sexual orientation and gender identity law review articles of 2012. “Marriage as Punishment” won the Association of American Law Schools’ (AALS) 2010-2011 Scholarly Papers Competition for faculty members with fewer than five years of law teaching, as well as the New Voices in Gender Studies scholarly paper competition. In 2010, Murray received the AALS’s Derrick A. Bell Award, given to a junior faculty member who has made an extraordinary contribution to legal education, the legal system, or social justice.
But amid all the accolades, it’s Murray’s commitment to effectively juggling teaching, scholarship, and family that she values most.
“Trying to be fully present both for your family and your workplace is something every young lawyer should think about,” she said. “It’s not something people talk about in law school classes, but it’s a reality that all law students will face. And it’s a constant struggle to achieve something resembling balance. I hope that, in addition to what gets taught in the classroom, I’m also giving my students a sense of what it means to have a life and career in the law.”