Faculty Lives in Public Service: Zephyr Teachout '99

October 5, 2007Duke Law News

October 5, 2007 — Zephyr Teachout ’99 calls a Duke Law degree “an incredible safety net” that has allowed her enormous professional freedom. A visiting assistant professor at Duke Law, Teachout shared some of the widely-varied experiences that have shaped her career path since graduation at the Public Interest and Pro Bono program’s first Faculty Lives in Public Service event of the year.

“[The Duke Law degree] allowed me to take risks that I would otherwise have not been able to take, because I always knew I could get a job somewhere,” Teachout said.

Those risks included creating the Fair Trial Initiative, changing the way campaigns mobilize supporters through the Internet during the Howard Dean campaign, serving as national director of the Sunlight Foundation, and now, launching an academic career.

“I wish I could say that I did this just because it was an overwhelming public service drive within me,” Teachout said, speaking of her decision to turn down an offer at a New York City law firm and create the Fair Trial Initiative, an organization in Durham that uses the work of its fellows and pro bono programs to provide litigation support for capital cases. “To be honest, that was part of the balance, but the other part was that it just seemed more interesting. I would get to try something new, set up a new structure, and learn to how to run an organization — all things that were so different from the kind of work I would be doing at [the firm].”

Teachout also worked for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham while establishing the Fair Trial Initiative. “Needless to say, working with death penalty lawyers was very inspiring. They changed my attitude towards ‘futility’ and what futility means,” Teachout said, sharing the story of Willie Fisher, a man convicted of killing his girlfriend and put to death after being denied clemency. “They really believe and act on the idea that something can be worthwhile even when it seems like it’s not.”

When the Fair Trial Initiative became stable in its fundraising and operations, Teachout decided it was time to move on. “A friend and I created a chart trying to determine the worst problems in the world and my relative ability to do something about them,” she said. Wanting to impact agriculture or family planning policy as a policy researcher and seeing a presidential campaign as a possibility to further those goals, Teachout moved back to her native Vermont and began trying to get a job with Howard Dean’s campaign.

First hired as a field director on the campaign staff, Teachout became the director of Internet organizing when her mobilizing efforts resulted in nearly 600 attendees at a New York City “Meetup” event with Dean. When Dean finished third in the Iowa primary, Teachout was the first to communicate with online supporters through their blog. “I think it was easier for me than for a lot of people, because I had been around so many death penalty lawyers,” she said. “You learn to live with hope and near certainty of loss at the exact same time and to act when it’s probably fruitless — but might not be.”

After working on Dean’s campaign, Teachout became the national director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that uses new information technology to promote transparency in elected officials’ actions. She also lectured at the University of Vermont, teaching Internet and politics, was a non-residential fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and drafted briefs for the law firm of Shems, Dunkiel, Kassel & Saunders. At Duke Law, Teachout will teach a course in election law in the spring and is working with students to develop a pro bono program in law and investigative journalism.

“These experiences have turned me into far more of an activist than I was, even as a death penalty lawyer,” Teachout said. “I don’t mean activist in the flag-waving sense. I mean activist in terms of its root adjective, active: fully alive to experience and trying to be part of it.

“If the code of action is law, once you know it, you can do so many things. The world is so much more flexible and the opportunities for lawyers so much vaster than I imagined it to be seven years ago.”