Faculty and Staff

Faculty Focus: Professor Barbara Atwell

February 22, 2024
Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University Professor Barbara Atwell

Professor Barbara Atwell joined the faculty at Haub Law in 1986. A health law teacher and scholar, she was also appointed as the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2009. Prior to joining Haub Law, she clerked in the sixth circuit and worked as an associate with Arnold and Porter. Now, in her 38th year of teaching at Haub Law, Professor Atwell enjoys all of the courses she teaches, with Bioethics and Medical Malpractice having a slight edge as her favorite. Learn more about Professor Atwell's journey to law, her scholarship, and things you may not know about her such as her passion for Feng Shui, in this Q&A.

What was your journey to ultimately becoming a professor at Haub Law?

After receiving my undergraduate degree from Smith College, I worked at IBM for three years. From there, I went to Columbia Law School. After graduating, I clerked for a year on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Still unsure about my career path, I decided to move to Washington D.C. and joined Arnold and Porter as an associate. While I was in law school, I thought about pursuing a career in academia, but it wasn’t until I was working at the firm that I began to seriously consider it again. I had a friend who started teaching a few years before I did, and he encouraged me to pursue a career in teaching. I ended up at Pace in part because of the location, and in part because of the people I met when I interviewed here.

What was your experience working at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit?

Working on the Sixth Circuit was amazing. I had the opportunity to watch many oral arguments – in some ways, it’s like watching a lot of Moot Court arguments because the Sixth Circuit is, of course, an appellate court, so you are watching lawyers come in and make oral arguments every few weeks or so. My responsibilities as a judicial clerk included drafting opinions and writing bench memos. In other words, I did a lot of legal writing, which was quite beneficial for my subsequent positions.

Another invaluable part of my clerkship experience were the people I worked with. Judge Nathaniel Jones had three clerks, and we became close friends, so in addition to being a great learning experience, my time as a clerk was like working with family.

Would you recommend clerking as an entry point before getting out into the legal workforce?

Absolutely! Every judge and every clerkship is different, but often times it gives the clerk an opportunity to refine his or her research and writing skills. If you have a chance to clerk for a judge, you should definitely take it because I don’t believe there is anything else quite like it. For me, it truly was a wonderful experience. It also enhances your resume.

What made you want to practice health law?

There wasn’t one single precipitating factor that pushed me toward health law. I clerked in the midst of the Reagan Administration when people were losing social security disability benefits. I remember seeing cases where people who, for example, complained of pain that prevented them from working were suddenly losing their benefits. My recollection is that some of these people lost their disability benefits without any documented change in their medical conditions. Later, at Pace, I began teaching health law when the school was building up the health law program. I volunteered to teach health law, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

What is your favorite course to teach?

Well, I really enjoy teaching Bioethics and Medical Malpractice -- that is probably my favorite class. To be honest, I really enjoy all the health law classes. I’ve also begun to teach Poverty Law, which I also find quite rewarding.

Another course that was special to me was a course I created a few years ago called Great Migrations. I think it was just a 1 credit course, and it was a lot of work because there was no casebook, but I taught things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, Operation Wetback, etc.

How did you get involved with diversity and inclusion at Haub Law?

I was appointed as director of diversity in 2009. I was appointed to help ensure that the Law School is a welcoming and inclusive environment for people of all genders, races, cultures, ages and abilities. As Director of DEI, I serve as a resource for students, faculty, and staff and regularly meet with heads of student organizations, assist in planning events, and advocate for certain institutional changes on campus. My role runs the gamut and I truly enjoy it.

You have a number of publications, which were your favorite to work on?

The last one I wrote was very interesting to me, From Public Health to Public Wealth: A Case for Economic Justice. This article was in the process of being edited when the pandemic hit. And since the article has a section on public health, I was happy to be able to edit it before the final publication and add in the current information we had at the time. Things changed so rapidly, though, that even as I added new information, it was quickly becoming dated!

In some ways my article Mainstreaming Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Face of Uncertainty was my favorite to work on because I am a big believer in complementary and alternative medicine. Teaching health law gave me insights into how traditional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine can fit nicely together.

What advice do you have for students?

My biggest piece of advice would be to really take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to you as a law student. This includes getting to know professors, participating in student organizations, and getting involved in work outside of the classroom (while not slacking off on class work).

Can you tell me about your certification in Feng Shui?

I think it was 2004 when I went to feng shui school. There is a bit of background that goes into this – in 2000, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I attended a yoga class. My yoga instructor had books about Feng Shui. At the time I didn’t know anything about it. My journey of healing led me to acupuncture and to feng shui. In some ways, they are similar in that they are both focused on energy. Acupuncture balances the body’s energy, and feng shui is about balancing the energy of our physical spaces. Feng Shui is really about balance and de-cluttering. I haven’t had time to do much Feng Shui in recent years. When I retire, I will probably dedicate some of my time to Feng Shui.

What is something that your students or fellow faculty do not know about you?

I’ll give you a couple of personal tidbits that not everyone knows. First, my children are adopted and so I am a strong advocate for adoption as a way to form a family. Both of my children have met their birth mothers, and my daughter also recently met her birth father.

Second, my partner is a man I started dating in 2014, but we met back in 1976 at the beginning of our senior year in college. I was at Smith College, and he attended Williams College. We met at a party and remained friends. Although we lost touch for a few years in the middle as we each got married, had kids, etc., we never lost touch for very long. You never know when a longstanding friendship may evolve into a life-long partnership.