Changing course: Law student finds a sense of empowerment

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A rising 2L at Wayne Law, Emily Barr volunteers with the Levin Center at Wayne Law. Pictured: (l-r) Robert M. Ackerman, professor of law who served as director of the Levin Center from 2017-19; Emily Barr; former Sen. Carl Levin who died recently; Linda Gustitus, Wayne Law senior adviser and former aide to Sen. Levin; and Elise J. Bean, Washington co-director of the Levin Center.­

Photo courtesy of Emily Barr

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Emily Barr initially planned to attend law school immediately after earning her undergraduate degree in English from Central Michigan University, but instead remained at CMU to earn a master’s degree in English Language & Literature.

She then worked in a variety of fields before landing a job at Wayne Law’s Levin Center. 

“Once I started working with lawyers on a daily basis, I realized how much a law degree could help me effect the change I wanted to see in the world, so I took the LSAT all over again and applied,” she says.

Now a rising 2L at Wayne Law, Barr still volunteers with the Levin Center for a program she initiated while working there for close to four years as program manager. 

“The program is a model legislative oversight experience for high school students we put on in conjunction with the YMCA’s Youth and Government programs,” she explains.  “Initially, I started the program by reaching out to contacts I had at Michigan Youth in Government, which is essentially model state government for high school students from all over Michigan. I had an idea to create what I described as ‘murder mystery but make it government,’ where high school students would be given a scenario that would require state-level oversight. The high school students would then be asked to ‘investigate’ and determine which individuals, organizations, or corporations had acted wrongly or needed greater oversight to prevent a similar scenario from occurring in the future. The scenarios included events and topics like an oil pipeline rupturing in Lake Michigan, labor trafficking in door-to-door sales crews, and the role of police in schools.

“After two years of successfully running the model oversight experience at Michigan Youth in Government’s annual conferences, I pitched the concept to a handful of other states, and Florida picked it up in addition to other states expressing their interest in learning more. I departed the Levin Center to take another position at Wayne State, but I’ve been able to help maintain the program as a volunteer.”

Working for the past 18 months as a grant and contract administrator for Wayne State while attending law school, Barr notes Moot Court has been one of the most challenging yet enjoyable things she has participated in at Wayne Law, flexing a skillset hitherto unknown to her.

“I’m terrified of public speaking so crafting a legal argument I have to deliver to real practicing attorneys and judges has pushed me beyond my comfort zone, but it’s also helped me realize strengths I didn’t know I had,” she says. “Being afraid of public speaking always made me believe I was bad at it. I think the fear gave me even greater incentive to make sure my research and reasoning were sound, though, so I felt more knowledgeable going in than I would have if I’d felt confident from the get-go.”

Barr is still weighing her eventual career options and interests. 

“I think securities regulation and tax law are high on my list of areas to explore right now, but I have time yet to decide just where I want to go,” she says. “My goal is to be intellectually challenged by the work I’m doing and to be able to go home satisfied with what I’ve achieved at the end of the day. I tend to stick to themes rather than specifics when it comes to goals so I have more freedom in planning for my future.”

Last summer Barr got increasingly involved in the National Lawyers Guild and has continued to volunteer.

“I’ve served as both a legal observer and a hotline volunteer, and I spent a lot of time last summer into early fall making calls to interview individuals who had been arrested during the uprising following George Floyd’s murder,” she says.  
The last 18 months has been an interesting combination of events for Barr. Working full time from home for Wayne State during the day, in addition to going to law school remotely, has meant a lot of computer screen time. 

“Additionally, when we were first told we needed to stay at home, I was living in a 450-square-foot apartment with my husband who was also in law school. In the 18 months that followed the stay-at-home order, I bought and sold a house, decided to separate from my husband, and came out as gay to my family,” she says. 

“Spending that much time away from the routines I’d created and relied on gave me a great opportunity to think about what I was doing, why, and how I wanted to change.  I feel empowered to live differently now, and I think that will serve me well going back to campus this fall. I’m more motivated than I’ve been in recent memory, and I’m excited to get back into the classroom.”

A native of Richmond—a city straddling Macomb and St. Clair counties, Barr now enjoys living in the Motor City.

“I like that Detroit feels both small and big,” she says. “I never feel lost in Detroit, but it feels like there are always new places to explore.”



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