Warren taught unglamorous classes on legal writing and contracts to first-year students and was a student favorite. She attended regular student-faculty mixers known on campus as “arbitrations,” and became an associate dean in charge of student affairs. Students recalled that she had a porch swing in her office, where she would sit with them and offer advice.
Mixon recalled that when he mentioned that his wife is part Choctaw, Warren said she had some Native American ancestry, too. But like others who worked with Warren, he rejected the notion that her claims of Native American heritage helped her career.
“She made her bones on the basis of her own talent and hard work,” he said.
As Warren’s career took root, however, her marriage was unraveling. The Oklahoma teenager Jim Warren had married had turned into a hard-charging professor whose priorities, she said, did not include having a home-cooked dinner on the table each night. The couple separated in 1979 and divorced in 1980, with Warren taking primary custody and care of their 8-year-old daughter, Amelia, and 3-year-old son, Alex, for all but two weekends of each month.
Six months later, she married Bruce Mann, a legal historian at the University of Connecticut. The two had met at a law conference and it was “instant togetherness,” one former colleague recalled. Mann soon joined Warren, as a visiting professor in Houston.
But Warren was growing restless at a university without much national clout.
In 1983, she was recruited by the University of Texas Law School at Austin — a more prestigious school, where she began the work that would define her academic and political careers and transform her from a little-known professor into a prominent voice on consumer protection and bankruptcy issues.
The catalyst was her introduction to Jay Westbrook, a Texas bankruptcy professor with whom she would write some of her most influential books. Congress had rewritten the bankruptcy code in 1978, and she and Westbrook wanted to know how the code was affecting average families.
Eschewing high-minded theory for ground-level analysis, they worked with Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist with a background in statistics, to examine who was filing for bankruptcy and why. Backed by a National Science Foundation grant, they pored through district court records and interviewed bankruptcy judges and debtors.
Their findings upended conventional notions, showing that people who filed for bankruptcy weren’t necessarily lazy or profligate, but were often middle-class workers whose finances were sunk by a single catastrophic event, like a heart attack, divorce, or layoff.
“The answers were unsettling,” said Keith M. Lundin, a bankruptcy judge in Tennessee, who gave Warren access to his court records. “They got answers that were inconsistent with the model that the bankers and the creditors were selling us on.”
Warren was at the vanguard of a burgeoning school of legal thought, the empiricist movement, which held that bankruptcy and other aspects of the law can be understood only through an examination of their impact on peoples’ lives, not just with theoretical principles.
She established herself as a singular voice in the movement in 1987 when she challenged Douglas G. Baird, a University of Chicago Law School professor and defender of the theoretical model, to a debate.
The two traded drafts of their papers — his rooted in theory, hers in case studies — and submitted them jointly for publication in the prestigious University of Chicago Law Review.
Warren’s paper panned the “law and economics” school that Baird represented, saying it was for being seductively oversimplified, an abstract theory with no grounding in reality.
“The Law Review loved it,” said Baird, who later became dean of Chicago’s law school. “It really made my career in some respects and did good things for her.”
Two years later, in 1989, Warren gained even more attention when she turned her bankruptcy research into her first book, “As We Forgive Our Debtors,” co-written with Westbrook and Sullivan, who is now the president of the University of Virginia. It won the Silver Gavel Award, a major prize, from the American Bar Association.
“A lot of legal academia is getting attention for your ideas — getting people to talk about what you want to talk about instead of you having to talk about what they want to talk about,” said Lynn M. LoPucki, a UCLA bankruptcy professor who has collaborated with Warren. “Everybody was talking about their ideas.” Continued...