Mercer Law dean has lifelong love of education and teaching

1284
karen sneddon in front of law school
Mercer Law Dean Karen Sneddon. Photo by Leah Yetter

Karen Sneddon insists she’s not interesting — or funny. When asked for personal “fun facts” at panel discussions and getting-to-know-you sessions, she frequently leads with, “I was born in Scotland.” A truth that, even as she points out, is something that happened to her, not something she chose.

“I’m a law professor, and we just aren’t the most riveting people,” she says. “I don’t have a secret life where I’m hiking and making gourmet meals or anything.”

But put the facts front of a jury of her friends, colleagues and students, and Sneddon, who was recently appointed dean at Mercer Law after serving as interim since 2021, is guilty of being both thought-provoking and gracious, with a sense of humor that’s equally deadpan and witty.

Born in Stirling, Scotland, Sneddon’s parents moved the family to Las Cruces, New Mexico, when she was about 5. Her father earned his Ph.D. and post-doctorate in Scotland and came stateside for more opportunities and career advancement. Sneddon and her siblings inherited their love of education from their parents.

“My father is an analytical chemist; he’s an emeritus professor now,” Sneddon says. “My parents were both the first people in their family to have gone to college. I’m one of five siblings, and all of my siblings have not only undergraduate degrees, but they have a master’s degree or higher.”

Sneddon’s path to law and academia wasn’t exactly clear cut. She credits an off-hand comment from her 10th grade English teacher — “you should go to law school” — for her first interest in law, and her love of Hershey candy bars as fueling an interest in academia.

In college she originally pursued an English degree, then considered art history. Still uncertain, she took the LSAT and applied to law school “not exactly on a whim.” She was accepted to Tulane Law School.

“The first day of law school I came home, and I told my husband, ‘I think we’ve made a big mistake,’” she says. “I had turned down a graduate fellowship in liberal arts. We had taken out huge student loans for me to come to law school, and I just said, ‘This is not the place for me. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t even know what a Bluebook is.’”

Her husband, Matthew Silverman, convinced her to stay. She graduated with a juris doctor, summa cum laude, from Tulane in 2002. After taking a summer associate position in 2001 with a firm in New York, Sneddon and her husband moved there so that she could practice as an associate in the area of trusts and estates.

In the aftermath of 9/11, she had the opportunity to work with families of victims as an estate planner to both settle estates and help with claims to the Victim Compensation Fund.

“I wasn’t there in the immediate aftermath, where my colleagues would have helped with the issuance of death certificates and burials, but there were a lot of settlements of estates that needed to happen,” she says.

Sneddon was drawn to estate planning after reading Pride and Prejudice as a young girl.

“You know, I thought that father should have done better financial planning,” she says with a laugh. “I always wanted to be a writer too, and one of my other specialties is legal writing. So, estate planning really aligns for them both.”

Sneddon viewed her work in New York as a pathway back to academia. She recalls the fond memory of her father and feeling so at home in university classrooms and hallways.

“My father’s an academic, so I had always been around that. I remember going to his various universities when I was little, on my days off from school, probably to give my mother a break,” she says. “He told me that if I really behaved I could stop by the vending machine to get a Hershey candy bar, which was my favorite growing up.”

Finding herself at home once again in higher education, Sneddon became a Forrester Fellow at Tulane in 2004.

“I knew my practice in New York was only for a couple of years,” she says. “Then I had my academic fellowship.”

And that’s when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I was in the second year of my fellowship in August 2005 when Katrina came. When I interviewed at Mercer that fall, I was displaced from Katrina and living with my husband and my in-laws. My husband had lost his job; I didn’t know where my fellowship would go, and I was pregnant,” she says.

Meeting a handful of law professors gave her a new sense of direction.

“I met Tony Baldwin and Linda Edwards and Daisy Floyd at a conference, and I just thought, these are good people. If they’re at Mercer, Mercer must be a really good place. I interviewed here at the end of January in 2006, was offered the job and accepted right away. I had the baby at the end of April 2006, and six weeks later we moved to Middle Georgia.”

Floyd is thankful Sneddon accepted the position.

“I remember meeting Karen when she interviewed at Mercer and being struck by her wonderful combination of qualities, training and interests that made her such a good fit for the law school,” says Floyd, a Mercer Law professor who served twice as dean. “Her enthusiasm for the teaching, research and service obligations of being a full-time faculty member shone through during her interview, and on top of that, she exhibited a deep commitment to fulfilling those obligations in a student-focused environment. And, of course, those things that we saw in her then have been borne out over and over during her time at Mercer.”

Over the years, Sneddon progressed from an associate professor to tenured professor, which led to a full professorship. She became the law school’s interim dean after former Dean Cathy Cox was appointed president of Georgia College and State University. After a national search, the University announced May 31 that Sneddon was best for the job.

Sneddon still enjoys teaching classes.

“I knew I wanted to be an educator when I was, like, 6. I got a Strawberry Shortcake (cartoon) chalkboard, and I used to line up my dolls and plush animals and run classes. My siblings didn’t want to play with me, so I would do the homework, and I would grade it. I remember I put things like, ‘I’m expecting better from you,’ on the papers. But I don’t put that now on my students’ papers,” she says.

