Professor Alina Ball, recipient of this year’s prestigious Shanara Gilbert Award, inspires students to seek social justice through corporate lawyering.
A large black sign with white lettering hangs on the wall of Professor Alina Ball’s office. It doesn’t mince words, and it doesn’t pull punches: Work Hard, Be Kind.
The maxim caught Ball’s eye one day after work, on her walk to BART. Feeling that it articulated something essential to her worldview, she bought it.
“It’s like that in law school,” Ball explained. “There’s this idea that you can’t be both kind and hardworking.” She paused. Then, emphatically and with unbridled optimism that clearly comes naturally, Ball added the crucial caveat: “But it’s not true!”
Gaining steam, Ball expanded on the sign’s notion, applying its wisdom to her area of legal expertise, corporate law, and a desire to do good work in the world.
“People also think there’s a conflict between being a corporate lawyer and being social justice– and community-oriented,” she said. “Here, we do both. And the ambition is always collective.”
Ascanio Piomelli, associate dean for experiential learning, believes the sign says it all about his colleague. “It both precisely describes Alina’s fundamental expectations of herself and her students, and wildly understates how far she surpasses those aspirations,” said Piomelli. After elaborating on her analytical brilliance and her work ethic, he dryly added, “And to call Alina ‘kind’ is akin to calling Usain Bolt ‘quick.’”
Ball, who holds a JD from UCLA with a specialization in critical race studies, came to UC Hastings in 2013 as the College’s Community Justice Clinics (CJC)—the collective umbrella for all of UC Hastings’ in-house clinics—was expanding. She was tasked with founding and heading a new kind of business law clinic, one with a social justice focus. The clinic she launched—the UC Hastings Social Enterprise and Economic Empowerment (SEEE) Clinic—is one of only two social enterprise clinics in the country. Ball is also the only faculty member in the CJC to teach corporate lawyering. Since she touched down at UC Hastings five years ago, her star has risen fast.
Piomelli’s high praise of Ball has been enthusiastically echoed by students and colleagues in the form of two collegiate awards. In 2015, Ball received the school’s inaugural award for Outstanding Faculty Contributions to the UC Hastings Community. The following year, she won the Student Choice Award for Faculty Member of the Year.
This year, Ball’s professional excellence has been recognized on the national level. Ball is the first UC Hastings professor to receive the Association of American Law Schools’ prestigious Shanara Gilbert Award, which acknowledges an emerging clinician who has demonstrated “a commitment to teaching and achieving social justice, particularly in the areas of race and the criminal justice system; a passion for providing legal services and access to justice to individuals and groups most in need; and service to the cause of clinical legal education.”
Colleagues and students alike agree that the award is richly deserved. “Alina has a unique ability to see and draw out connections between and among issues and observations that are not obvious to others, but once she says them, they make a whole lot of sense,” said Professor Mark Aaronson, founding director of the CJC.
Kate Bloch, professor of criminal law and ethics, added that Ball’s commitment to social justice—which deeply informs her work as a corporate attorney—is “profound and contagious.”
Redefining the Clinical Experience
Ball’s talent for uniting disparate and seemingly paradoxical concepts is manifest in the SEEE Clinic, which makes unlikely bedfellows of corporate law and social justice advocacy, yielding powerful results.
Piomelli explained the SEEE Clinic’s goal is “to engage students to grapple with and develop their own views of how corporate law can impact the advancement of social and economic justice in low-income and working-class communities of color.” To qualify for counsel, prospective clients (businesses rather than individuals) must have a market-based strategy for generating income.
The SEEE Clinic has a special interest in businesses led and staffed by people of color that also serve people of color and members of other marginalized communities. Past clients include a Latino-run farmworker cooperative seeking to manage its own water company; a printing shop in the Tenderloin that hires and trains “unemployable adults” (those with criminal convictions and without high school degrees); a Spanish-immersion preschool; and a San Francisco–based healthcare provider serving low-income members of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The clinic takes on and works with between eight and 11 clients each semester.
