Professor a strong advocate for women in midst of divorce


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Lee Starnes, the Lizzie J. McSweeney Professor of Family Law and John F. Schaefer Chair in Matrimonial Law at Michigan State University College of Law, has a unique line of scholarship at the intersection of family law, partnership law, and feminist theory.

Starnes, who works with grassroots and other organizations devoted to ensuring equity for women – and for divorcing women in particular – is writing a book tentatively titled, “Money After Love; Rethinking Alimony and Partnership Marriage,” and expects to complete the manuscript for NYU Press in April. “I like to think my development of a partnership metaphor for marriage has furthered a vision of marriage that is more gender neutral and a framework for rethinking the economics of divorce that is more equitable than current law,” she says.

Her article “Alimony Theory” was recently published in the Family Law Quarterly and “Lovers, Parents and Partners; Disentangling Spousal and Co-parenting Commitments” will be in the Arizona Law Review. She has also been published in the University of Chicago Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, Iowa Law Review, and Indiana Law Journal, her articles bearing lively titles such as “Mothers as Suckers,” “Swords in the Hands of Babes,” “Victims, Breeders, Joy and Math,” and “Reflections on Betty Crocker, Soccer Mom, and Divorce.”

Starnes got her start in the legal world after she parlayed her MSU degree in psychology into a job as an untrained paralegal at an Indianapolis law firm. “The attorney who hired me handled criminal appeals and when I mentioned that I enjoyed research, he gave me a transcript from a criminal case, took me to the downtown bar association library, introduced me to the reference librarian and told me to  ‘Go for it!’

“I knew next to nothing about the law and absolutely nothing about legal research, but with the help of a great librarian, I learned a lot in my first summer on the job and before long loved the work. I also discovered that I could do it. Law school seemed like a logical next step.”

While working as a paralegal, she found herself drawn to matrimonial law. “Some of the things I saw in my days as a paralegal taught me the value of advocacy on behalf of divorcing people who risk losing everything,” she says. She was further inspired by the unhappy experience of the law firm receptionist.

“She was a recent divorcee, a middle-aged woman, who during her long marriage had never worked outside her home,” she says. “Her children were grown. When her husband, a professor, divorced her, she got minimal property, no alimony. Determined to start over, she left her home in Illinois, came to Indianapolis and took a minimum-wage job at our firm.

“Hers was not a pretty story and I vowed to figure out how the law could allow such a thing to happen and to try to stop it from happening to anyone else.”

Starnes, who has taught family law to students in Poland and Mexico, and commercial law to judges at the National Judicial College, teaches Commercial Transactions, Contracts, Family Law, Marriage & Divorce, and Secured Transactions. She has also taught at the Wayne State and University of Michigan law schools, and others.

“I love helping students work through difficult legal concepts and watching them ‘get it. There is no better feeling,” she says. “I love talking with students about important issues and knowing that many of them will have opportunities to make a difference – in the progression of law, in the lives of real people – long after I am gone.”

A long-term member of the MSU Law faculty, she has just become a member of the core faculty of Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen) at MSU. She also co-chairs the Child and Family Advocacy certificate program, is co-advisor of the Family Law focus area, and serves as faculty advisor to the Family Law Society. She was named an MSU Outreach and Engagement Senior Fellow for her scholarly work toward community change, and was appointed in 2006 as one of six Computer Assisted Legal Instruction Fellows in Family Law.

A native of the Lone Star State, Starnes first came to Michigan after her parents moved here while she was in school in West Texas.

“I immediately fell in love with the MSU campus,” she says. “I’ve always loved its beauty, especially in the spring and fall. I’ve never seen a more beautiful campus.”

Starnes, who earned her J.D., cum laude, from Indiana University School of Law, and LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law, previously worked at the Women’s Legal Clinic in Indianapolis.

“I loved knowing that my job was to help protect people who were very vulnerable,” she says. 

Married to an engineer, Starnes has two sons, one in Manhattan and the other in Chicago. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading mysteries, writing fiction, and in summer, enjoys boating. And she once yearned to be a chanteuse.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a nightclub singer or a teacher. I couldn’t carry a tune, so – happily – I ended up a teacher.”