In her modern-day classroom, Sneddon hopes her students see her as approachable and prepared.

“I want every minute of class to be productive and focused on learning,” she says. “I cultivate a rigorous environment, so my classes aren’t easy, but learning isn’t easy.”

That’s exactly what Elliza Guta, Mercer Law class of 2022, appreciates about Sneddon as a teacher.

“Taking a class taught by Dean Sneddon means that you will work harder than you ever have before, and you will learn more than you ever thought possible,” says Guta. “I am consistently amazed by her preparedness, professionalism and passion for the subject matter she teaches. She challenges us to think differently about complex problems, and she pushes us to not just memorize material but to think critically about how the law applies in the real world.”

While Sneddon continues to teach in the classroom, in her role as dean, she also advocates for the law school’s interests, and, in her words, “helps seize opportunities and turn challenges into opportunities in the way that you would do with client representation.”

Floyd expects Sneddon will excel in the role.

“Karen’s passion for the law school and its mission of preparing students for practice, combined with her teaching and leadership experience, and an understanding of legal education and its current challenges will serve her — and us — very well,” Floyd says. “I think that this unexpected role has come to her at a moment when she is ready. She will bring all of who she is to it and will be able to rise to the many challenges of the role.”

Sneddon plans to focus on community building, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to celebrate 150 years of Mercer Law by recognizing some of its outstanding graduates. She also hopes to continue to cultivate the student-centered learning environment, which she considers a hallmark of the Law School.

“The Law School is deliberately small, and it’s nice to get to know the students. Because it’s such a small school, I get to know what their hopes and dreams are,” she says. “Former students still keep in touch and send me photos of them getting sworn in. That doesn’t happen at every law school.”

One such former student is Bryan Babcock, Mercer Law class of 2008 and a tax lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service since 2009.

“Karen was my legal writing professor when she first came to Mercer. I was also her first CALI Award student for her trusts and estate drafting class. She basically launched the career I have today. She also gave me the only two publishing credits I have to date outside my government position, which accomplished a big dream of mine,” Babcock says.

Sneddon herself has no shortage of writing credits but admits she’s not planning to publish any New York Times bestsellers. Some of her most notable works include “Moot Court Workbook: Maximizing the Educational Experience and Finding Competition Glory,” with Suzianne Painter-Thorne; “Experiencing Trusts & Estates,” with Deborah Gordon, Carla Spivack, Alison Tait and Al Brophy; and the forthcoming “Developing Professional Skills: Trusts and Estates,” with Carla Spivack.

A culmination of her expertise and research, she received the Teresa G. Phelps Scholarship Award for Legal Communication, which honors outstanding legal writing.

“I was thrilled to receive the 2020 Teresa G. Phelps Scholarship Award for Legal Communication for my co-authored article ‘Clause A to Clause Z: Narrative Transportation and the Transactional Reader,’ with Susan M. Chesler. Our continued collaboration is a meaningful part of my career,” she says.

While Sneddon does spend a lot of time working and writing law-related articles, she does make time for the small joys of life, like daily yoga with her cat, Marie.

“I am her third favorite person, and there’s only three of us,” she laughs.

A star on student Zoom meetings — “I think they looked forward more to seeing her than the class instruction” — the gray tabby requires her own mat for morning yoga, and gets really upset when Sneddon starts without her.

“I don’t know if she’s trying to save me, or if she’s making fun of me, because she’s rolling around on her mat at the same time I’m trying to get into my mindset for a productive day,” Sneddon says. “But she doesn’t like it when I do yoga without her, she gets in a huff and won’t talk to me all day.”

Sneddon’s husband of 23 years is a part-time professor at Gordon State College — “Matthew is funny, down to earth and flexible; all of the things I’m not.” Their daughter, Isabel, attends Mary Persons High School. The family spends time together making pancakes, homemade pizza, watching “Doctor Who” and playing board games.

Describing herself as organized, resilient, hard-working and naturally pessimistic, this modern feminist likes to wear skirts and heels, and her favorite color is pink. She’s got a book where she keeps track of all her new experiences. She enjoys travel, having spent October 2019 as a visiting professor in Budapest, Hungary, and hopes to make it to Japan one day.

But for now, she’ll settle with watching documentaries about Japan and grading papers while she listens to Nirvana radio on Pandora: “That’s my happy place. I came of age in the ‘90s.”

And even though the majority of her students weren’t alive in the ‘90s, she has no trouble making connections with them: “Sometimes my students say I’m funny, and I tell that to my husband and daughter, and they just laugh at me the same way my students do.”

Whether or not her humor hits home, from Guta’s perspective, the impact Sneddon has in the classroom — and on students’ futures — is clear: “I am a better student, thinker and lawyer because I had the privilege of learning from and being mentored by Dean Sneddon.”

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the 2023 edition of the Mercer Lawyer magazine.

 

Do you have a story idea or viewpoint you'd like to share with The Den?
Get in touch with us by emailing den@mercer.edu or submitting this online form.