The SEEE Clinic specializes in transactional law, a type of lawyering that Ball said she always knew she loved. “With most social justice lawyering, you’re fighting for rights through litigation or advocacy because something has gone wrong,” Ball explained. “But with transactional law, you don’t wait for something bad to happen; you get to work with your client to build and create the future using the law.”
Ball also explained that though business law clinics are primarily viewed as a way for budding attorneys to acquire and hone lawyering chops, she wanted to see what else it was possible to teach—and for her students to experience— within the framework of a legal clinic.
In developing this project, Ball said she dreamed of a clinical setting that would prompt students to “think deeply and creatively, and do it by exposing them to social issues and using corporate law to address societal problems.” She imagined a clinic focused on the mechanics of business law that would simultaneously demonstrate, for example, the ways in which employment can address recidivism. “I want students to see that you don’t have to have a passion for criminal justice to address a persistent social issue like mass incarceration,” Ball said.
To investigate the power dynamics that impact the attorney-client relationship, and to help students develop a practice of corporate- community lawyering, Ball has her clinical students study critical legal theory. For instance, one of her favorite classes to teach uses an article by queer theorists as the starting point to discuss corporate governance.
When asked if the term “corporate-community lawyering” has caught on in the legal community, Ball laughed. Gesturing around her office, she replied, “Right now, the term is only used within these four walls.”
But Jane H. Aiken—the associate dean for experiential education at Georgetown Law, where Ball formerly worked as a clinical teaching fellow—thinks it won’t be that way for long. “I would not be surprised if, in a few years, when we look back at the host of transactional clinics that have come into being now, we will be able to trace how they have been profoundly influenced by Alina Ball,” Aiken said.
In addition to her work as a clinical educator, Ball is an impassioned scholar with four noteworthy publications to her name, including Disruptive Pedagogy: Incorporating Critical Theory in Business Law Clinics, published in 2015.
Currently, she is at work on a paper on race and the doctrine of corporate personhood. “The development of doctrinal corporate law has inadequately incorporated the insights and experiences of people of color,” Ball said. “The color-blind approach to corporate personhood also impacts how corporate lawyers interact with their clients. My research asks how race consciousness could improve corporate lawyering.”
Professor Patience Crowder of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law praised Ball’s work and the ground it is breaking. “In her scholarship, Alina has adeptly identified the absolute need for an intersection between corporate law and critical race theory—for the express purpose of achieving social justice for underserved populations.”
Ball’s former law school professor and mentor Gerald López of UCLA Law School added, “For Alina, scholarship is not a way to insist, ‘I am the first to do this or that,’ but another way to say, ‘I aim to join others in doing all I can to illuminate how we might better define and address the predicaments we face.’”
As with her work as a scholar, Ball goes the extra mile to bridge the gap between doctrine and clinical work, partnering with her colleague Manoj Viswanathan, a professor of tax law, to add a tax practicum to the SEEE experience. “This course was Alina’s brainchild,” he said. “It’s inspired by [Alina’s] desire to more completely represent her existing social enterprise clients on tax issues that went beyond these clients’ initial scopes of engagement.”
Each semester, eight students enroll in Ball’s clinic, representing clients in legal teams of two. Her students described her as a formidable professor—one who holds them wholly accountable for their work and does not hesitate to inform them when their efforts fall short. But they also described Ball as a tireless advocate for them.
“Law school makes it difficult to envision a path for a conscious attorney that isn’t pure public interest work,” said Ball’s former student Danisha Brar ’16. “Alina provided me with a new way to look at social justice: through the means of doing transactional work for social enterprises. Alina also taught me that there is more than one way to be, look, and act like a lawyer.”
As devoted as Ball is to her legal scholarship, it’s clear that she is equally inspired by her work as an educator. “The clients get me out of bed in the morning, but the students are my hope for the future,” Ball said. Wherever the road takes them, Ball wants her students to be successful in their careers. In Ball’s definition, “successful” simply means happy and fulfilled. “Our profession can offer that if you make the right decisions,” she said.
Ball tells all her students the same thing: “No matter how hard you’re working, I’m working harder.” She doesn’t say it to intimidate them or to scare them into working harder, but so they have something to aspire to. “There’s a lot of work, and you stay a long time at your desk,” Ball said, “but in the end, it’s really gratifying.”