Meet Jen, who looks for ways to deepen people’s understanding of conflict as a means to resolution

Name: Jennifer Sullivan

Location:  Boulder, CO

What do you do?

Currently, I am the Senior Assistant Dean for Administration and Program Development at the University of Colorado Law School, and in that role I function as the Dean of the Law School’s Chief of Staff. That means that I serve as his point person on generally the running of the law school. I work together with three Associate Deans who have responsibilities for different areas of the faculty.  I coordinate with them and my day includes meetings, mostly overseeing staff, but also overseeing programs the Dean has developed during his tenure there.

So that’s my main job. I also love mediating disputes. Often I do that in my role at the law school. I also volunteer with court-connected mediation programs in the Broomfield County District Court and the Boulder County District Court, where I mediate small claims and county court cases. That is something I really enjoy.

Recently, I started a small law practice with a former colleague of mine. We worked at a big law firm together.  He just retired but still has some litigation cases that he’s been running and wanted to collaborate on those so I’m working with him a little bit too.

What’s a typical day like for you?

On an ideal normal day, I get up super early to write and work out. The work day involves multiple meetings and also communicating via email and Teams.  I do a lot of one-on-one and group meetings. I mediate, on average, once every other week. And then the legal research I do either early in the morning or late at night. I have four kids (14 and 13-year-old boys and twin girls who are nine) so I’m usually driving them around to various activities or doing things with them during different pockets of the day.  It’s managed chaos????

Your main job is an unusual one. I didn’t know that law school deans had chiefs of staff.  How did you make your way to that role?

I was at a big firm for most of my career. I had great colleagues and clients and I loved the intellectual challenge, as well as working with hardworking, smart, fun people.  My law firm did a lot of pro bono work and I loved those cases. They fed the side of me that wanted to be more connected to my clients and do good in the world.  But larger firms have a hierarchy and an emphasis on billing and there was a part of me that never fully connected with that style of practicing law. I think of Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice (LEJ) and other legal incubators and legal entrepreneurs, which I didn’t even know existed earlier in my career.  That sort of approach to the practice of law definitely would have appealed to me a lot earlier on in my career had I known about it. So I was feeling like I had either climbed the wrong ladder or was ready to step off that ladder.  I was talking a lot to different people in my life about wanting to make a change and then randomly heard about a position at the law school. My original position there was more of a Career Development position. But that was right before the previous Dean stepped down. Then the current Dean – Dean Anaya – wanted to hire a Chief of Staff and asked if I wanted to do it!

Dean Anaya’s five-year term is up at the end of the next academic year and he recently announced that he will not be seeking another term. So my position will have some kind of transition and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll do at that point.  While I enjoy working at the law school, I will probably ramp up my mediation practice a bit and possibly the law practice too.  LEJ and the mediation work I do now has inspired me to think about how I might serve people who currently need advice or services and can’t afford them.

What inspired you to join the legal profession? 

I’ve always been very motivated by justice. I was unfortunately also very naïve about money so I borrowed heavily without really understanding what that would mean for my choices after law school.  I considered the public defender’s office but didn’t think I could afford it.  In hindsight, I wonder if I could have figured something out.  But I’ve always been interested in justice and where it fails people and trying to come up with ways to improve it.

How do you define success?

I think success is being as authentic as you can and as true to yourself as you can in setting out to accomplish what’s important to you.  Success involves being as prepared as possible and then accepting the results.  The older I get the more I realize that you don’t always have the control over results that you’d like. But if you know you’ve prepared, you’ve done your best work, you’ve stayed true to your beliefs and to what is important to you and your client, then the chips will fall where they fall. You can breathe easy knowing you did the best that you could.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I love to spend time with my family. I love being a mom and a lot of what was hard for me about practicing at a big law firm was I that I couldn’t be the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t have enough patience for my kids because I was stressed all the time.  Not having that level of stress has made me a much better mom even though I still work full-time.  I feel much more integrated into everyone’s lives because I have the mental capacity to do so.

I also love writing.  I’ve written a non-fiction book about a case that I worked on through the Innocence Project that involved an individual who was wrongfully convicted and who was exonerated a couple of years ago.  I wrote that book and I really want to get it out there.  But I’m part of this writing group of really accomplished writers and I’ve learned about the publishing world from them and feel like I need to first do a fiction book that gains some traction in order to then get the non-fiction book out there in a greater way.  And so I am revising a novel that I wrote with a similar theme and that takes up a lot of my time when I’m not doing other things.  I get up super early in the morning and do that Pomodoro Technique where you use a physical clock and set it for 25 minutes and the idea is that you work exclusively on one thing for 25 minutes.  You’re supposed to do that four times in a row with five-minute breaks in between.  I try to do two of those each morning with my writing.

