Women of Mizzou: Rigel Oliveri on how she balances it all

She’s busy all the time, Oliveri said, but she’s perfectly fine with that.

Rigel Oliveri brought her Constitutional Law textbook to her son’s violin lessons.

For an hour every week for three months, she sat in the waiting room with her nose between the pages and studied while her son practiced his instrument. In previous work, she wasn’t able to work from home, adhering to a more rigid schedule that required her attendance every day.

“I’m able to work when I’m not at work,” Oliveri said. “And now I know how my students feel.”

Oliveri joined the MU School of Law as a professor in 2005 and was tenured in 2009, then became a “full professor” in 2016. She came to MU after working as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice for five years in Washington, D.C.

During her time at the DoJ, Oliveri worked on a wide array of cases. Her main focus was cases that related to fair housing and housing discrimination. She explained how landlords across the country take advantage of their tenants, and how her job was to prove such discrimination was happening and seek justice for her clients.

Oliveri described one race and housing discrimination case in Minnesota that involved 20-25 identified victims, most of them Somali immigrants, who had been kicked out of their apartment by their landlord. The case was settled the day before the trial, with each client receiving $35,000. Oliveri said that allowed for some couples, who would have received $70,000 between the two of them, to put a down payment on a house.

Not every case has been so simple, however. Oliveri worked on a sexual assault case from Nebraska in which the accused was caught on tape, but Oliveri said the victims didn’t get much money after having gone through the assault.

“And I felt really bad about that because what they went through was pretty terrible,” Oliveri said. “So it was a win, but I didn’t feel totally satisfied.”

As an attorney, Oliveri did a lot of traveling and knocking on doors. One of her first cases was to find victims who would testify against the manager of an apartment complex who was being accused of “terrorizing” the tenants, Oliveri said.

While she was walking around the apartment complex, the manager was doing the same, unaware of her intentions. She said that while the case was scary, it was rewarding after the case was settled and the victims received money in damages.

It’s not always easy to find victims who will talk. Oliveri said she often found herself knocking on doors that stayed shut, especially in the early 2000s when not as many people had a heavy digital footprint. People could move without leaving any information behind or go by different names other than what is on their state ID.

“I mean it was just hard and you know that all of the people have done nothing to deserve what happened to them,” Oliveri said. “And some of them had really bad things happen and I had the full weight of the United States government, which is a better position than a lot of lawyers are ever in, and it was still hard.”

In addition, Oliveri had to deal with the sexism that comes with being a young woman practicing law, she said. As a litigator, she would have to work with male defense attorneys as her opponents on a case.

“I know how lawyers are,” she said. “They fight and they’re mean to each other a lot of times. They’re just doing it because it’s their job, but it was hard for me sometimes because I felt bullied.”

She said that she would sometimes have to tell these opponents that she’d call the judge in if they didn’t stop yelling at her.

“Maybe they would have done it to another man of their age, but it was still hard for me to be in a room with somebody my dad’s age and have them be kind of aggressive,” Oliveri said.

Even with all the difficulties of a law profession, Oliveri knew she wanted to go to law school since she was in high school. She got her undergraduate degree in political and social thought at the University of Virginia in 1994 and went on to Stanford Law School, where she graduated in 1999.

She described a mock trial class that the UVA School of Law had presented for one of her undergraduate classes. In the fictitious trial, two people got in a car crash and a woman died as a result.

While it was “one of the most basic concepts,” Oliveri said she was absolutely fascinated with how the case was taken to court and settled by the law students. She was especially interested in the ethical questions posed.

“The question is, you know, should he be held guilty and if so, how much, you know?” she asked rhetorically. “How do you value the life that was lost? It was just interesting to think about that and how lawyers have to decide [that].”

During the mock trial, Oliveri thought, “I want to do that.”

Oliveri decided to be a professor while she was in law school. She said that she was meeting with a professor of hers during office hours and had asked about her options after graduation. Oliveri’s professor told her that she had always just assumed Oliveri would be a professor.

