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A Teacher's Teacher

Kris Knaplund

Two summers ago, Pepperdine School of Law professor Kristine S. Knaplund read every probate file in the Los Angeles County Archives in the first year stored there-1893. Why? "I love the stories," she says.

Her favorite was that of a woman who emigrated from Ireland to work in the U.S. as a maid and wound up with an estate worth over $6.5 million in today's dollars. "Her will gave most of her property to her friends, but gave $50 a month to her husband John with the provision that 'if he marries Eliza Sanchez all payments shall cease,'" Knaplund recalls. "John contested her will, leading to years of litigation, but he ultimately lost. Who wouldn't be fascinated by that story?"

This is just one of the thousands of cases that inform Knaplund's comprehensive knowledge of the law regarding wills and trusts-a knowledge that pays dividends to her students. In addition to her full research agenda and course load in property, wills and trusts, and bioethics, Knaplund devotes hours to sharing her wisdom with the many students who line up at her office, learning about and helping to shape the story of their lives.

"Students regularly flock to Professor Knaplund's office to talk with her about the law, about how to improve their performance as students, and about their lives," says Richard Cupp, associate dean for research at the School of Law. "Both her students and her colleagues appreciate her outstanding ability to communicate, her mastery of the subjects she teaches, and her great sense of humor."

Tasked with disseminating some of the most delicate and complex curriculum in law-namely bioethics-Knaplund explores contemporary problems in medicine, health care and ethics, and the law's role in resolving related disputes. Topics in her classes include abortion, death and dying, reproductive technology, and decisions about one's own health, which can inspire passionate discourse, if not hostility among people of differing opinions.

Third-year law student Genus Heidary says that of many courses she's taken in bioethics, it's Knaplund from whom she has learned the most. "She was able to set an academic tone in which many different voices felt safe to talk about these emotionally and personally difficult questions," she says. "I think that everyone walked away having really learned something instead of just staying within their comfort zone."

In recognition of her outstanding teaching, Knaplund was recently honored as one of the recipients of the Howard A. White Award for Teaching Excellence at the 2007-08 Pepperdine Faculty Conference. The Association of American Law Schools also recognized Knaplund's talents and asked her to help train new law professors from all over the nation at an annual conference held this past summer in Washington, D.C.

"She is truly a teacher's teacher, and we are immensely proud of her," Cupp says.

Knaplund is also a scholar's scholar, tackling difficult topics of contemporary law in her research. One of her most recent studies explores the rights of elderly men and women to engage in romantic and physical intimacy in nursing homes. Her article, "The Fertile Octogenarian Revisited: Romance Late in Life and the Right to Physical Intimacy in the Nursing Home," sparked the interest of the American Bar Association, which invited Knaplund to speak at its 2008 spring symposium. Her second article on the topic, "The Right to Privacy and America's Aging Population," will be published in the Denver University Law Review in December 2008.

Another contemporary legal issue in Knaplund's research is postmortem conception-conception that takes place after one of the parents has died-and the inheritance disputes that follow. "With thousands of people now freezing their gametic material [sperm, embryos, and unfertilized eggs], it's becoming increasingly common for a person to request the frozen material after the partner has died, in order to have a baby," she explains. "Twelve states have statutes on whether a postmortem child can inherit from the predeceased parent; in another five states, courts have decided the issue." She has published three scholarly articles on this topic.

While her scholarship is creating an impact on a national level, it's the conversations that take place between the walls of her small office at the Pepperdine School of Law that mean the most to her students.

Graduate Jennifer Allison (JD '07) says it was in that office that Knaplund helped her to discover her future career as a law librarian. "Her door was always open, and my conversations and ideas were always welcomed, even though I knew she was busy," Allison says. "Obviously I think she is a great teacher and scholar, but it was her mentoring that made the real difference for me. That she takes the time to do this for me, and for so many other students, is a testament to what a great all-around law professor she is."

by Audra Quinn