Reflection and Aspiration

Veronica Root Martinez

Notre Dame Law School

Professor of Law

It happens a few times every year. A law student will walk into Professor Veronica Root Martinez’ office and tell her how much it meant to have her as a professor.

“It’s always a little bit uncomfortable. A student comes in your office and says, ‘It meant so much to me to have a professor who was a woman of color who was powerful,’” said Martinez, the Robert & Marion Short Scholar at Notre Dame Law School.

“I don’t really know what to say to that, because I am just doing my job, but I am also aware that it matters,” she said. “Part of what we’re doing when we’re forming professionals is modeling for them what their profession is going to look like. The demographic makeup of your faculty does say something to your students about what their profession is supposed to look like.”

“At core, all of this is about how you create an organizational culture where people are able to fully and completely do their work with dignity.”

When Martinez was in law school, all but one of her professors during her first year were white men. The one exception was a white woman.

That is one of the reasons she enjoys teaching contracts, which is a required course in the fall semester for all first-year students at Notre Dame Law School.

“There are other classes I could pick up that are closer to my scholarly area,” she said, “but I think it’s important for first-semester 1Ls to have a certain amount of demographic diversity in the assignment of professors.”

Martinez has been a member of Notre Dame Law School’s faculty since 2014. In 2019, she became the first black woman in the law school’s history to receive tenure.

Her experiences have provided her with a valuable perspective when mentoring students.

Her experiences have also given her a personal connection to her research in which she focuses on the institutional mechanisms that organizations can use to improve legal and regulatory compliance while also promoting a culture of diversity, inclusion and ethical behavior.

She was one of the first scholars to specialize in compliance, an emerging area of legal scholarship that weaves together several subjects previously considered to be distinct from each other. Martinez draws from the areas of professional ethics, corporate governance, workplace law, corporate social responsibility and organizational behavior. She founded the Program on Ethics, Compliance & Inclusion last year to provide opportunities for research and discussion of scholarship that supports more ethical, compliant and inclusive organizations.

“At core, all of this is about how you create an organizational culture where people are able to fully and completely do their work with dignity,” she said.

What’s legal and illegal in these situations matters, of course, but Martinez encourages organizations to go beyond mere compliance to consider what is right and what is ethical.

“That’s more challenging because you can’t mandate ethicality, and people will get in arguments about what is and isn’t ethical,” she said. “But if you choose to stop with rote compliance or legal and regulatory requirements, you’re probably not going to end up with an organizational culture that’s positive.”

As members of a profession, lawyers have a responsibility to serve the public good, Martinez said. Lawyers do that by helping the law to be as effective as it can be, she said, but lawyers also need to acknowledge areas where the law has its limitations.

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“The law is this great, beautiful, wonderful thing. The law means that I got to go to college wherever I wanted to go, even though 50 years prior that probably wouldn’t have been true. The law is why my parents could get married. My parents got married about 10 years after Loving v. Virginia,” she said, referring to the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down bans on interracial marriage.

“So, the law is this great, beautiful, wonderful thing, but the law can only do so much,” she said. “It’s important to think through those limitations and also think about what sort of society we want to make.”

With its foundation in the Catholic moral and intellectual traditions — which view faith and reason as complementary — Notre Dame is an ideal place to explore these questions about the dignity of work.

Martinez, who has three young children with her husband, also credits Notre Dame’s culture as one of the reasons she has been successful.

“Notre Dame Law School has a culture that allows you to be a full person. I think it’s really important that within our law school you can live out the aspects of your parenting life as well as your faith life and professional life,” she said.

“Right now, I have a little table and chairs and crayons in my office. Frankly, they don’t get used that often, but it’s important to have those here if I need to bring my kids to work with me,” she said. “Before I had the little table and chairs, I had a playpen in my office. I have sat at my desk with a baby on my lap, finishing an article.”

Martinez said a frequent comment from students in end-of-semester course feedback is that her “mom jokes are solid.” That’s heartening, she said.

“Being able to be that complete person makes me a better teacher and a better professional,” she said. “I don’t hide the fact that I’m a mother. If my kids have been up since 2 a.m. and I’m really tired, I don’t hide that. I think that sort of modeling is important for students to know that their professors, and one day their bosses, are complete people.”

Written by Kevin Allen