Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Camille Carey does not recall any female lawyers in Miles City, Montana, back when she was growing up there.
But that didn’t stop her from getting her law degree, practicing law in New York City, teaching at the Yale Law School for two years and then joining the University of New Mexico School of Law faculty in 2009.
Now, she is poised to take over as dean of UNM’s law school on July 1. She was selected for that job recently after a nationwide search.
As vice dean and the associate dean for academic affairs, Carey, 48, is well aware of the challenges facing her in the upcoming role – budget limitations, the ongoing pandemic, aging facilities and the fact that fewer New Mexicans are applying to law school – any law school.
But she is bolstered by her faith in the law school’s program, its faculty and its alumni base. And she is already gearing up to succeed Dean Sergio Pareja this summer.
“One of the good things about being an internal candidate is that it will be a smooth transition,” Carey said. “I have already started meeting with the fundraising team.”
Miles City may be best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale, a big-time auction of rodeo stock held each May.
Carey lived on her family’s farm a few miles outside the town.
“We grew corn, hay and sugar beets,” she said.
She worked a lot of hours as a waitress while attending Custer County District High School in Miles City.
“I was in French Club, the choir, worked on the school paper, did the Academic Decathlon, nerdy things like that,” Carey said of her high school days.
Back then, she reviewed her career options through the perspective of a young woman living in a small town in the Big Sky state, and came up with waitress, housewife, schoolteacher, farmer, rancher, doctor, lawyer. She had served enough tables to cross waitress off the list, and has the kind of spirit you can’t keep down on the farm. There were no lawyers in her family to nudge her in that direction, but the legal profession seemed a good bet, so off she went to college.
“I was at the University of Iowa for two years,” Carey said. “I was studying political science, but I really loved English.”
An English teacher at Iowa encouraged Carey to transfer to Vassar College, the highly regarded, private, liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is about as far as you can get from bucking horse sales.
“She thought (Vassar) would be a better fit for me,” Carey said of her English teacher, who had been an undergraduate at Vassar. “Maybe because I was the only one who would always answer her questions in class.”
Carey attended Vassar on a scholarship and graduated from the school with a degree in political science in 1995. That’s when she went to Taiwan.
Trial by fire
“I took a year of Mandarin (Chinese) classes at Vassar and then wanted to go somewhere challenging on my own,” Carey said.
She taught English in Taiwan, getting from home to work and wherever else she needed to be on a motorcycle. Then, she studied Mandarin Chinese at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University. She was still in Taiwan when she applied to law school in the United States.
After earning her law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2001, she went to work as a staff attorney for The Legal Aid Society of New York in New York City.
“I spoke Chinese, and I wanted to work with immigrant communities from all over the world,” Carey said in explaining her decision to join the Legal Aid Society. “My first day as a practicing lawyer in New York City was 9/11. I managed to get to my office in Brooklyn in the midst of the Towers falling. The city was in chaos for weeks.”
For the next six years, she was in courtrooms in all of New York’s five boroughs, working immigration, family law, housing and domestic abuse cases.
“I spent a lot of time going to immigrant organizations and meeting with clients,” Carey said. “It was striking to me how similar experiences in domestic violence were, even though the people were from different cultures and different countries.”
In 2007, Carey took a two-year fellowship to teach at the Yale Law School.
Moving from law practiced on the gritty streets of New York City to teaching at an Ivy League university such as Yale, seems like a major career change.
But, since Carey’s Yale fellowship was for clinical teaching, getting law students involved hands on with actual cases, she said it was not such a big shift. “Clinical teaching is a great way for students to learn to feel the responsibility for representing a client,” she said.
At Yale, Carey taught in the domestic violence clinic and also taught a weekly seminar on legal, social and policy issues involved in domestic violence cases.
Her commitment to clinical teaching in the training of lawyers is a significant reason she accepted an offer to join UNM’s law school faculty when her Yale fellowship was completed. Unlike many law schools, UNM requires its students to complete a six-credit-hour clinical course. Carey said UNM students are embedded with local public defender and district attorney offices, and also with the federal public defender office.
“We take pride in being a practice-based school,” Carey said. “We really value teaching. It is a supportive rather than a competitive teaching environment. One of the things I am most proud of is our fantastic faculty. We also have a supportive alumni base. Alumni donate, they teach as adjuncts and serve as mentors.”
Money, students needed
Not surprisingly, money is at the top of Carey’s list of the challenges she will face as law school dean.
“We are a state institution, dependent on state funding and on donations,” she said. “But we are a poor state and the budget does pose limitations. Other schools have more resources, larger scholarship budgets, to attract students.
“Our building could definitely use some improvements. It definitely affects our opportunity to compete with institutions that have shiny, new facilities.”
If there is anything law schools need more than funding, it’s students, and a downturn in law school applications has affected most law schools in recent years.
“Interest in law school was really down since the 2008-09 recession,” Carey said. “A law degree was seen as something that created a lot of debt and had fewer job opportunities.”
There are 83 students in UNM’s third-year law class. Carey said that’s considered a smaller class. But there are 110 students in the first-year class.
“This past year, interest in law school increased,” Carey said. “There were a lot of high-profile legal and political controversies, especially during the Trump administration. That generated more interest in cause lawyering, putting legal resources and advocacy behind a certain political, social and moral position.”
Most of UNM’s law school students are New Mexicans, but Carey said fewer state residents today are applying to UNM or any other law school than once was the case. She wants to send the law school’s faculty and staff out on the road to do some recruiting.
“I want to get them out in the high schools and middle schools,” Carey said. “The faculty and staff are excited about road-tripping. There’s a lot of energy behind it.”
Carey, the single mother of a 6-year-old son, will be the second woman to serve as dean of UNM’s law school. Suellyn Scarnecchia had the job from 2003 to 2008.
Sacrifice is a byproduct of responsibility, and one sacrifice Carey will make when she takes the reins of the law school is teaching. Back in Miles City, when she decided to be a lawyer, Carey likely never imagined what a vital role teaching would play in her life.
“As dean, teaching will probably not be a smart allocation of my time,” Carey said. “But it has been a wonderful part of my career. It’s really fulfilling. Having the time and space to think about law and policy and theory has made me a better lawyer and a better legal thinker.”