Georgetown Law’s Director of Mission & Ministry Amy Uelmen (C’90, L’93, S.J.D.’16): Teaching Lawyers to Listen
September 13, 2021
Speaking recently to a group of 1Ls, Georgetown Law’s new Director for Mission & Ministry Amy Uelmen (C’90, L’93, S.J.D.’16) recalled the time she and a classmate were walking to campus to take their very first law school exam. A thought flashed through young Amy’s mind: If the exam were graded on a curve, wouldn’t it be to her advantage to try to make her friend feel even more nervous about the test and cause her to do poorly?
“Isn’t that terrible?!” said Uelmen as the students chuckled. “As soon as I had that thought I was like, how on earth did you become a monster in three months?”
Instead, Uelmen said, she chose to tell a joke and help her classmate relax before the exam. And, she added, that troubling thought reminded her to consider the values most important to her and recommit herself to being a person who cares for others. She advised the students in the audience to think about their own priorities and identities as they embark on their legal training.
“Dig deep in order to affirm who you want to become as a person, and then on that basis, you will find who you want to be as a lawyer,” she said.
Last month, Uelmen became the Law Center’s first director for mission and ministry, a role in which she is working closely with colleagues both at Georgetown Law and across the entire university to support and promote the concept of mission throughout the law school community.
While Georgetown was founded by Jesuits and retains its Catholic identity, Uelmen’s role is not limited by her own Catholic faith or even by religion at all. Instead, she says, she hopes to help others discover and define their own mission in life, just as she did three decades ago as she was on her way to taking that exam.
“Each person is a beautiful gift and everybody’s got to work out their own story,” she says. “We have a deep respect for that variety. From a mission and ministry perspective, it’s about each person finding what’s going to hold them together as a person of integrity.”
The Road Back to Georgetown
After earning her J.D. at Georgetown, Uelmen worked on product liability and commercial litigation cases as an associate with the law firm Arnold & Porter. But after a few years, she moved on into academia, a decision she says stemmed from a desire to further explore the values she had defined for herself as a student: faith, connection and reflection. She also hoped to incorporate the skills she had honed through involvement in the Focolare Movement, a grassroots Catholic organization that promotes interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
She became founding director of Fordham University’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work before returning to Georgetown Law in 2011 as a lecturer and special advisor to the dean.
Since then, her teaching and research have centered on such issues as communicating across differences and exploring legal ethics. She earned an S.J.D., writing her thesis on the legal and moral obligations of bystanders who witness acts of violence, and became a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center on Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor, who first worked with Uelmen when he was Dean of Fordham Law, said her expertise and perspective deserve a large platform.
“I have benefited immensely from Amy’s wise counsel and friendship over the years, and I’m so pleased that now the entire Law Center will have that opportunity,” said Treanor. “Amy and her Campus Ministry colleagues are a vital part of making Georgetown Law the caring and reflective community it is.”
In a recent conversation with Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, Uelmen explained why she feels it is as important for lawyers to learn how to listen as it is for them to learn how to persuade.
“We can work on cognitive empathy, [or this] idea of understanding what brought the other person or side to their position. What’s their story, what are their stakes?” she said. “I may not change my own mind, but by listening to understand, I think we can help to humanize the conversation and also delve into other layers of complexity.”
Students Then and Now
Being back at her alma mater gives Uelmen many opportunities to reflect on what she was like as a student, and compare her experiences to those of current aspiring lawyers.
“I came to law school to get the equipment to help make the world a better place, but it almost felt like we were forced into a cookie-cutter mold, that everybody had to approach it in the same way,” she says.
She thinks that with social media and other pressures, the situation today may be even more difficult for students.
“There’s this huge canvas of expectations that can be very disorienting for young adults,” she says. “Part of what I’ve tried to do in my teaching is help students get beyond the fear of how they might be perceived by others. Once they take that leap, it frees them up to imagine what they can do professionally.”
Uelmen says that she finds the most helpful way to connect with students is to pay attention to their questions, concerns and struggles.
“There is a generation gap, but when they feel that you are listening with an open heart, they really dig deep,” she says.
Now that she is settling into her new position, Uelmen has a lot of ideas about ways she can serve the Law Center. For example, just before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, she was starting to work with some alumni of her popular Religion and the Work of a Lawyer seminar to develop a network, and she’d like to get that moving forward again.
She also thinks that at this moment, as Georgetown Law’s year-plus of distance learning and working comes to a close, opportunities for reflection and connection are more urgently needed than ever.
“It’s going to take all of us time to make meaning of what has happened, which is not just a pandemic, but also the struggles with racial injustice and political polarization,” she says. ‘We’re all sort of fragmented, and we need to bond as a community again.”
“And the best glue is invisible,” she says. “It’s the quiet way that we’re kind to each other and make space to listen to each other.”
For further conversation, visit the Georgetown Law Campus Ministry office (McDonough 113) or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.