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Celebrating the Women of STCL Houston: Dean Elizabeth Dennis

Home Law School News Celebrating the Women of STCL Houston: Dean Elizabeth Dennis

South Texas College of Law Houston Assistant Dean Elizabeth A. “Liz” Dennis began her career in the arts, working for Art League Houston and the Houston Grand Opera. Then her life vision took her on a new career path.

“I was having a ball, but I wanted to have a family one day and knew the arts weren’t the easiest way to support that goal financially,” she said. “So I decided to go to law school.”

When she began as a first-year student in 1981, the acceptance process was much different from today.

“I had put an application in at a couple of places, and when I walked into South Texas to do the same, they said, ‘Oh, don’t you want to talk to Dean Walker?’ ” Dennis recalled. “I went right into the dean’s office, and he said, ‘Why don’t you start right away.’ This was in January, and that’s what I did.”

After graduating with her J.D. degree in 1984, Dennis worked as a briefing attorney for the First Supreme Judicial District of Texas before returning to law school in a new capacity.

“Shortly after my time on the court of appeals ended, I gave birth to my first daughter,” Professor Dennis said. “I was still doing appellate work for a small practice, but laptops and the internet weren’t available like they are now. Instead, I would head down to the law school library with a baby carrier on my arm.”

In May 1987, Dennis accepted an offer to teach at South Texas and never looked back, currently serving as a professor of law, assistant dean, and director of academic externships and the Animal Law Clinic, and faculty advisor for the South Texas Law Review, Currents: Journal of International Economic Law, and the Construction Law Journal.

During her tenure at the law school, Dennis founded the Academic Assistance Program and the Langdell Scholars, which utilizes faculty-nominated, upper-level students to help new law students learn the analytical and exam-taking skills necessary to succeed.

“It’s stunning to think about, but I have been on this block for much of the past 40 years,” she said. “Even the Court of Appeals where I worked was in the Law Tower, so I never really left.”

Early in her career, Dennis saw the challenges that a career in the legal profession presented for women.

“As a student, when I was clerking for a litigation attorney at a Big Law firm, I remember the team (mostly men) deciding suddenly at 5:30 that they would work an all-nighter,” she said. “That sent the female secretaries and paralegals scrambling to make arrangements for their families and childcare. It was a nightmare for them, and no one seemed to give it much thought.”

Fortunately, her first employer after law school had a much different perspective on family life. Despite being hired by a male incumbent, Texas voters had different plans for the Appellate Court. Dennis began her stint as a briefing attorney on the same day as her new boss, Texas’ first elected female appellate judge: Justice Camille Dunn.

“She was a dynamo, and we had a great relationship.”” Dennis said. “She ran because she’d been a family law attorney, and no one with that background was on the court at that time. The court was like a family, and I always say that was the second-best job I ever had, just behind being a law professor.”

Dennis loves that the number of women faculty at South Texas has grown through the years, and she is thrilled with the diversity among students and within the various legal specialties.

“Women have a different perspective and creative ideas about how the world should function and be more inclusive, so women need to help women,” she said. “I think law firms have learned that if they want to keep good people, particularly women, they need to improve work-life balance.”

Dean Dennis is inspired today by women who are facing and overcoming difficult circumstances. For that reason, she plans to establish a scholarship program for single mothers at STCL Houston.

“I’ve seen so many single moms working full-time, raising their family and attending law school in the evening. That’s three jobs,” she said. “And when I meet their families at graduation, they have fantastic children. They tell me about sitting down at the kitchen table after dinner, and mom’s doing her homework, and they’re doing their homework. It’s a family effort, and they’re so proud.”

Similarly, she finds her work helping international victims of violence pursue a U visa very rewarding.

“They’ve been brought to this country, often under false pretenses and often horribly abused,” she said. “These clients have limited language skills, no money, and still fight their way through a complex system for the sake of their kids. Those are the ones who inspire me. I’m not sure I’d have the strength to do what they did.”

Students at South Texas have been inspired by Dean Dennis for 35 years — and her influence and impact will continue well beyond her planned retirement in May 2022. Dennis said, “The years have flown by, and I have loved them all. It has been a great joy to see so many former students become successful and make such an impact in the world.”

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