And then I’ve always been an athlete.  I was a swimmer all the way through high school and college and so I used to swim a lot.  But with Covid, that’s kind of gone away.  Instead, I’ve been walking around with the dog and biking with my kids.  And I’m an avid reader.

What’s your go-to wellbeing activity?

Other than working out, I would like to do more meditating.  A group that I’m involved with is The Center for Understanding in Conflict, which is a non-profit founded by Gary Friedman, a lawyer in California who was one of the first people to mediate cases. He developed this model of mediation that involves having the parties engage in a lot of dialogue (as opposed to shuttle diplomacy). His philosophy is that as a mediator you facilitate the parties’ resolution of their own disputes. It’s an awesome model and it’s what makes me love mediating so much.  Back in the seventies, Gary met this Zen Buddhist Priest named Norman Fisher, who has written several books.  A few weeks before Covid, I went to Mexico for a retreat with the Center at this amazing resort that focused on mediation and meditation together.  And it’s interesting, there are a lot of parallels between the two. But I haven’t yet developed the dedicated meditation practice that I’d like for myself. A work in progress!

The best book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to recently? 

It’s hard to know where to start with this! I’m always reading several books simultaneously, and jumping around to different podcasts. As far as podcasts, I’m currently hooked on Nice White Parents, which is a Serial production about the history of a particular public school in New York City and the ways in which white parents have influenced this school. It’s a fascinating study about the ways in which white people exercise inordinate power in many public schools. I’ve also become a fan of Death Sex & Money, mostly because Anna Sale is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard. I recommend starting with the episode in which she talks with the authors of the new book Big Friendship.

Books are my very favorite conversation topic so I’ll try to restrain myself. I’m currently reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet, which deserves all the accolades it’s getting. It is an immediately captivating story of twin sisters who are black and so fair-skinned that one of them decides to live as white, while the other one continues to live as a black woman. I’m having trouble putting it down. Two others that I read and loved this summer are Ann Patchett’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, and Lily King’s most recent novel, Writers & Lovers. Both of these books allow the reader to connect to their heroines in a way that lets you see the world through their eyes, so I feel like I spent a little time in a home for unwed mothers and as a young, single woman in Boston. A nice feeling in a time when we can’t really travel! My daughters and I also declared this the Summer of Kate DiCamillo. Even if you don’t have kids, I can’t recommend her enough – everyone should read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, for starters.

What is one thing about you that you think people would be surprised to learn?

Although I’m almost entirely right-brained, I majored in Geology. I used to say that I was in it for the field trips, but really, some of the best people are geologists. I challenge anyone to spend five minutes with Professor James Aronson and not want to follow in his footsteps.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the legal profession, what would it be?

As a mediator, the thing I’d really like to change is how lawyers view mediation.  As a lawyer, it’s easy to frame your client’s entire dispute around the legal claims and the defenses and the facts as you fit them into your theory of the case. And that’s all really important to do when you are an advocate. But then you need to remember and recognize that, for your client, the dispute is bigger than the legal claims and defenses.  It’s part of the context of their life – their family, their business, whatever it is.  So there are more things to consider and we need to be open to exploring and considering ideas for resolution that lie outside of the legal framework.

What is one new thing you are hoping to learn from others in this community?

I just love getting inspired by other people who are following their true north or have found what is meaningful to them in the practice of law and a way to have that be a source of their income and livelihood.  The concept of OPLN is totally resonant, and lawyers coming out of law school need to know about this. I expect that the more people who see that this type of practice and network exists, the more happy lawyers there will be, the better served citizens will be, and the more we can help shrink the justice gap.

And what is one thing you are looking to share with others in this community?

With the mediation work, the reason I feel such a strong sense of purpose around it is because at least in the context of commercial litigation cases, the way those get mediated is always this shuttle diplomacy model where parties are basically separated from the beginning and there’s a mediator going back and forth. But there’s no opportunity for growth or for the parties to deepen their understanding of how the other party views the dispute in a way that might help them change their position. So I’m really passionate about bringing this form of mediation, in which parties have more of an opportunity to dialogue with one another, into the commercial sphere in particular because it’s under-used there.