It took her awhile to adjust to a professor’s schedule, she said. As an attorney, Oliveri would get assigned a case and immediately begin working on it in order to make the fast-paced court deadlines ahead of her. But as a professor, she would have time to work on long papers and essays about research topics.

The biggest adjustment, though, was to stand in front of a room to teach, she said. Oliveri began teaching lectures at 32 years old, with some of her students in the classroom the same age or older than her.

“It took me awhile to figure out how to change my thinking [from an attorney],” she said. “And certainly teaching was probably the most challenging thing to get used to.”

Some of the institutionalized sexism from her law career followed her to teaching, she said. As a lawyer, she would sometimes hear about a jury having made comments about her appearance or shoes, among other trivial things, during a trial.

Similarly, Oliveri said that sometimes students would submit professor evaluations with comments regarding her clothing or hair. While not all of it is negative or meant to be an insult, she doesn’t understand the focus on her physical appearance.

“I guess [these students] would see me as a female professor and not as a professor,” Oliveri said.

Recently, she’s been assigned to teach a class for first-year law students; Oliveri typically teaches upper level third or fourth-year classes. For some students, Oliveri is the first professor in the law school that students have a class with.

She said that a lot of students have come to her office this semester with questions not just about the subject material they cover in class but on law school and college in general.

The MU law school has an unwritten “open-door policy,” which expects that professors keep their doors open for students to come in not only during office hours but whenever a professor has free time.

At the end of the hall on the third floor of Hulston Hall, Oliveri’s door is open and on her desk sits a plastic container of carrot cake cupcakes for her students. She meets with students frequently to help with essays and homework, as well as for student groups in the School of Law, like the Women’s Law Association and the Board of Advocates.

“I remember what it was like to be a first-year law student and not know what I was doing,” she said.

As a professor, her work extends well into the summer and the weekends, Oliveri said. Over the summer, when her children were involved with daytime activities or at an overnight camp, she’d spend the entire day working.

“I'd have the whole day free and I would research the whole day,” Oliveri said. “And it would be really interesting, so I wouldn’t want to stop.”

Her main focus in the law school is on housing discrimination, and she’s recently published a paper titled “Sexual Harassment of Low-Income Women in Housing,” which has results for a pilot study on lower class women who have experienced sexual harassment from their landlord.

“The study results both challenge and improve upon assumptions made by more theoretical scholarship and lead to suggestions for changes to both law and policy,” Oliveri wrote in the “About” section. “In particular, the results underscore the argument for treating sexual harassment in housing as a phenomenon that is entirely different from employment harassment...the results reveal the need for greater regulation of the landlord-tenant relationship and the necessity of providing more resources to the most vulnerable renters.”

Oliveri said she appreciates the ability to focus on things with such depth. She also appreciates the flexibility in her schedule so that she may tend to her children at nearly any time of day. Especially as a single parent, this kind of flexibility was important to Oliveri’s career.

Being busy often is fine, Oliveri said, since she likes having something to do all the time. And luckily, she loves her job.

“I tend to find work for myself if I don’t have it,” she said.

Outside of her career, most of her time is dedicated to her two kids. Oliveri has two photo frames on her desk on either side of her with her children pictured in each, smiling.

Oliveri said her biggest struggle currently is finding a balance between it all — with teaching, research and her children, she feels as though there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Before she was a practicing lawyer, Oliveri clerked for 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie Seymour for a year. She said she was grateful to have worked for such a strong woman who had to “work to prove herself” in a difficult career field. Seymour was the first woman to be appointed as a judge for the 10th Circuit and was appointed in 1979 by former President Jimmy Carter.

Since then, she’s found other female role models in her professional life. She’s worked with female lawyers and professors during her time as an attorney and at MU.

In the 13 years Oliveri’s been at MU, the number of women faculty and staff have increased significantly. Oliveri went from having only a handful of female colleagues to being surrounded by women in her department, she said.

“I feel like I've been lucky in that most of the places that I have ever been I have had female mentors around,” Oliveri said.

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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