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A Favorite Teacher Gets Her Due

Ingrid Hillinger is reputed to be the toughest professor at BC Law, but she's also one of the most beloved.

Professor Ingrid Hillinger with her Excellence in Education Award  Photograph by Nathaniel Kenyon

When word reached Hon. Elizabeth Gunn ’05 that the professor who changed her life was a contender for a major award, she immediately went into action. Gunn soon recruited four other bankruptcy judges who credit their careers to BC Law’s Ingrid Hillinger. Together, they co-wrote a recommendation letter.

It worked. Hillinger was selected to receive the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges’ 2022 Excellence in Education Award on October 20.

But even Gunn says that five bankruptcy judges are but a small fraction of the proteges and mentees who gladly would have added their signatures in praise of their favorite law school teacher.

As most of Hillinger’s so-called “kids” will tell you, one of her endearing attributes is her modesty, her habit of retreating from the limelight so that it shines more comprehensively on the thousands she has taught over the span of 45 years.

Another attribute? Her work ethic. Talk about modeling professional behavior. The recommendation letter explains: “If you walked into any of her current classes, you could never tell it was not her first year or first class. She is a tireless instructor, once teaching class while in labor.”

Indeed, Michael Hunter Schwartz, co-author of What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2013), who observed Hillinger in action and included her in the book, says, “I was stunned by how hard she works at her teaching. Here she is at a top law school, and she devotes five to six hours of prep time to every class session she teaches. Her students can tell how hard she prepares, and they respond by preparing hard themselves.” As one student at the time recalled, “No matter how long she’s been teaching a class, every lecture she tries to make it better. That drive to always improve is very inspiring.”

Counterintuitively, Hillinger is also described as the toughest of teachers. “Classes with Ingrid are known throughout the student body as the most challenging in the school,” the letter says, “and yet every semester her classes are filled to capacity with return students.”

They endure the rigor because Hillinger has a gift for turning what could be routine subjects like contracts, secured transactions, and consumer bankruptcy into career dreams that for many students come true.

“I’m a bankruptcy lawyer because of Ingrid,” says Gunn, a US Bankruptcy Judge for the District of Columbia since 2020. Prior to taking the bench, she practiced in law firms representing constituents of all types in bankruptcy cases and from 2015-2020 served as an Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia as the bankruptcy specialist for the Division of Child Support Enforcement. Gunn’s co-authors are two grads from William & Mary (Hillinger taught there before BC Law), Hon. Karen Jennemann (Ret.) and Hon. Frank Santoro; and two from BC, Hon. Erik Kimball ’90 and Hon. Mark Houle ’96. 

Their reference letter makes clear that Hillinger’s influence and dedication to her students extends far beyond the classroom. Her letters of recommendation are legendary, and she is “tireless in her efforts to place her students in clerkships, support her students in their careers and is—to the best of our collective knowledge—the only professor with four currently sitting and one retired bankruptcy judge.”

When word got out in 2013 that Hillinger had established a fund for students that required a “minimum level of commitment in the six-figures,” the floodgates opened, the five judges report. Thanks in large part to her “kids,” the Ingrid Michelsen Hillinger Public Interest Legacy Fund exceeded its goal quickly and has now raised more than $2 million. The endowment has grown to nearly $2.6 million. The fund supports summer public interest stipends for students.

Hillinger’s brand of excellence is defined by generosity, caring, and a steely commitment to seeing that both she and her students are the best that they can be. “She continues to inspire us many years after we have left her classroom,” her supporters say—a pedagogical award in its own right. 

Read more in about Hillinger in BC Law Magazine.