Cahn To Direct New Family Law Center at UVA

Paper cutouts holding hands

The new Family Law Center will serve as a hub for intellectual exchange and faculty research. Photo by iStock

August 19, 2020

Professor Naomi Cahn has been tapped as the inaugural director of the Family Law Center at the University of Virginia School of Law. 

Cahn is a leading expert in the field who joined the faculty this year. Her scholarship has focused on trusts and estates, as well as the rights of individuals within families, with gender equity a recurring theme.

Professor Gregg Strauss, another renowned family law scholar on the faculty, is also involved in developing the center. Cahn, Strauss and additional faculty members at the Law School and on Grounds will serve as affiliated scholars, and the center will serve as a hub for faculty research, student engagement, and national and international exchange.

Naomi Cahn
Naomi Cahn

Family law faculty are involved in research and policy work that affects the law at all levels, and students will have more opportunities to become involved in those activities. Lectures and symposia on timely issues in family law will flourish as well.

“Families, and the laws that govern families, are critical in explaining so much of contemporary society,” Cahn said. “UVA has very strong classroom and clinical faculty in this area. I hope to bring together in a coherent whole all of the courses that are directly family-related, whether inside the clinic or outside the clinical setting.”

Other center goals include providing resources to students who aspire to careers in family law, facilitating exchange among scholars, and creating bridges to alumni in the field.

Cahn was recently named to two new professorships at UVA Law: the Justice Anthony M. Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Nancy L. Buc ’69 Research Professor in Democracy and Equity.

Gregg Strauss
Gregg Strauss

“Family law is integrally related to issues of equity, in terms of balance of rights within a family, rights based on marriage and nonmarriage, and for qualifying for benefits ranging from Social Security to health care,” she said. “So how we define families is integrally related to equity in our society.”

She added that the stability of families is essential to a well-functioning democracy.

In 2017, Cahn won the Harry Krause Lifetime Achievement in Family Law Award from the University of Illinois College of Law.

She has actively pursued the improvement of family law through her many involvements, including her work as a reporter with the Uniform Law Commission. Model legislation she worked on that tackles how to handle digital assets when a family member dies has been adopted by more than two-thirds of the 50 states — including Virginia — in some form. She is currently working on model legislation concerning the legal rights of unmarried cohabitants.

A co-author of the widely used casebook “Contemporary Family Law,” Cahn has also penned more than 100 law review articles and book chapters, and is a frequent voice in the media. She is a senior contributor to Forbes through its Leadership Channel, the family law section co-editor at Jotwell, an editor of the Family Court Review, and an author of numerous books directed at scholarly and public audiences. Her co-authored book “Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and The Creation of Culture” explores how the partisan political divide is reflected in differing patterns in family life and sexual values. She has also written important works on feminist jurisprudence, reproductive technology and other topics. She is the co-author of the upcoming book, tentatively titled, “Shafted: The Fate of Women in a Winner-Take-All World,” to be published by Simon and Schuster.

Cahn’s past experience includes teaching a clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center that focused on employment discrimination and domestic violence cases, and working for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, representing parents accused of abuse or neglect.

She said there are countless issues that fall under family law, and the average person typically has a lot of questions about how the law affects him or her. Recently, she has explored how COVID-19 is impacting family law.

“There’s a great deal of attention being paid to domestic roles with COVID-19, and I’m writing an article about that,” she said. “An increasing number of states are offering paid leave for certain workers. Is your job protected if you get sick with COVID, and can you get paid for that? And what if you’re caring for a family member who’s sick?”

Strauss is similarly engaged in scholarship and pedagogy in the family law field. For the past five years, Strauss has helped run, as both a chair and a committee member, the Family Law Scholars and Teacher’s Conference, held annually in New York City. Together with Anibal Rosario-Lebron of Howard University School of Law, Strauss has co-organized the Capital Family Law Scholar meetings that bring together academics from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.. The center will amplify these efforts to nurture academic scholarship in family law.

“The law profoundly shapes our families,” Strauss said. “It’s hard to overstate how diverse and sophisticated family law scholarship must be to tackle the issues of justice raised by modern family life.”

Strauss’ current scholarship tackles one of the thorniest issues in family law: who should have parental rights. Building on a recent law review article about the rights of non-parent caregivers, Strauss is writing a book about the philosophy of parentage law.

“In some states, there are now 10 different ways to become a parent,” he said. “The book identifies the principles behind each claim to parenthood, so we can explain how these claims relate to one another, rather than just throw up our hands and ask judges to guess what will be ‘in the child’s best interests.’”

One way the center will enhance family law scholarship is by drawing upon UVA’s deep strengths in children, family and elder law. Together, Strauss and Cahn have already developed a list of affiliated faculty members that includes Law School faculty Andrew Block, Richard Bonnie ’69, Anne Coughlin, Deborah Hellman, Alex Johnson, Julia Mahoney, Crystal Shin ’10 and Camilo Sánchez. They have also recruited affiliated faculty across Grounds, including Robert Emery and Charlotte Patterson from the Psychology Department, and W. Bradford Wilcox from Sociology.

The center will facilitate scholarship outside of UVA as well, starting with a virtual gathering of faculty this fall before an official launch with a conference, slated for January.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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