Excerpts from The Verdict – The Sullivan Verdict

[The following interview was conducted for the Spring 2012 edition of The Verdict by Darryl Caffe, former editor-in-chief of The Verdict.]

While searching for the next faculty member to interview for The Verdict’s faculty interview series, I was in search of someone not only inspirational, but also one whose passion truly emanates throughout the school.  And in doing so, I spoke with various faculty members regarding who would be such a fit.  My searches lead me to Professor Dianne Sullivan, who one faculty member referred to as “the soul of MSL.”

I began the interview by asking Assistant Dean Sullivan some questions pertaining to her background… 

DC:  I heard that your family worked at a paper mill; what effect did that have on your character?

Professor Sullivan:  I learned about doing what you needed to do to help your family.  It provided my work ethic, and I have great respect for my father.  He worked fifty to sixty hours a week in hot conditions to provide, so we could have a better way of life.  So I’m very appreciative of that and I learned family and hard work matter most.

DC: You had a very unique educational path; can you please describe your path through college and law school?

Professor Sullivan:  When I graduated from high school, I took a job as a teller at a bank making sixty dollars a week. I wanted to go to college, but there weren’t resources for that.  I started saving money in a piggy bank, so that when I saved up, I went to college one course at a time.  I did my undergraduate at night at Fitchburg State, and then went on to law school from there.

DC: Is there any truth to the rumor that you stayed in the library so often that you actually were given a key?

Professor Sullivan:  [Laughs] I don’t remember that I had the key, but I certainly was in the library until closing. I was usually the last to go.

DC: What motivated you during to time as a student?

Professor Sullivan:  To do well?  I was appreciative of the opportunity so that’s really what motivates me.  I had ill parents and a much younger brother and sister.  It was my hope that they could go to college during the day so I wanted to be able to help my family.  It was my motivation. I saw law school as an opportunity, and I wanted to be an attorney since I was knee high.

DC: Do you see similar qualities in your current students?

Professor Sullivan:  (Slight breath)  In some students, I see stories far more compelling than my own – students who have overcome tremendous obstacles to get a law degree here.   I think some students don’t seize the opportunity they’ve been given and need to work harder, so I don’t think there’s a canned answer to that question.

Prior to joining the faculty of MSL, Professor Sullivan worked at a bank.  My next series of questions are regarding her experience while so employed.

DC: You worked at a bank before teaching at MSL –  did you always plan on working at the bank once you graduated from law school?

Professor Sullivan:  I worked at the bank from the time I graduated high school until two years after I became a full time faculty member here.  I worked in banking throughout my entire educational experience.  I always anticipated going onto top management at the bank.  I never anticipated really practicing and clearly not being a full-time faculty member.

DC: What role does an attorney take on at a bank?

Professor Sullivan:  As in-house counsel you are often involved with commercial transactions.  I was at a commercial bank, so the types of things I would be involved with were:  troubled loans; closing down companies; calling in promissory notes; and interpreting regulations.  Also, I monitored that we were in compliance with all types of laws.

DC: What skills did you acquire while working at the bank that has made you a better law professor?

Professor Sullivan:  Well, in the courses I teach – particularly the UCC Articles 3, 4 and 9 – are all banking law, so I’m able to combine the practical side and the theoretical side.  Interpreting the UCC is very easy for me because that’s what I did all day.  With respect to contract law, I was responsible for loan agreements and bank accounts.  And as your know, a loan agreement is a contract and a bank account is a contract.

It is no secret that Professor Sullivan is an avid animal advocate.  As such, I asked questions with hopes of learning exactly how and why that passion is so strong.

DC: Everyone knows of your love of animals.  If you had to trace your passion for animals to a single event, what would it be?

Professor Sullivan:  My father and I going to the supermarket to buy a turkey at thanksgiving, and my realization that the carcasses of the turkey looked like the turkeys my father and I would feed at what was called in Fitchburg Coggshall Park.  We went there pretty regularly to feed the ducks.  So the realization that the carcasses were the equivalent of the ducks I feed in the pond was more than I could stomach.

DC: Why “The Shadow Fund?”

