Women of Mizzou: How Michelle Cecil came to love her job, students

Cecil has been at MU since 1989 and has loved every minute of it.

Michelle Cecil has about six cases of Dasani water bottles in neat stacks by her desk.

The MU School of Law professor said that she offers one to every student that visits her office. As promised, in just one hour, three students approached Cecil’s office door and all three were offered a water bottle.

Cecil said this kind of comfortable and open interaction with students is critical to her job as a professor. Cecil began working at MU in 1989, was tenured in 1993 and then was made a full professor in 2001. She said that while she had offers from “better schools,” like the University of Notre Dame Law School, she appreciated the overall vibe of MU.

“I just love the feel of the law school,” she said. “I love the feel of the community.”

The MU School of Law has a policy in place for current law students to interview professor applicants before they’re hired. Cecil met with the students who interviewed her afterward and asked about their career plans and goals.

Hours later, one of the students was offered a job for which she was hoping. Cecil said this student ran up to her on campus and exclaimed, “Professor, I got the job!” Cecil hadn’t even been hired as a professor yet, but she appreciated the kind of teacher-student interaction that was showcased at that moment.

Cecil also loves for students to stop by her office whenever she’s available. She helps them find jobs to apply for after college and helps them with classwork.

“What I like is that they feel comfortable talking to me and I like that interaction,” she said. “I love to help them get jobs and then one of them gets a job and comes and tells me and I get excited about it.”

George Brand, second year law student, said he’s seen firsthand how Cecil helps students. Her best characteristic, he said, is how social she is with students and how willing she is to help anyone who asks.

“She’s awesome,” he said, standing in her office doorway with a smile painted across his face. “She talks to students and she helps them out all the time. There was a guy just in here that was asking about finding a job in Springfield [MO] and she gave him 10 people to contact right away.”

One of the most important things she’s learned during her time as a professor at MU is how to be a strong woman. She worked with Nanette K. Laughrey, a former MU law professor who is now a Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. Cecil said Laughrey taught her how to be a confident and self-assured woman “without being a bitch.”

“[It’s important to be a strong woman in this field] so that you’re not put in those awkward positions, so people don’t take advantage of you,” Cecil said. “I don’t think that’s just women...but we still have just a little bit more to prove.”

For example, Cecil once wanted to be part of a committee and was told by an administrative staff member that there was “no need for another woman,” as the committee already had one. Cecil laughed and asked the staff member if there was possibly room for another woman anyway.

Cecil is also on a committee that works with law students’ mental health, which recently included the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program in its curriculum. MOLAP provides free and confidential counseling and substance abuse recovery programs to lawyers and law students.

Cecil said that she, among other faculty and staff in the law school, wasn’t aware of how big an issue mental health is in law schools. She said that she’s been spending more time with students to talk about suicide and depression.

She’s also been sharing her own personal experiences with mental health in order to help destigmatize the topic. She said that students have come up to her after class and told her that she’s helped make them feel more “normal.” Cecil met with another woman on the committee who works at the Behavioral Counseling Center to talk about what other professors would like to see at the law school. One of her suggestions was peer-on-peer counseling.

People often approach Cecil with ideas they have because Cecil loves to see the enthusiasm in people, especially students, when they’re passionate about something. It extends beyond mental health and curriculum though. Cecil and other law school faculty want to foster a learning environment where people feel committed to being there. One of her committees, the Student/Faculty Relations Committee, conducted a survey asking students what they’d need to feel more comfortable in the program.

“We asked students, ‘What should we do to make you feel more comfortable in the law school?’” she said. “And the number one [response] was so simple. An ice machine.”

Cecil’s committee continued with these requests and later added a kitchenette with microwaves and a refrigerator.

“We don't want to make this job hard for them,” she said. “Law school is already hard enough, and we want this to be a positive learning environment.”

Cecil understands firsthand the importance in ensuring that the law school is a healthy place to work and learn. On average, she spends about 60 hours a week working on campus — not factoring in the occasional days she has makeup classes in the late evening and the work she does at home on weekends.

“When you love what you do, it's so much easier to put in the hours,” she said.

She wants to teach not only the academic material, but the “soft skills” as well. She defined such skills as how to act in the professional world, such as how to greet someone and be polite during a job interview. She tends to teach these things indirectly. For example, during evening makeup classes, Cecil often brings in pizza for students. One time, she bought only one “meat-lover’s” pizza for her students on purpose to demonstrate sharing.

“Because all the guys want the meat-lover’s pizza,” she said. “So I was telling them in advance that I only ordered one and there are eight pieces of that so not everyone can have one. It’s not a big skill, it’s a little one. But it’s important.”

She does these things because it prepares her students for the professional world. Cecil takes 10 of her students to St. Louis once a year to visit law firms and corporations to network. Afterward, there’s a main reception with employees from the firms and corporations.

