Professor Lunch: Professor Deborah Hellman

Katherine Mann ‘19
Features Editor

Law Weekly staff members went to lunch with Professor Deborah Hellman last week, and while it is our job to dig into professors’ lives and backgrounds, she made the lunch especially enjoyable by getting to know us as well. We covered everything from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to healthcare, to education, to housing policy, and we got pretty close to solving the world’s problems. None of your attending staff members has had her as a professor before, and we are devastated as 2Ls and 3Ls that she’s only teaching Constitutional Law in the spring. The moral of the story, 1Ls and 2Ls, is get a class with her while you can. 

Professor Deborah Hellman. Photo Courtesy UVA Law.

Professor Deborah Hellman. Photo Courtesy UVA Law.

 Hellman specializes in equal protection and has written extensively on discrimination, particularly why we accept discrimination in some settings—like setting an age minimum for drivers—but not in others. She explained that her interest in the subject stems from her background in philosophy. Realizing that a PhD in philosophy might not have been the most practical move—she noted that the job market at the time was “abominable”—she followed her Masters in Philosophy from Columbia University with a switch to law school at Harvard. “I was interested in philosophical questions,” she says, “but I wanted to use it for what matters in the world.” She also considered that, with a law degree, she would have a backup skill set if academia didn’t work out.  

Hellman is from New England originally, outside of Boston, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth. After obtaining her law degree, she spent several years on the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law. She and her family lived in Baltimore, which she loves, but they’ve enjoyed living in Charlottesville since she joined the UVA faculty in 2012. “Charlottesville and the university community have been friendly and warm, so it’s been easy to find a life here.” She’s also found Charlottesville a great place to raise her two daughters, now teenagers. 

Hellman was a competitive downhill skier in her high school years, but lost interest during college. She enjoys cross country skiing more now, and spoke highly of White Grass in West Virginia, where she goes to get the occasional skiing fix. Her children have taken an interest in downhill skiing recently, however, so you might catch her speeding down the slopes again with them. 

Hellman loves teaching 1Ls, and her favorite class to teach is Constitutional Law. She approaches it as a language rather than a history and emphasizes that the way we have conversations about issues is important for law students to understand. “The notion of making law versus following law is an unrealistic dichotomy,” she explained. Referring to legal theorist Ronald Dworkin’s chain-novel analogy, she said that judges have to continue the story they’ve received, but they have freedom in how they continue that story. In addition to her academic pursuits, she serves the Law School by chairing the Faculty Appointments Committee.  

We solicited Hellman’s student and career advice as well, and she did not disappoint. She encouraged students to think of their career “not as the next step,” but over the long term. Whatever your long-term goal may be, “you don’t have to get there immediately,” she said. Younger students who don’t have families yet are particularly able to find positions that allow them to slow down or speed up to get where they want to be. She said it’s important to consider that you will have a long life and a long career, and you don’t have to be in a hurry. “A meandering path is okay,” she said.1 As for general life advice, she emphasized the importance of learning to drive a stick shift, and being able to parallel park.  

While her position on the Faculty Appointment Committee is keeping her course load light this year, Hellman has taught Contracts, Bioethics, Jurisprudence, and Con Law II in past years. We are hopeful that next year she’ll be back to teaching upper-level classes so that you all can enjoy her warm personality and enthusiasm for teaching. And 1Ls who have her in the Spring: take advantage of the SBA professor lunch reimbursement program. You’ll have a lovely time.