Faculty Feature: Professor Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe

Professor Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe speaking at the podium at King Hall.
Professor Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe lecturing at King Hall.

Professor of Law Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe is a 2023-24 UC Davis Chancellor’s Fellow and the winner of the 2024 UC Davis School of Law Distinguished Teaching Award. Professor Joe applies her experience as a former New Orleans public defender to her research into the design of the criminal process and its impact on public defenders’ ability to manage overwhelming caseloads and comply with ethical requirements. She joined the UC Davis Law faculty in 2016 and teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Professional Responsibility, Comparative Criminal Justice, and Voir Dire. She has published scholarship in the California Law Review, UCLA Law Review, UC Davis Law Review, and Iowa Law Review. She has also published in the Los Angeles Times and The Atlantic.

Previously, Professor Joe was a fellow with Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative; a clerk for the Honorable Napoleon A. Jones, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California; a line defender, and the Assistant Special Litigation Counsel at the Orleans Public Defenders; and the Assistant Training Director for the Louisiana Public Defender Board. She was a Binder Teaching Fellow at UCLA School of Law and holds a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.

What drew you to the law?

Other Nigerians will be familiar with this origin story. My parents are Nigerian immigrants, and from a very young age, they told me I would be a lawyer. My dad, in particular, told me that from the moment I was born, he knew I would be a lawyer. So, I always had that as part of my identity in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t until I went to high school that I really thought seriously about it.

In ninth grade, I was a bit of a troublemaker. I used to get into physical fights and things like that. Fortunately, I was at a school that didn’t necessarily require a lot from me academically, so I could perform well on exams and keep my grades up even if I wasn’t necessarily motivated by homework or other educational pursuits. One day, I got into a fight. The school resource officer broke it up before I was actually able to make physical contact with the object of my aggression. He detained me using some method that I don’t remember, and he dragged me to the front office. I think because I had not actually put my hands on the other person, removing me from campus or transporting me to some other form of law enforcement control wasn't quite so easy. There was a woman in the front office who, for the life of me, I will never remember her name or role. She might have been the principal, the secretary, or a parent volunteer. When the officer spoke to her about what I had done and why he was restricting me the way he was, she looked at my record and said, “You know, you have really good grades. Why are you getting in all this trouble? Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?” And I told her, “Well, my dad said I’m going to be a lawyer.” She must have had some control over things at that point because she said, “You know what we’re going to do? Instead of suspending you, if you apply to be part of the law magnet program in the high school next door (the applications are due tomorrow), we will send you home for the day, and you can return to school tomorrow. You won’t be suspended.”

And I’ll say, at that age, I was smart enough to take that deal. To this day, my parents say that the following year, when I enrolled in that program, I did a (mostly) complete 180. All of a sudden, I cared about school. Part of that might have just been growing older over the summer. But part of it might have been that I could see the future in a much more realistic way than just the words that had been told to me or the identity seemingly placed on me. I didn’t grow up in an environment where I was surrounded by family friends who were lawyers. The lawyers I knew of were those involved in the criminal justice system or the immigration system. I could definitely see the role of a lawyer as something that could inspire hope, but I didn’t necessarily see myself in that role. I was used to viewing things from the lens of being the subject of the legal hope that a lawyer provided and not the provider of it.  The high school program allowed me to think in a really exciting way about what it might mean for me to go to law school and become a lawyer, the provider of legal hope, someday.

How did your time as a public defender affect your scholarship and teaching?

My time as a public defender is why I became an academic. My very first job was with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama as a fellow working under Bryan Stevenson and other amazing attorneys and support staff. I got to see how to do really good, strong work for people who desperately needed it — people for whom it was a matter of life and death. Then I clerked for a federal judge, Judge Napoleon A. Jones, Jr., who was remarkable for many reasons. I appreciate so much of what he did but feel particularly blessed by some of the more casual conversations we had about how I might be able to use my gifts, talents, and energy to improve the lives of marginalized people — people we both really cared about.

