Rachel Van Cleave has always been up for a creative challenge. This means that she can more than empathize with her ambitious, hardworking, and potentially slightly overwhelmed law students. Finishing up her senior year at Stanford, she applied to three law schools, the peace corps, and a fellowship with the California legislature. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I ended up being drawn to law school for the intellectual challenge, and found that I just really loved it.”
How to Stay in Law School
It wasn’t long before Rachel identified how to capitalize on that love. “From loving law school I found a way to stay in law school!” She says with a laugh. During only her first year, she had already decided she really wanted to teach. She worked on building relationships with professors who could provide mentorship and guidance, and clerked for a fifth-circuit judge after law school before beginning to teach.
She had been teaching at Texas Tech University for nearly 10 years, until one of her former law professors helped her find what eventually became a full-time position as a tenured faculty member at GGU. “One of the things I enjoyed right away about teaching at Golden Gate was that the faculty, staff, and administration are very open to new ideas and trying things out.” Stating that both Rachel and GGU value an innovative teaching methodology is an understatement.
Innovative Teaching Approaches
In the sobering wake of Hurricane Katrina, Rachel obtained permission to design and teach a course called “Katrina and Disaster Law.” In collaboration with the American Constitutional Society, her students found immense value in applying their knowledge to help lawyers navigate Louisiana’s unique laws during the aftermath of the disaster. Her boots-on-the-ground approach is key for students looking to receive practical as well as theoretical legal knowledge. “It was really meaningful,” she agrees.
In 2020, she introduced a groundbreaking course titled “Reimagining Criminal Justice.” They “explore the problems with our criminal system, but also alternatives. What do you do with someone who has broken the law if you don’t send them to prison? I’m excited to keep exploring alternatives.” She actively engages in research and co-authors a book on the #MeToo movement, plus designed a Comparative #MeToo course within the JD Flex program, offering insights into various countries’ legal protocols and facilitating a global understanding of the movement.
A Commitment to Reform
All this innovation takes work, and it helps to have a supportive environment for everyone involved: students, faculty, and staff. Rachel explains that “Once GGU has decided that there’s a good idea and we need to move on it, we move pretty quickly and adjust as needed.” It’s what allowed her to quickly create her innovative Katrina course. More generally, a strength of the school is making program adjustments based on student feedback.
She supports her students by teaching both how to conquer tests and chip away at the big-picture problems. “In the courses tested on the Bar exam, I tell students that I want them to know the law and be able to apply the rules, period. But that’s not it. I’m not just preparing you to pass the bar exam, I’m preparing you to be a lawyer, to practice law, and think critically.” They spend time looking at dissenting opinions and critiquing majority opinions, and especially in the last few years, she has specifically encouraged open-mindedness.
Building Both Academic Success and Wider Community
Rachel takes pride in her dedication to continually exploring new perspectives and solutions, and instilling that motivation in her students. But she recognizes that already “they’re an impressive group with really diverse backgrounds and experiences.” Among her current students are an elementary school principal, a criminal law paralegal, and a psychiatrist. Even with such high levels of diversity, “It’s not for everyone,” she warns. “Though it’s a part-time program, it’s still a pretty significant load. I think the self-discipline required to stay on top of the materials in between the face-to-face meetings is critical.”
One of the most exciting aspects of teaching the JD Flex program for her, however, has nothing to do with the coursework itself. Instead, it is the relationship that the students build with each other. “Not only do they bring that to the classroom, but even outside the classroom I think they learn a lot from each other. I’ve been super impressed that, though on campus for only 8 weekends out of the course of the semester, they are some of our most engaged students and really interested in helping to build community at Golden Gate.” It’s safe to say that Rachel’s efforts have something to do with that engagement.