Celebrating Barbara Bezdek: A Visionary & Pioneer Who Changed the Way We Teach

Barbara Bezdek retired June 30th after over 30 years as a professor, having inspired generations of students through Legal Theory and Practice, clinical, seminar and doctrinal courses. We are thrilled that Barbara will remain with Maryland Carey Law as an emeritus professor.

Barbara’s teaching career began at CUNY Law School in the mid-1980s, in critique and dramatic revision of traditional curricular approaches for molding students into lawyers. Alongside Howard Lesnick, Jack Himmelstein, Vanessa Merton, Sue Bryant, and Homer LaRue, Barbara helped to redesign the foundational law school curriculum to foreground both social justice and experiential learning in the study of law and legal institutions. In 1987, a few hundred miles south, the University of Maryland School of Law was considering how best to use an infusion of funds from the state legislature that came with the directive to impress on law students their enduring responsibility to help poor people access justice. This funding enabled the law school to hire new faculty and launch simultaneous “Legal Theory and Practice” courses, in what became known as the Cardin Requirement, a mandate that each full-time student provide legal representation to low-income individuals or groups who otherwise would not be able to access justice.  At that time, many law schools had no clinical program, some schools had several clinics, and a handful of schools were beginning to consider some form of clinic or pro bono requirement. At Maryland, the threshold question was how to deliver on the mandate to engage each law student directly with the legal needs of poor people?

This question was at the forefront of then-clinic director Clinton Bamberger’s mind when he called Barbara in 1988 to recruit her to teach at Maryland. He got right to the point with his first question—could she envision integrating clinic-like elements into first-year courses that would deepen students’ learning, serve clients effectively, and be palatable to doctrinal faculty members? Barbara could not only envision the idea, she believed it essential to interrupt the ossification of much of the conventional curriculum, which presented law as a servant of established business interests and actively contributed to the inaccessibility of legal justice to the poor and socially disenfranchised. Barbara moved to Maryland, and proved to be an “endlessly creative leader at the law school and nationally in integrating theory and practice,” according to colleague Michael Millemann. The faculty approved the LTP model, designed (with Marc Feldman, our colleague who died prematurely in 1999) to engage each law student with the professional ethic of devoting at least some of their future practices to the representation of poor and disadvantaged people.  

The pioneering LTP courses worked along four axes to contest those aspects of conventional legal education that lead students to believe that law is value neutral: (1) timing – requiring LTP courses in the first year of law school; (2) interweaving doctrine with legal theory and direct experience with clients; (3) action learning; and (4) moral agency. The LTP model challenged students to ascertain what lawyers and unrepresented people do with legal rules, using both formal law and real-world data drawn from outside the classroom. As Barbara explains, “most matters that affect poor people aren’t represented on the bench, and you can see that in what happens at trial, what gets appealed, what gets into the law books.” This innovative model of teaching transformed the law school experience and has long been incorporated throughout the curriculum at Maryland Carey Law.

Over her career, Barbara has combined her interest in the legal foundations of social change with courses designed to help students link theory and practice. Millemann counts among her many extraordinary contributions “better, more vibrant communities and community organizations, as well as an immeasurably enriched pedagogy to serve them.” Indeed, Barbara taught several courses bridging clinic, classroom and community over the course of her Maryland career, including: LTP courses in Property, Civil Procedure, Professional Responsibility, Community Equity Development and First Amendment; the Housing and Economic Development Clinic; Property and Real Estate Transactions; and seminars in Community Disaster Recovery, Fair Housing, Contemporary Issues in American Housing Law, and Law, Lawyering and Social Movements.

Yet Barbara’s work has never been limited to the walls of the law school. She is a passionate advocate who translates her advocacy into profound impacts in Baltimore. Most recently, Barbara has been a keen observer and critic of Baltimore’s approach to affordable housing policy. She has been a pioneer in developing the use of community land trusts in Baltimore, and is gratified to see this movement taking off nationally as a housing equity strategy. Reflecting on her years of work, Barbara is heartened that even in the face of ongoing disinvestment and economic exclusion, residents come together in communities across the city to insist that they participate in the redevelopment gains planned and delivered by public and private projects.

We will feel Barbara’s absence on so many levels, but her impact inside and outside of our law school will resonate always. Among so many other accomplishments, she and her students have worked closely to launch and sustain community-based and non-profit entities addressing the major issues that impact Baltimore’s residents: from community equity development in the East Harbor, North East and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, to supportive employment for citizens returning from incarceration, to community-managed open spaces. She leaves us with words of hope: “change is possible if you apply your mind to what matters, work hard with your hands, and invest your hearts.”

About Maryland Carey Law

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law was established in 1816 and began regular instruction in 1824. It is the third-oldest law school in the nation, but its innovative programs make it one of the liveliest and most dynamic today. Maryland Carey Law stands among five other professional schools on the Founding Campus of the University of Maryland. It has taken advantage of this location to become an integral part of the Baltimore-Washington legal and business community.