New York University School of Law, JD 1997
University of Maryland, College Park, BS 1994
There is a good reason why there is always at least one hit show running on television about lawyers: high drama. Terrible deeds, dire stakes, all-consuming hours. This was the life Andrea Dennis led when she decided to leave a prestigious law firm and become an assistant federal public defender for the District of Maryland. But after several professionally and emotionally exhausting years, Dennis knew she needed a new chapter in her life. The idea of teaching had long lay dormant in the back of her mind, but now it presented itself as a real possibility. She was offered a chance to teach a course in legal writing and research as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Maryland and she decided to do it as a test for herself: “I knew I wanted to research and write,” says Dennis, “But I needed to know if I had what it takes to engage students, work with them on a daily basis, and help them learn.”
Dennis: "I needed to know if I had what it takes to engage students, work with them on a daily basis, and help them learn."
After two years of continuing to practice and experimenting with teaching, Dennis knew she was ready, and turned her energies towards becoming a full-time professor. Though she had been out of the NYU School of Law for several years, she enlisted the aid of the Academic Careers Program for support, and attended the Program’s “Job Camp,” a one-day workshop that prepares participants for the academic job market. She quickly landed a job as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law.
Dennis threw herself into her new line of work: “At UK teaching and writing are each two fulltime jobs on their own. I put a lot of pressure on myself to produce and I’m always trying to optimize my schedule,” she observes. Her scholarship has taken two directions: first, she’s focusing on how juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system: “We mostly think about juveniles as offenders; we tend not to think about the experiences of juveniles as victims, witnesses, and informants, all of which we’re seeing more often as prosecutors are pursuing more gang-related crimes and cases involving the prostitution of children,” Dennis says. Prosecutors are obliged to fish in difficult waters, Dennis points out, as they seek to prove criminal behavior by getting specific, even graphic, testimony from children. “Prosecutors are concerned with winning, and to the extent that the child’s interest dovetails with that, there will be an interest in providing the child with protections and services,” Dennis notes. “To the extent, however, that the child’s interests do not dovetail with the prosecution’s interests, there isn’t going to be that same concern.” Dennis argues that the extraordinary burdens faced by juveniles demand that the legal system devise child-centered policies.
Dennis: “If I can as a scholar explore the relationship between vulnerable populations and the criminal justice system and propose changes, then I’m doing something worthwhile.”
Her second area of interest is the influence of popular culture on criminal justice. She has so far examined the use of rap music lyrics written by defendants as evidence in criminal cases. Dennis says, “There is an assumption that these lyrics are autobiographical, when they are really a commercialized art form for which truth is optional and elusive.” Down the road, she plans to look at the impact of the “stop snitching” mantra on criminal justice.
Her life is arguably no less stressful than during her days as a federal defender, but Dennis is reaping a different sort of satisfaction: “If I can as a scholar explore the relationship between vulnerable populations and the criminal justice system and propose changes, then I’m doing something worthwhile.”