Deborah “Debbie” Bell, who has been appointed interim dean of The University of Mississippi School of Law, is well regarded in the legal community for both being a nationally recognized expert in domestic relations work and for being an innovative and effective legal educator.
“She is respected and beloved by the members of the law school and university communities, as well as the law school alumni,” said I. Richard Gershon, who resigned as dean of the law school effective the end of June. “I am proud to have the opportunity to work with her.”
“Her work in being in charge of the hands-on clinical programs at the law school has been amazing,” said John McCullouch, associate dean Metro Jackson, Ole Miss School of Law. “Her extensive background in writing and administering grants, developing and managing budgets and grant funds, and directly supervising a large number of attorneys and staff all mean that she has the experience and tools to hit the ground running as dean.”
McCullouch said Bell has the whole package — intelligence, hard worker, wit and charm.
“These are just some of the qualities that make her admired and loved by her peers, her students and anyone that has the opportunity to have any dealings with her,” McCullouch said. “However, she can be tough when she needs to be and is definitely going to be an outstanding leader of the law school.”
Bell grew up in the Mississippi Delta on a farm between Indianola and Shaw. She majored in social work at Mississippi College, and decided early on she wanted to be a lawyer.
“I really never considered another career,” Bell said. “I started law school in the old law school (now the journalism building), and graduated from the newer old building. I am happy to be ending my law career in the stunning new law school.”
After law school, she clerked for a federal judge in Atlanta and then worked for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society primarily doing housing work. She was offered a teaching position at the law school one year later, and has been there ever since.
“I’ve basically had one job my entire career,” Bell said. “But I’ve been lucky to have several jobs within the law school. I started as a property and housing law professor. After 10 years, I had a chance to start our Civil Legal Clinic, which is basically a law firm within the law school. The clinic had a domestic violence unit in the mid-1990s, which is how I got interested in family law. Since then, family law has been my primary area of expertise. I love teaching and practicing family law. It is a great intersection of law and life.”
She finds the most exciting part of her job is clinical teaching — working closely with students as they learn to put their classroom training into practice. It is rewarding to see students gain confidence as they interview and counsel clients for the first time, stand up in court, negotiate a settlement.
“This is one of the most important changes in legal education in the last few decades: there is an increasing focus on experiential learning,” Bell said. “Our law school now has the capacity for every student to work in a clinic and as an extern before graduation, which makes them much better prepared to hit the ground running when they get out of school.”
She is looking forward to the challenges for the next two years. The law school is engaging in a year-long strategic planning process. The legal market has shifted in ways that could not have been imagined 20 years ago.
“We have to prepare students for a technology-based practice, for global practice, and to be able to hang out a shingle and practice in Mississippi,” Bell said. “We will be asking how we can best prepare our students for the range of opportunities that are available and to best serve the need for legal services.”
Bell is the second woman to be named interim dean at the law school. Her appointment coincides with the 100th anniversary of the first woman graduating from the Ole Miss Law School and also the 100th anniversary of the first woman to be admitted to the Mississippi Bar.
True to her roots in Delta agriculture, Bell still loves being in the country. She and her husband live on what was once a small farm about 10 miles outside of Oxford. Her big hobby is gardening. She has an herb and flower garden that she has been working on for 20 years.
Bell is married to Neil White, a writer and publisher. They have three children, Lindsay, Neil IV, and Maggie, and one granddaughter, Julia, who is 5 months old. They are members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford.
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