While clerking for Judge Jones, I heard that they were building an office from scratch in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. I thought to myself, how often do you get to build something from scratch? I had been thinking and excited about possibly going back to Alabama to work at EJI but you don’t get very many chances to be on the ground floor of making a model public defender office. So, I went to New Orleans and was a line attorney there for a few years. As we were building this office and constantly making decisions about how it should best operate, I kept questioning why we were doing things the way we were doing them. I’d ask myself and other leaders in the office why we weren’t pursuing certain organizational practices that would improve the experience for the attorneys and support staff — and by extension the clients and the larger New Orleans community. I talked to a dear friend of mine, Chaz Arnett, who is now a professor at the University of Maryland. I kept telling him at the time, “I want to know why we’re doing this. What do you think about how we could be doing it better?” He often had answers (because that’s just who he is), but he kept asking me, “Have you thought about being an academic? You should think about being a law professor, because that’s what law professors do. They ask questions, and they try to find the answers.” I had never really thought about being a law professor focused on research before that conversation with him and am forever grateful to him for it.

A few months later, UCLA Law School publicized a teaching fellowship for people who had been in practice and were interested in pursuing academia. Chaz strongly encouraged me to apply. I spoke with the current fellow there, Tendayi Achiume, who has become a dear friend and guide for me since then with an amazing scholarly portfolio of her own. She also encouraged me to apply, and our connection helped me think the UCLA fellowship was a job in which I could thrive. I applied, and I got it! And . . . I loved it! It was just wonderful to get to be at a stage where I could finally address my concerns about how the public defender system was operating and how it was doing the work — or not doing the work — that it needed or wanted to do on behalf of the nation’s poor. It was just amazing to have the opportunity to really dive deep into those questions and find some answers to help the people like I had been, who wanted to do the work of an effective public defender and wanted to do it well but were finding the job so hard.

I’d never planned on not being a public defender. I’ll be honest, sometimes I miss it. What I miss the most is running into clients or clients’ families who are now doing well and remembering how hard we worked to help that person navigate the charges against them. I miss that. But I am also really glad now that I’m at the stage where I get to help the attorneys who really want to do that work and do it well. I get to speak with a lot of them now. I sometimes do presentations in public defender offices, and of course, I talk with our students who are going on to be public defenders. I’m glad I get to help with their experience, which will then, in turn, help with the experience of their clients.

What would your students be surprised to learn about you?

I had this conversation with some students in my office hours this past week. I talked about how I feel like people look at my resume and say, “oh, she always knew that this is where she was going to end up and what she wanted to do.” It seems like a perfect step-by-step-by-step. I told my students that’s not at all how it happened. And, of course, it probably wouldn’t have happened like that even if I had carefully planned it out. For one thing, I’d never had a Black female law professor. I’d certainly not ever had a professor that had a life experience like me to model myself after, so it wasn’t even a dream that I could really form in my mind to work towards with clearly defined steps to follow.

At each stage of my career, as a person of faith, I would always just pray for guidance on how best to do the work that I wanted to do to help the communities I wanted to help. I would really, really try to listen for answers to those prayers. Then, I would make my move and do my best wherever I landed. In hindsight, when you look at my resume, it seems like I knew what I was doing at every stage. But what I really knew at every stage was who I wanted to help, and I strongly believed that there was a way to help them. I like to tell my students that truth, because I don’t want them to think they need to have all the answers right now. I think that can put a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety onto their law school experience. I think they appreciate hearing that, and it’s also as much of a surprise to them to learn that as it is comforting while they try to make their own decisions about the best path forward.

Do you have any hobbies or notable interests outside of your law career?

Of course, I read a lot. I read a lot of fun books, too, that are not at all related to the criminal justice system. But I’m also a video gamer. My game of interest right now is The Legend of Zelda on the Wii Switch. It’s a bit of a relaxing thing for me to play when I just need a moment from the emotional toll of thinking deeply about the criminal process and how it so often harms people and fails to live up to our general principles. The other thing I just recently started to help with relaxing is improv. I’ve completed one eight-week class, and despite all my best efforts, I have to admit that I am pretty awful at it. The instructor and the other people in my group don’t like for me to say that. They say, “First of all, you’re not awful. Second, the whole purpose of improv is not about being good or bad or mediocre. It’s just about getting out there, telling stories, and working with others to tell their stories. And you’re good at that.” It’s a great group to be a part of, and we continue on together, taking additional classes and supporting each other’s performances.

Usually, if I’m not doing research or teaching or other service responsibilities, I’m playing The Legend of Zelda (by myself or with some of my friends and current and former colleagues’ sons: Professor Donna Shestowsky’s and Jasmine Harris’s sons are my partners in that). Donna’s son and I had a nice little Zelda play day at her home a little while ago. Jasmine Harris’s son and I played Zelda over Zoom since she now teaches at Penn Law School, and that was also just a highlight of my year. If it’s not Zelda, then I’m taking my improv classes, hoping I don’t bring shame upon my parents, siblings, or nieces and nephew. My friends can handle the shame — they actually came to my first performance a few weeks ago and continue to use it to poke fun at me as only best friends can.

