You’d be forgiven if you believed some of the sculptures filling L. Song Richardson’s sprawling office on the UC Irvine campus were picked up during world travels. After all, her mother was born in Korea, where she met Richardson’s father, a U.S. military officer at the time. Because of his orders, the Richardson family resided for some time in Germany. However, the unusual art pieces catching light through large south- and west-facing campus windows were actually created by her husband Kurt Kieffer, whom she met when they both lived in Seattle, Washington.
The sculptor was an investigator with the Orange County Public Defender’s office in 2014, which is the same year Richardson was wooed from the University of Iowa to Irvine by UCI Law’s founding dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. “I was happy where I was,” she confesses from a comfy chair in her Irvine office. “I was doing amazing things. I came here because this place is special.”
She goes on to cite low student-to-professor ratios and law school clinics that put undergraduates and graduate students into local communities to help solve real-world issues. “There are so many things,” Richardson finally says of what makes the school special. “You can feel it. Our faculty and students will say something is ‘so UCI.’ It’s in our DNA.”
Achievement is certainly in her DNA. In July 2016, Chemerinsky promoted her to senior associate dean for Academic Affairs. The following July, after he announced he was leaving to become the UC Berkeley law school dean, Richardson was named interim dean of UCI Law; she became the permanent dean this past Jan. 1.
Yet, she originally had no intention of becoming a lawyer. She was born in El Paso, Texas, just one of the many places her African-American, Akron, Ohio-born father was sent because of his military career. Richardson’s younger brothers were born in Heidelberg, Germany, before the family returned to El Paso for a bit, then moved on to the Boston area.
“I loved it,” Richardson says of her family’s time in the small town of Shirley, Massachusetts, which is about 50 miles outside the state capital. “There were a lot of military children in my junior high school and high school. It was an incredibly diverse environment; there were so many people of different cultures. I feel very lucky to have lived there; it was an idyllic environment.”
She does not recall having been confronted with racism until she entered Harvard University. “My parents really shielded me and my two brothers,” Richardson says. “It was as a college student when I really started to think more about race because other college students were focusing on my race.”
A classically trained pianist since childhood, Richardson had been accepted to Juilliard. As a freshman, she won the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra’s Concerto Competition but eventually realized she could get no better at playing the piano. She went on to graduate cum laude in psychology and intended to become a physician. “Being a lawyer never occurred to me,” she says.
That changed after she started working with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination. “I saw the way race was affecting lives,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do work related to civil rights, related to race.”
The Yale University law school graduate now focuses on race and gender as a legal scholar, and she is particularly interested in something that also ties into her psychology studies: How unconscious bias shapes policy and law.
The 10th-anniversary class of UCI Law, which opened in August 2009, will soon be welcomed to Irvine. They will have been winnowed from the largest applicant pool ever—including the inaugural class, who got free tuition.
A recent study found that only Yale, Harvard, the University of Chicago, Stanford, NYU and Columbia have better faculties when it comes to scholarly impact. Richardson’s goal is for UCI Law to keep defying expectations. “We want to continue attracting innovative thinkers here,” she says. “We want to continue being groundbreaking and transformative. We’ll continue to rise in the rankings. We’ll continue to do the impossible. That’s what we are about.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.