Professor Sullivan:  You know, it is interesting that people see The Shadow Fund, my creation of The Shadow Fund as being an outreach to animals.  It was in part Dean Coyne’s suggestion: you know, I was helping a veteran and for this veteran the only positive in his whole world was his dog.  The dog needed surgery, as the story unfolds, to the tune of thirty-eight hundred dollars.  Originally I was helping the veteran, and then we engaged in fundraising in conjunction with the Andover Animal Hospital and we raised more money than we needed to help this veteran.  So, it was Dean Coyne who suggested it and Robert Burke who owns Shadow, that we put the surplus in a fund to help similarly situated individuals.

DC: What is the ultimate goal of The Shadow Fund?

Professor Sullivan:  To help people who love their companion animal but life circumstances have them in a position that they can’t afford an extraordinary medical expense that would necessitate that pet being euthanized, if that money isn’t raised.  I don’t want people like Robert Burke to have to choose between living in a home or, living in the streets with their pet to give them the necessary medical attention.

DC: What can students do to get involved in the Shadow Fund?

Professor Sullivan:  See me, there are a couple of main events we do for fundraising.  Animal Law Day in April it’s always the Saturday before Easter; we could use help.  They could help in selling our book, Please, Can we Keep the Donkey? and then our golf tournament we hold on Columbus Day.
I now transitioned into the current employment of Professor Sullivan and her various duties within the MSL community.

DC: What role do you most prefer here at MSL: your teaching duties; role of assistant 
Dean; or your duties as producer and moderator of MSLAW’s Educational Forum?

Professor Sullivan:  My primary obligation is being a professor. That’s what I care most about. Being in the classroom and helping students master the subject matter, that’s my primary goal.

DC: What has been the most outside-of-the-box teaching method you’ve employed while teaching here?

Professor Sullivan:  Probably giving [checks on] watermelons and sending students out to the banks to cash them, I think that.

DC: Name one thing that students do well and one thing students should improve upon?

Professor Sullivan:  They advocate well.  I think writing is something that MSL students need to work at.  There are two things we do as lawyers: we speak and we write.  So, I think those are two things we need to do a little bit better.

DC: Besides your duties at school and any legal duties, what else is a priority to you?

Professor Sullivan:  I have four nephews that are extraordinarily important to me.

DC: Why is that?

Professor Sullivan:  One of my reasons to go to law school is I wanted to be able to help my brother and sister have a better way of life, because I had no children, so their children have become like my own and are very important to me.  My dogs are also very important to me; I consider them family members.

Rate My Professor is a website dedicated to informing curious students about student opinion on various professors.  After visiting the site, I decided to ask some questions regarding Professor Sullivan’s ratings and reviews.

DC: I want to ask you some questions about Rate My, I’m not sure if you familiar with the website (Professor Sullivan: You know I have not been on it but I’ve heard of it, I don’t know much about it though).  Then you must not be aware that you are one of the highest rated professors at the school.  Why do you think that is?

Professor Sullivan:  No, that would astound me actually.

DC: Well, not only that, but you are actually rated almost twice as high as the average rated professor: just .1% shy.  What would you say has garnered such attention?

Professor Sullivan:  You know I don’t know what the criteria is for rate your professor so, I couldn’t answer that.  If I had to speculate why I might get a good rating, similar to what I hope my evaluations produce at the law school, I hope the students understand that my motivation is to have the students pass the bar, so I give it my all, as much as I expect the student’s all.

DC: What would you say is the root cause of your deep commitment to MSL community?

Professor Sullivan:  Appreciation of the opportunity I was given.

In Closing…

DC: If you could change one thing at MSL what would it be?

Professor Sullivan:  I’m going to think on that one. This is probably not the answer you want, but I am committed, as a voting faculty member, not to change the school dramatically.  The school is about opportunity, and so I don’t want to see the school change very much.  I guess if I could change one thing it would be that students and others respect the Reserved parking.  (Laughs)  I think we are a profession drawn by rules, so I think you have to adhere to rules.  So If I was going to change one thing, I would say, “if it says Reserved parking and you are not someone who it’s reserved for, you don’t park there.”
–conducted for the Spring 2012 edition of The Verdict by Darryl Caffe, former editor-in-chief of The Verdict.
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