One thing I really like about being at the law school is that I am surrounded by amazing minds, some of which have different experiences, but we’re all sort of in the same field of asking questions. We aren’t asking the same questions by any means, but we all think about the law in a way that values the law. I like the improv community much like I like my church community in that it’s a completely different group of people. These aren’t necessarily people who are thinking about the law on a regular basis. Although a couple of members of my improv group are lawyers, and some people in my church community are lawyers, for the most part, it’s people with really different life experiences. When they want to talk about the law, they can share their own ideas and insights about the law that are untouched by a law school education, which can be really valuable for my own enterprise of educating people about the law in a law school environment.

What do you most enjoy about teaching? What do you hope students gain from your courses?

Many years ago, when I started thinking about teaching, this book I read talked about thinking about your life going forward. It’s called Success Is Not an Accident. It said, “Whenever you see somebody at the end of their life, and you say, wow, they were really successful; they didn’t get there by accident. They really had an idea of what they wanted to be able to say about themselves at the end of their life, and then they just worked towards that.” There was an exercise in the book where you had to write out your ideal day in nine years. What happens, what do you say, who do you talk to, with as much detail as possible exactly nine years from today.

I remember when I first started off teaching, I did that exercise. One component of the ideal day was having lunch or coffee with a previous student who was coming to tell me how their work as a public defender was going and how they were handling such a difficult job. They were talking about the hard parts, of course, but they also talked about the things they appreciated and enjoyed and how committed they were to doing the work. During the conversation, on my ideal day in nine years, the student would also tell me which pieces of my class and my mentorship really helped them daily, or on a somewhat regular basis, while they did the work. And then they would add, “Hey, here are some of the problems my office is dealing with. It would be great if somebody could think about why these are the problems or if there’s something about them that we could address.” And so it would give me future ideas for my research that would be theoretically sophisticated and practically significant.

I think that’s what I appreciate the most about our students. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position to have those kinds of conversations with students — some well within the nine-year deadline I had in describing my ideal day. But also, they really stretch that goal I had so many years ago. They make me want to do more. And not just the public defender students and alums engage with me that way. There are students interested in pursuing work as prosecutors, those who aren’t doing anything related to criminal law because their interests lie elsewhere, and those who want to stay away from criminal law because they understand the emotional toll would be too much for them.  I have found my conversations with all of these students and alums, whether in office hours, class or just in the hallway, really helpful in terms of how I think about the work I want to do examining the criminal process and the legal profession. I just appreciate our student body and alumni base so much.

Of what are you proudest?

Over the holidays, I spent time with my family in Texas. My family’s extraordinary. They’re just great. There have been a lot of hard things that they’ve been able to do, and they’ve just achieved them at such a high level. One of the things I’m proudest of is that I think my parents, who sacrificed a lot to come to the U.S. when they immigrated from Nigeria, can look at me and also my siblings, and they can see what their sacrifice was for. For everybody that I’ve been able to help, whether it’s a defendant, whether it’s a lawyer trying to represent a client, whether it’s a prosecutor trying to make decisions about how they should prosecute, whether it’s people just voting on different issues that might help poor people in the system, whether its students that are going to go off and do something or fellow colleagues who I give thoughts to about their research, my parents can see that as the result of everything they gave up. I’m really proud that they can look at me and see what I’ve done and I’m doing as just one additional sign of just how remarkable they are and what they have accomplished.

Do you have one piece of advice for King Hall law students?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. This is an opportunity. You are surrounded by so many great minds, great thinkers. There are so many people here at King Hall who are committed to trying to do something for the world. And you are one of those people. So, don’t think you have to know everything right now. This is, at its core, a professional environment. But we’re a professional school too. This is an educational enterprise, and it’s your time to learn and to be open to learning. To take the beliefs and assumptions you’ve had in the past and really stretch them and be excited and happy about getting the chance to stretch them in an environment that applauds open learning. If you try a job and it doesn’t work out, or you try a class and discover you don’t like it, don’t be so hard on yourself. This is all part of the law school enterprise, and you’re doing it right just by simply being open to trying.