Lillian BeVier — Law School’s First Tenured Female Professor — Ends Career at Head of the Class
When Lillian BeVier entered law school in California in 1961, she was one of five females in her class. By the time she finished teaching her last lecture at the University of Virginia School of Law this semester, women made up nearly half of the first-year class.
BeVier — UVA’s first tenured female law professor — is retiring this year as one of the Law School’s best-known scholars and most-beloved teachers. She began teaching at Virginia in 1973, and spent 37 years here building a career as a constitutional law and First Amendment scholar, and as an expert in property, intellectual property and torts.
“Things have worked out very well for me,” BeVier said. “I’ve had a really good time. I’ve loved my years at Virginia.”
BeVier graduated from Smith College with a government degree, where she took and enjoyed a constitutional law course. When she graduated, “I knew I didn’t want to be an elementary school teacher, which is what a lot of us — we called ourselves ‘girls,’ then — did,” she said. “Law school was more of an experiment for me than a serious career move.”
One of five women in a class of 160 students at Stanford Law School, BeVier graded onto law review, as did three of her female classmates. (The fifth was next in line.)
“As an intellectual or academic exercise, law school was very, very different then than it is now. It was much more straight doctrine. There was no law and economics, there was no critical legal theory, there was no public choice theory — there was just no theory,” she said. “Moreover, there wasn’t nearly as much law then.”
While she was in law school the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Students spent hours trying to understand the meaning of Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court case striking down bans on contraceptives for married couples. Little did they realize it would be overtaken by Roe v. Wade eight years later.
“In the ’60s, the war on poverty and all of its associated government programs were just beginning to get underway. The idea was beginning to take hold that law could be the instrument of social change,” BeVier said. “There was a kind of awakening about the potential of law to transform society.”
But once she began looking for a job she found that parity for women was still far from many employers’ thoughts.
“When I was trying to get a job after law school, I had one law firm partner say to me, ‘We had a woman once, but she didn’t work out.’ Another said, ‘You should go to central California and hang out your shingle because they’re so desperate for lawyers that won’t care whether you’re a woman or not,’” BeVier remembered. “Somebody else said, ‘Well, we’d like to hire you to be our office manager.’”
Instead BeVier found a job as an attorney for Stanford’s development office, where she helped the general secretary of Stanford manage the school’s first capital campaign. In that office, “I was always treated not just fairly but really generously.”
She then spent two years as a research assistant for Stanford law professor William Baxter, who eventually became head of President Ronald Reagan’s antitrust division at the Department of Justice, where he brought the antitrust suit that resulted in the dismantling of AT&T. They worked on a joint study between the American Bar Association and the Federal Aviation Administration on airport noise and the sonic boom, which was later published as an article in the Stanford Law Review.
BeVier then worked for a small law firm for two years. She learned a lot and loved the people, but not the work. She took a break and asked her mentors at Stanford Law School for advice about the next step. They suggested that she consider teaching, and in fact, they told her, there was an opening at Santa Clara University Law School.
“I had never thought about teaching,” she said. “I applied for the job at Santa Clara and got the job. So I entered teaching just because somebody suggested something to me that I had never thought about.”
In the few years since BeVier had graduated, female enrollment in law schools had grown considerably. Law schools suddenly were looking for female students, and an interest in female professors followed.
“It took a while for the number of women in law to reach a critical mass, so that when you were a woman in the law school you wouldn’t hear, ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’”
BeVier said that Santa Clara was “a wonderful place to start my teaching career The students and my faculty colleagues were just very good people,” she said. She realized she had found her calling in teaching law. “It’s a great job. It’s so much fun, and constantly challenging and interesting.”
Soon after she started at Santa Clara, the University of Virginia faculty asked her to visit for a year, and though she was new to the all-male ranks, she found a welcoming atmosphere.
“I must have seemed like a very strange person to the people in Charlottesville — I was a woman, I wanted to be a law professor, I was divorced, I had two kids, I drove a ’68 Chevy Camaro convertible. But they were so nice to me,” she said. “I must have been invited to dinner at every single faculty member’s home — and to play tennis, and go to football games, and do things with the kids. Everyone was just spectacularly gracious to me.”
It wasn’t until a male colleague visited her classes as part of the review process for her post becoming permanent that she realized her teaching experience was shaped somewhat by her gender.
He said, “‘I don’t know how you stand it.’ I said, ‘Stand what?’ He said, ‘They’re just gunning for you all the time.’”
BeVier had thought the atmosphere was due simply to the adversarial nature of law classes.
“I think it’s very hard to discern that students are gunning for you when you’re the person up there at the podium,” she said. “You’re concentrating so hard on what you’re trying to teach.”
BeVier said that many things have changed at the Law School over her years of teaching, including the way many professors taught their courses. Legal theory exploded during this time period.
“The theories kind of gave you a new way of organizing and understanding and framing the doctrine that you were teaching. It just made it more fun, more interesting, more challenging,” she said.
And while the Law School has grown in the number of students, faculty and staff since 1973, BeVier has been pleased to see other changes as well.
