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Leslie F. Muhlfelder '81 was enjoying the challenges of a promising legal career as she began a six-year stint as associate university counsel at Temple University in 1989. However, two big dreams remained unfulfilled: teaching law to undergraduate students, especially at Lafayette, and becoming Lafayette's general counsel – a position that didn't even exist at the time.

James Lennertz, associate professor of government and law, fulfilled his former student's first dream when he asked Muhlfelder to teach the course Gender and the Law for the 1993-1994 spring semester. Her second dream came true in 1995 when Lafayette reorganized its administrative structure to create a new division for Legal Affairs and Human Resources, hiring Muhlfelder as vice president for human resources and general counsel.

Muhlfelder serves as a member of the president's senior staff and is responsible for coordinating all legal issues and compliance matters at Lafayette, as well as overseeing personnel and benefits issues. But teaching is what she finds most fulfilling. “I love the opportunity to try to inspire students,” says Muhlfelder, who graduated cum laude in economics from Lafayette and cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center. She also was a member of Georgetown Law Review. “I hope that it makes me a better administrator because it gives me a first-hand understanding of the challenges our faculty face and how difficult it is to teach well.”

Muhlfelder redesigned Gender and the Law, orienting it toward a comparison of the roles of race and gender in the American legal system. Students analyze the history of women's suffrage, the Fifth and 14th Amendments, Titles XII and IX, the Equal Pay Act, and the role of gender in domestic matters.

Because the issues raised in the course are significant for all students, no prerequisites are necessary to take the class, notes Muhlfelder. “It is extremely important for men and women to understand what their rights and obligations are as citizens, employees, and managers – both legally and ethically,” she says. “Through education like this, they can develop a much greater sense of responsibility and the confidence to have zero tolerance for workplace discrimination.”

Muhlfelder teaches the class through the Socratic method used in law school. “Students read cases that demonstrate principles rather than texts that lecture about the principles,” she explains. “They have to brief all of the cases, and we discuss them in class. This course along with several others at Lafayette are a good way for students to use the skills required of a lawyer and see whether they would enjoy legal analysis.”

Students are paired as co-counsel to represent one side in a case as they would before a court of appeals. The case usually involves an issue relating to Title IX, a federal statute passed in 1972 that forbids gender discrimination in programs and activities by institutions receiving federal funding. Working together, the students write a legal brief and argue their side before a panel of three judges, which typically includes lawyers and a federal or state judge such as the Honorable Edward N. Cahn, retired Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“Most students relish the opportunity to make oral arguments, while some meet it with trepidation,” says Muhlfelder. “In the end, students consistently indicate on the course evaluations that it was a positive developmental experience for them.”

“Leslie's got a fine legal mind, which is on full display in the classroom,” adds June Schlueter, provost and Dana Professor of English. “Students feel her enthusiasm and her love of learning – and as years go by, they'll feel her influence as well. At the end of the semester, Leslie's students unfailingly agree that she and the course were excellent. I could not be more pleased to have Leslie teaching Gender and the Law. She is (as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra) 'a lass unparalleled.'”

Muhlfelder credits Lennertz with being the greatest influence on her own undergraduate education. “He most contributed to my belief that I could make a positive contribution to the legal community and could be an effective advocate,” she says. “He really raised my confidence in myself. For that, and the interest he generated in me in the American system of law, I'll be forever indebted.”

“Other than my parents and my brothers, Lafayette has had the single greatest positive influence on my life. I don't believe that I would have become general counsel here or anywhere else at age 35 had I not attended Lafayette,” says Muhlfelder. “That's how I feel about the education Lafayette provides. If I can be that cultivator of confidence in some of the students who have followed me, that's the best way to give back to the college what it gave me.”

Categorized in: Academic News