Martha Ballenger remembers 1966, her first year in law school at Virginia, as one of the best of her life. Now that she’s the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, she’ll have many chances to experience it again vicariously. Ballenger replaces former dean Beverly Harmon, who resigned in May to join her husband William Harmon, the new president of Central College in Houston, Texas.
A South Carolina native, Ballenger has practiced in five jurisdictions since graduating from the Law School, taking four bar exams in the process. She moved back to Charlottesville from Charleston, where she has spent 22 of her 32 years in practice, most recently with the firm of Moore & Van Allen, focused mainly on business transactions.
“I enjoyed transactional practice because it encourages lawyers on both sides to see themselves as facilitators rather than adversaries, with a common goal of figuring out a structure that reasonably meets everyone’s needs. In most cases both parties valued having a relationship that would result in future transactions together, and that was very dependent on resolving issues in the immediate transaction in a cooperative way. I enjoyed being in a practice in which the premium was on cooperative problem-solving.”
So why change? “I had not tired of practice, but I was attracted by this opportunity to have a very different adventure and devote myself to a different purpose,” she explained. “I have a deep affection for this law school and respect for its mission to prepare students not only for satisfying careers in law, but also to make significant contributions to society. I hope that the Office of Student Affairs will be a strong contributor to the well-being of students while they’re here and to their preparation for distinguished professional lives.”
She recalls that the Law School didn’t have an Office of Student Affairs when she was a student here. Nor were there many women. She graduated in 1969, when the Law School was housed in Clark Hall, now home to the Environmental Sciences department, and there were seven women in her class—more than twice the number of any earlier class.
“I spent my first year alternating among—or experiencing simultaneously—terror, exhilaration, anxiety, fascination and exhaustion. It was the most exciting intellectual experience, in the company of a terrifically interesting and congenial band of fellow students. We had a tight bond of community among the students, and many of my classmates have remained close friends.”
Her favorite teacher was Hardy Dillard, who taught Contracts. He was such an engaging lecturer and legendary character that on Saturdays (there were classes on Saturdays in those days) students would bring their dates from the night before—girls from women’s colleges “down the road”—who would stand along the walls to hear contract law explained by the master. “His classes were the most memorable of any in my educational experience,” Ballenger said.
Ballenger never lost touch with the Law School. Her son Matthew graduated in 2002. He’s now with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., doing general litigation, and is married to classmate Kit Lasher. Her older son Scott graduated in 1996 and now practices with Latham & Watkins in D.C., doing appellate work. “They were introduced to the law and to U.Va. pretty early in their lives, and I don’t think they ever seriously considered a different profession or a different school.”
In the years between her graduation and theirs she was back at the Law School for a stint on the faculty. From 1979 to 1982, Ballenger taught Contracts, Juvenile Courts, and Bioethics, while her husband was on the faculty of the Medical School. Afterward she served on the Law School Foundation’s Alumni Council in the 1980s, then chaired the National Appeals Campaign for a 2-year term in the mid-1990s, and is currently vice president of the Foundation's Board of Trustees.
“Students receive a wonderful education here, develop lasting friendships among faculty and fellow students, and generally recall their law school years with pleasure and appreciation. In my years of practice I have met many lawyers who attended other excellent schools, and I have concluded that the bond and affection that our graduates feel for this law school are unique. I have always been very proud to say that I’m a graduate of the Law School because I know that that piece of information says a great deal to the world about what kind of professional they can expect me to be.”
Ballenger is now directing her energies to understanding the scope of her new responsibilities in the Office of Student Affairs and reacquainting herself with the resources available to students in the Law School, the greater University, and the community. “Virginia has such talented students, who come here with remarkably rich and varied backgrounds. I’m truly looking forward to getting to know them, to working with them, and to having a part in the life of the Law School again.”