“We now have a much more diverse, enriched curriculum,” she said. “The student body has many more women, and there is more racial, ethnic and philosophical diversity in both the student body and the the faculty.”
BeVier was the only full-time female faculty member at the Law School for nine years, and during that time she felt some pressure to be a role model.
“One woman and the choices she makes and how she lives her life just can’t be a role model for all women,” she said. “If you look at the women faculty members now, there are all kinds of lifestyles and choices represented, and students can see that there are all kinds of possibilities open to them.”
BeVier said she was pleased at the progress female professors have made in proving their value.
“I remember that there were people when I was hired who just basically thought — it was their firm conviction — that women could not do this job. They truly thought that women were just intellectually, emotionally, physically and in every way incapable of doing it. I think we’ve proved them wrong.”
BeVier has published two books, numerous book chapters and more than 40 articles, including one forthcoming piece in the Virginia Law Review, co-written with Professor John Harrison, about the state action principle in American constitutional law.
She has also racked up a number of scholarly honors, including serving as a visiting scholar at the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, receiving the UVA Alumni Association’s Distinguished Professor Award, and receiving the faculty Raven Award from the Raven Society.
“That was the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said of the Raven Society award, because the nominations came from both former and current students and from faculty colleagues.
Professor Elizabeth Magill took two of BeVier’s courses when she was a student.
As a scholar, “I think she’s best known for arguing long before other people thought it was so that campaign finance regulation had First Amendment implications and that it could be, and should be, seen as relevant to people’s exercise of basic political rights,” Magill said. “The Supreme Court has come closer to that view lately.”
BeVier almost had the opportunity to take her role as a legal scholar to the next level in 1991, when she was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Her nomination, along with several others — including now-Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who was nominated at the time for the D.C. Circuit — stalled when Bush’s popularity began to decline. Neither she nor Roberts ever got a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and their nominations lapsed when President Bill Clinton took office in 1993.
“That’s more than OK,” BeVier said. “I have loved my time [at the Law School] since then even more than I loved it before.”
Around that time, with her children grown, BeVier began a new venture in public service. She volunteered with the local Martha Jefferson Hospital, and has since served on the Hospital Board and the Martha Jefferson Health Services Board.
“I’ve loved working with Martha Jefferson Hospital. I’ve become very engaged with the hospital, and have gotten to see and to learn about many different facets to a truly daunting and challenging business,” she said.
She also served on the boards of St. Anne’s-Belfield School, and of Piedmont CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates). Over the years she served as a faculty advisor for the Federalist Society, and is now on the national board of visitors of the organization.
“I think the Federalist Society is a great organization that’s made a real contribution in terms of bringing a whole set of ideas into law school that were not part of debate before,” she said.
She was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the board of the Legal Services Corporation, where she served as vice-chair until 2009. LSC administers federal funding to legal services programs throughout the nation.
BeVier’s spirit of community service also permeated her role at the Law School, from participating in workshops to welcoming new faculty by inviting them to lunch or dinner, Magill said. BeVier has hosted thousands of students in her home and hundreds of faculty members.
“She’s the standard-bearer for what we think of as the best part of our community,” Magill said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who holds a candle to her.”
Professor Leslie Kendrick took Property Theory from BeVier during her final year in law school.
“I think by the time I graduated I had been to her house no less than five times with different student organizations because she’s just the kind of person who’s involved with the students and is nice enough to throw her home open on a regular basis,” said Kendrick, who called BeVier a valued mentor. “Institutionally, she’s at the hub of both student life and faculty life.”
Kendrick said BeVier stands out as a teacher as well.
“Nothing ever seems old or stale or boring when Lillian is talking about it because you get the feeling it’s not old or stale or boring to her. And people just come alive in response to it,” said Kendrick, who has co-taught two classes with BeVier.
In recent years, several of BeVier’s students have gone on to clerk for the Supreme Court, including Jamie McDonald ’07, who is now clerking for Chief Justice Roberts.
Few can match the level of enthusiasm BeVier brings to her classrooms, McDonald said. And students appreciated her generous offerings of homemade cookies at the beginning of class.
“But what I will always remember about her is the intellectual seriousness she brings to every session — whether it’s a formal class meeting or an informal conversation," McDonald said. "That means that Professor BeVier asks a lot of her students. She expects them to work through difficult issues, to question conclusions — sometimes even firmly held convictions — and to settle on final answers only after careful, exacting and thorough legal analysis.”
BeVier said she is going to miss the students the most.
“In addition to being smart and talented, they just have this kind of sense of community and collegiality and liking one another that’s a lot of fun to be a part of,” she said. “Even just walking into a classroom you’re about to teach, they’re just bubbling all over and laughing together and having such a good time. It’s a wonderful atmosphere to teach in.”
BeVier was surprised on her last day of teaching class to find a crowd of faculty and students applauding outside her door as she exited the room.
“I’ve had a great send-off,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that makes this school so wonderful.
“And of course I’m going to miss my colleagues — I’m going to miss my life — how could I not?
“I’m not going to miss grading exams and, you know, it’s time to try something else. I’ve never been just a person before.”