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Monday, April 25, 2016

Hard prawf choices

A little less than three years ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer, a disease that does not lend itself to optimistic prognoses.  I have been fortunate to be able to continue prawfing since then, but it has changed the way I understand my job and interact with my students and the prawf community.

One of my first challenges was deciding how much of my situation to share with my students.  I pride myself on treating my students as much like adults as possible.  So, the first semester after my diagnosis, knowing that treatment would interfere with their class schedule, I shared with them the general diagnosis (cancer) and let them know that it would require flexibility on their part.  I also reconfirmed my commitment to them to do my best and to be available when I could.  That semester was challenging, but the students were incredibly generous and forgiving.  Since then, however, I've tended to share less and less with my students.  I don't tell them I have cancer.  I simply explain cancellations by pointing vaguely to medical necessity.  The change didn't came about because I trust these students any less than the others, but because the process of disclosure was hard and I don't want to add my problems to the preexisting stress of law school.  Moreover, my current set of treatments are not as disruptive to class schedules as the first ones were.  I wonder sometimes if this is right decision -- if I value setting boundaries between myself and my students too much -- but fortunately my students have continued to be flexible and generous.

Another challenge has been whether to disclose my disease broadly.  I shared things with close friends, but I didn't go fully public on Facebook for fear of losing professional opportunities.  Would folks be hesitant to invite me for speaking gigs if I might not be able to fulfill them?  Would schools be uninterested in hiring me?  Again, I'll never know if this was the right choice or not.  The hiring market hasn't exactly been active in the last three years anyway, and speaking invitations don't overflow my inbox.  Obviously, though, I've now changed my mind.  My change of heart came about because my priorities have changed.  Honesty about an issue that has impacted me personally and professionally now trumps concerns about even short- and medium-term opportunities.

Finally, it's been interesting to change the timeframe of my planning.  I don't wonder how to construct a career for twenty years from now; rather, I want to make an impact now, or at least soon.  In the first year after my diagnosis, I was fortunate enough to get an offer to teach at an excellent school outside of the United States.  Because of concerns about my access to experimental medical treatment there, I ultimately made the extremely difficult decision to decline the offer.  When I did, I decided to recommit myself to my current institution, not because it's perfect, but because it gave me an opportunity to make an impact.  I worked hard on curricular changes at the expense of my own research interests.  I do not regret my choice, but I do wonder how things might have panned out if I had put my focus elsewhere.  Service, after all, does not give rise to notoriety outside an institution like scholarship does.

Anyway, I share these thoughts, because I've also learned that my life before my diagnosis was actually more unusual that my life since.  Before, my life was relatively straightforward and free of complications, but I've come to realize that most lives are complicated, even if the nature of the complications differ greatly from person to person.  So perhaps discussing the hard choices that complications forced on me will be useful to someone else.

Posted by Michael Rich on April 25, 2016 at 02:02 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


Mike - Thank you for posting this. Anne and I had no idea you were going through this. Thinking of you - Craig

Posted by: Craig Simmons | Apr 26, 2016 9:53:58 PM

Thank you to everyone who has commented here and reached out to me privately. It has been a welcome reminder for me of the community that exists among lawprawfs, even though we all are geographically isolated in some sense at our individual schools. I've been particularly affected by the realization that many of us share a commonality of concerns and challenges. And my unburdening has allowed me to look forward with a clearer focus on future goals. So, thank you all.

Posted by: Michael Rich | Apr 26, 2016 4:33:53 PM

Thank you for posting this. We haven't met, but my friend/your colleague Dave Levine speaks very highly of you. I admire your bravery and dedication.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 26, 2016 4:26:30 PM

I want to echo Catherine's comments. Mike is an amazing person, and an inspiration to all of us who know him. You guys at Elon are lucky; he's a colleague in a million!

Posted by: Ian Holloway | Apr 26, 2016 12:46:35 PM

Thanks, Mike, for your important and moving blog post. I want to echo the voices of support above, and wish you all the best!

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Apr 26, 2016 12:27:39 PM

Mike Rich is an extraordinary scholar and teacher and I feel privileged to work with him, not only because of his intellect and talent but also because of the strength he demonstrates daily to students and colleagues. He is a walking example of what is important in work and life.

Posted by: Catherine Dunham | Apr 26, 2016 11:10:28 AM

I am in awe of your commitment to making an impact, it is an inspiration for me to try to do the same.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Apr 26, 2016 3:49:24 AM

Thanks for your post. While your situation is more pointed than some others, it does remind one to care about the things worth caring about. High-ranking placements and fancy law schools are great, but it's the people in our lives, and the relationships we have, that truly matter.

Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Apr 26, 2016 12:27:10 AM


Thank you for your courageous and thought provoking post. These are hard, but important questions on which to reflect. I have been thinking about them and you all day. Like your excellent scholarship, you have offered something of real value to us in the prawf community.

Posted by: Andrew Ferguson | Apr 25, 2016 10:38:21 PM

Brave and beautifully written.

Posted by: Sonya Garza | Apr 25, 2016 5:19:28 PM

Mike, thanks for posting this. I appreciate your willingness to share about your experience and subsequent decisions about where to focus your time and talents. I am so saddened at this news.

Posted by: Jonathan Witmer-Rich | Apr 25, 2016 4:16:56 PM

Mike, as a close friend and colleague, you know my thoughts about the above. But for those for whom this post is news, I want to add that your professionalism and passion for law has been inspiring and extraordinary. I consider myself fortunate to work with you daily, and thank you for this very personal reflection.

Posted by: Dave Levine | Apr 25, 2016 3:58:58 PM

Michael, thanks for posting this. (I'll follow up in an e-mail, but I wanted at least something to be posted publicly.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 25, 2016 3:30:56 PM

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