“And hopefully you train them so that they don’t have a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other one [because] they’ll have to shake hands with one,” Cecil said, laughing.

Of course, the professional world extends beyond shaking hands at a reception. Cecil continues to help students afterward, when they have business cards and contact information from the people they’ve met in St. Louis. Cecil walks them through how to send an email or a letter as a follow-up.

“The interaction with the students is number one so that we get to know each other and so they feel comfortable talking to me but also so that they can learn some of those soft skills,” she said.

Cecil’s work extends to other committees as well. She said that while she’s had the privilege of experiencing very little discrimination in her professional life, but there are small institutional happenings that stop her in her tracks every once in a while. She said most of them are not done on purpose.

Cecil visited the University of Texas a few years back. At UT, their motto is “What starts here changes the world.” Cecil said she believes the same ideology for her students — that they may start at MU, but then grow to showcase their skills in other parts of the world.

Recently, a student came into her office years after their graduation from the law school and told Cecil he’d started a nonprofit organization to help abused women living in urban areas. This student told Cecil she’d indirectly helped him with creating his organization.

“And my little tax class has nothing to do with [abused] women, but I taught him about how to get a tax exemption then all of sudden that’s helping women,” she said.

Another of her former students was former Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. Koster also ran for Missouri Governor in 2016 and was the Democratic nominee, but lost to Eric Greitens. Cecil said she followed his campaign and thought it was beautiful. Even with the loss, she was still so proud that one of her students had gone so far in politics.

“I mean, I might as well have been his mother, I was so proud,” she said about Koster. “I'm so proud of my students and all the good that they do. And that’s what gives you the satisfaction.”

She wants to spread this kind of success to current students. Cecil said she works with students all the time who are nearing graduation and aren’t goal-oriented or as driven as she thinks they could be.

She described a moment in which a student came into her office and after she asked what kind of job he’d like to have after graduating, he said he didn’t know and that he would take anything he could get. Cecil had this student leave her office and come back with a better attitude and more hope for himself.

After she worked with said student, she said that by the end of his third year in law school, he got a job as a public defender in the Southern District of New York, defending inmates on death row. Cecil said his job was one of the coolest to get right out of school and she admired how much he’d come from being willing to take any job.

“I really feel like that is my purpose: to help [students]...realize their true potential,” Cecil said.

Cecil understands the importance of a motivational professor as she had one herself when she was at the University of Illinois College of Law. In her second year, she took a tax law class with a professor who “inspired the whole class.” It was that class that made her realize she’d like to specialize in tax law and later encouraged her to pursue teaching higher education.

“He had such an impact on me and I realized how much I like learning and...going to his class and that’s when I decided to be a professor,” she said.

This class and professor was just one of the many reasons Cecil considered law school one of the most intellectually stimulating moments of her life.

Another one of her professors told her class that by the end of his course, his students would be thinking like a lawyer. Cecil saw this firsthand and confirmed that as she sharpened her problem-solving and analytical skills, it felt like a transformation of how she viewed the world.

“It’s just so hard to describe,” she said, laughing. “But all of a sudden, you do start thinking like a lawyer and my students ask me [about] it and I’m like ‘I don’t know, it just happens.’”

Her favorite part of law school was the discovery of answers, she said. A lot of the first year was questions and questioning cases and existing laws and trials but seldom answering those questions. But as she advanced in classes, she found that there were answers as well. Cecil takes great interest in puzzles and logic games, so she enjoyed that she was finally able to find conclusions and resolve cases.

While she hasn’t been enrolled in law school since her graduation in 1982, she said she was prepared as a “lifelong learner.” She tries to encourage that same mindset in her students as well.

She also wants her students to learn how to take life less seriously and that they should take advantage of being in law school. She still uses what she learned in law school as an adult — both the substantive material relating to tax law as well as how to work with other people and how to structure an argument.

Cecil wants her students to understand that there is life beyond their grades.

“This campus is just an exciting place to be,” she said. “And I would like students to take advantage of that, but also have fun. And I’m not talking about ‘drinking every night have fun.’ I’m talking about, you know, develop a community of friends and do cool things together.”

Her biggest struggle right now isn’t that she has too much on her plate — it’s that she wants more but has difficulty knowing when to delegate her responsibilities to someone else. Cecil plans to retire in the upcoming years and knows that she should begin to hand over the roles she has. Which, of course, is easier said than done when you love your job as much as Cecil does.

“It’s hard to give up the reins and turn it over to others because they’re going to do a good job, too,” she said. “It’s like, you know, I know the institution and I have these ideas, but there’s lots of people with great ideas and this place is going to continue to run really well long after I’m gone. It’s just a little bit hard to kind of give it up.”

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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