Published: Jan. 25, 2019
Deborah Cantrell

Deborah Cantrell almost didn’t become a lawyer. She originally planned to pursue postgraduate study in psychology or economics, but after finding the requisite long hours in a research lab isolating, she found her way to the law, where she has thrived by combining her passions for how people learn to work well together and pursuing social change.

As professor of law and director of clinical programs at Colorado Law, Cantrell teaches the Sustainable Community Development Clinic, which she helped establish in 2016; Legal Ethics and Professionalism; and Legislation and Regulation.

Before joining Colorado Law in 2007, Cantrell taught a legal ethics clinic at Yale Law School, ran a regional anti-poverty law program in California, and supervised a statewide direct legal aid program for the rural elderly in New Mexico. She also spent time in private practice as a litigator and trial attorney.

Cantrell’s research areas reflect her interest in issues related to lawyers and social change: investigating the ways in which lawyers rely on value systems to create and understand their roles, religion, mindfulness, and ethics. She is one of only a few scholars to examine Buddhist normative principles and practice. Her recent scholarship focuses on addressing conflict in a productive way and challenges the belief that that any kind of conflict is hard and to be avoided. To Cantrell, everyday moments of modest friction—what she calls "mundane" conflict—are learning opportunities that develop patience and empathy for moments of hard conflict.

How did you choose this career path and was there a person, event, or passion that influenced you?

When I graduated from college, the only thing I knew for certain is that I would never become a lawyer. I planned to go to graduate school and get my PhD either in psychology or economics. I ended up in psychology studying the development of social cognition. But, after spending time in my research lab, I realized that I felt isolated from the world and unsure that my research would benefit real people in their real lives. That lab experience made me reconsider the law, and I left my PhD program for law school. I have found my work in law—as a lawyer and as a legal scholar—has allowed me to integrate my passion for how people learn to work well together with my passion for pursuing social change.

Your scholarship over the years has focused on lawyers and social change, religion, mindfulness, legal ethics, and examining Buddhist principles and practices. What do you find appealing about these topics as opposed to other areas of the law?

I strongly believe in the human spirit, and in every person’s ability to improve their capacities to live a flourishing life and to support others in flourishing as well. I think most faith traditions contain that aspiration, and I think the law can contain that aspiration. That said, there also can be profound disagreements between faith traditions themselves and between faith traditions and secular legal systems. I have found it really engaging to investigate and think through what conditions or contexts need to be in place for people to find common ground across important differences. Personally, Buddhism, including its wide range of mindfulness practices, have helped me cultivate empathy, compassion, and a wider ability to see multiple perspectives. That serves me well as a lawyer, scholar, teacher, and colleague.

In your latest article, "Celebrating Mundane Conflict," you challenge the narrative that conflict is difficult and painful to engage. What were your conclusions around how to embrace conflict?

Some kinds of conflict are difficult and painful. Those kinds of conflict also often are the kinds of conflict that we wish we could handle better. We tend to remember those hard, difficult conflicts more readily and more thoroughly. We try to avoid those hard conflicts, but we also mistakenly start to think that any kind of conflict is hard and to be avoided. That mistaken assumption means that we miss opportunities to learn better ways to respond to conflict. We don’t think about the daily moments of modest friction—what I call "mundane" conflict—as the perfect practice setting. For example, if I walk into my work place and a colleague responds curtly to my question, I could use that small moment of conflict as a moment of practice. Instead of immediately letting a story form in my head about how my rude colleague wronged me, which then makes me angry, I could take some breaths and consider what might be going on for my colleague that has put her on edge. I think that kind of daily practice in responding well to conflict means we develop tools to respond better in those moments of hard conflict.

In 2016, you helped establish the Sustainable Community Development Clinic, Colorado Law’s newest legal clinic, which you currently teach. How does the SCD Clinic align with your work?

One of the primary goals of the SCD Clinic is to help be a catalyst for collaboration, especially collaboration on issues that involve groups with different levels of expertise or political power. If the SCD Clinic can facilitate bringing different and diverse voices into conversations about sustainability and economic development, I would be very satisfied. The SCD Clinic’s willingness to step into difficult conversations and embrace the generative potential of modest levels of conflict aligns with my own work on the kinds of conditions that help foster social change.

Tell us about some of the clinic’s latest projects.

My student attorneys and I are really interested in a range of local food issues. We’ve done a project that was designed to help lower income folks better access the terrific fresh produce available at local farmers’ markets. We are working on a project that we hope will help local beekeepers better protect their honeybees from pesticide exposure.

We’re also very engaged in helping smaller businesses structure themselves in ways that foster collaborative and socially conscious practices. For example, we’re helping a new nonprofit figure out how its board members can equally share governance duties through a non-hierarchical structure and with consensus-based decision making.

What do you enjoy outside of your legal work?

I am an avid mountain biker. For the last few years, I have focused on longer distance rides and races—50 miles or more. I’ve also set myself a goal of through-biking the 550 miles of the Colorado Trail in summer 2021. I love to garden, and I try to experiment with at least one new crop in my home garden every year. This year I’m going to try growing popcorn.