Professor advocates for access to the law and gender equality

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

As a child, Renee Newman Knake played at being a teacher, setting up a make-believe school in the basement and imagining elaborate classroom activities, even giving a pretend roster of students imaginary grades.

Then her middle school social studies teacher asked her to play the role of a prosecutor during a mock trial.

That ignited a career passion that eventually led to her current position as an Associate Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law.

“I began to think about becoming a lawyer in middle school,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I picked up a book by Mona Harrington, Women Lawyers: Rewriting the Rules, which I read as a junior in college, that I knew I wanted to attend law school and become a lawyer.

“Her book helped me understand and appreciate the legacy of women who fought for access to a legal education and career, and inspired me to do my part to continue to advance gender equality in the profession. That interest continues to fuel my scholarly work as a law professor today.”

After graduating summa cum laude from North Park College in Chicago, with a double major in Communication Arts and Economics, Knake earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. She worked in a clinic as an advocate in the child support system, and was a summer associate at Mayer, Brown in Chicago and Debevoise & Plimpton in Washington, D.C.

After law school Knake became an associate at Mayer, Brown, and then Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va., where she specialized in commercial litigation, telecommunications, and labor/employment law, and served as pro bono counsel for the Commonwealth of Virginia in child support cases. She later served as an Assistant City Attorney for Charlottesville, Va. 
“As an attorney, I enjoyed helping clients solve a problem,” she says. “It was incredibly satisfying to be the one a client will reach out to in a crisis, and to help them navigate the situation successfully.”

Knake, who teaches Federal Jurisdiction, Foundations of Law, Lawyers & Ethics, Professional Responsibility, and a self-designed seminar, The First Amendment and Regulation of Lawyers’ Speech, joined the Spartan law faculty in 2006.

Knake says. “We have an incredibly intelligent and diverse student body. The energy and discipline my students bring to class is inspiring, and makes it a real joy to teach them.
“One of the best parts of my job is witnessing the evolution from students to colleagues, and to see the amazing things our graduates are doing in the legal profession.”

Knake, who focuses her research on issues about access to the law, also serves as co-director of the Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession.

“I’m grateful for my role as co-director because it helps bring to the forefront the importance of education about ethics and the legal profession,” she says.

Named in 2009 as a fellow to the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism, Knake also is a regular contributor to the Legal Ethics Forum, a blog repeatedly recognized by the American Bar Association Journal as one of the top 100-law-related blogs in the nation.

Her scholarly interests include the law and ethics of lawyering, gender and the legal profession, constitutional law, and law and literature. She frequently speaks nationally and internationally, has published numerous articles, is regularly quoted in the press and has been invited to present her research at symposia around the country. In August she did a radio interview about the Jacoby & Meyers litigation challenging rules that ban non-lawyer investment in law firms.

Knake is a member of the Association of American Law Schools where she serves on the Executive Committee, Professional Responsibility Section; and is on the Planning Committee for the AALS Annual Meeting 2012 Workshop on Changes in Law Practice; Implications for Legal Education.

Her most recent research examines intersections between the law of lawyering and constitutional law, and she is particularly interested in the public’s free speech interests in access to lawyers and legal services. Her work includes an upcoming article in the Ohio State Law Journal, “Democratizing the Delivery of Legal Services: On the First Amendment Rights of Corporations and Individuals”; “Attorney Advice and the First Amendment,” in this year’s Washington & Lee Law Review; and last year’s “The Supreme Court's Increased Attention to the Law of Lawyering: Mere Coincidence or Something More?” in the American University Law Review.

Knake also focuses on gender equality in the legal profession and the portrayal of lawyers in media, literature, and culture. She teamed with Kelley Institute co-director Professor Hannah Brenner to write “Rethinking Gender Equality in the Legal Profession's Pipeline to Power: A Study on Media Coverage of Supreme Court Nominee,” to be published next year in Temple Law Review; and wrote “Beyond Atticus Finch: Lessons on Ethics and Morality from Lawyers and Judges in Postcolonial Literature,” in a 2008 Journal of the Legal Profession. 

Knake and Brenner are planning “Gender and the Legal Profession’s Pipeline to Power,” a symposium that will bring together more than 20 leading scholars from around the country to examine why women lawyers remain underrepresented in positions of leadership and power to be held in April 2012. 

Knake, a parent of two young children, volunteers at their elementary school, and has served on the East Lansing School Board, the City of East Lansing Zoning Board of Appeals, and the City of East Lansing Cable Commission.

A Midwest native who grew up in Missouri, Minnesota, Kansas and Texas, Knake spent a decade in Chicago for undergraduate education and law school, and practiced law in the Windy City for a little over a year before moving to Virginia, and moved to Michigan in 2001.

In her leisure time, she enjoys running, and runs with a group of friends in the Bayshore Half-Marathon held each Memorial Day weekend in Traverse City. “I ran a full marathon once—the Chicago Marathon, which I trained for while studying for the bar exam. Everyone should do it once, but I probably won’t ever run a full again,” she says with a smile.

“I also love to read—novels, essays, news articles. And I love to travel, especially to large, metropolitan cities.  Reading and traveling are two passions that I hope to instill in my children, so we look for lots of opportunities to do both.”