Professor and former Dean Patricia O’Hara to remain active as professor emerita

Author: Charles Williams

Patricia O Hara

After nearly 40 years of service to Notre Dame Law School, Professor and former Dean Patricia O’Hara has decided to transition to emerita status.

O’Hara ’74 J.D. said she was “deeply grateful to my colleagues, past and present, with whom I have been privileged to serve, as well as to the thousands of students, now alumni, who have touched my life. I have been blessed beyond all measure.

“Notre Dame,” she said, “has never been my job; it has been my vocation.”

O’Hara, who served as Law School dean from 1999-2009, first joined the Law School faculty in 1981, earning tenure in 1987 and becoming a full professor in 1990. She served as a member of the Committee on Infractions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association from 1988-1990 and as the University of Notre Dame's vice president for student affairs from 1990-1999.

“Patty O’Hara has been the heart and soul of Notre Dame for over 40 years, and my most trusted advisor since I became dean of the Law School,” said G. Marcus Cole, who was appointed as the Law School's Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law in 2019. “She has been incredibly generous with her advice, and even more generous with her prayers. I honestly could not bear to be without either. Fortunately, she has chosen to stay close, where I can continue to rely upon her.”

As one of her former students, Tom Lange ’81, ’86 J.D., noted, O’Hara’s career at Notre Dame was punctuated by a series of firsts: “the first woman to graduate first in her class from Notre Dame Law School, the first woman appointed by the Board of Trustees to serve as an officer of the University as vice president for student affairs, and the first woman to serve as dean of the Law School.”

As dean, she helped conceive the construction of Eck Hall of Law and the renovation of Biolchini Hall of Law, and played a key role in securing the $57.6 million needed to fund both projects. To support the faculty, she began a research sabbatical program that was competitive with peer law schools and created an associate dean position to focus on faculty scholarship. To support students, she helped lead a reorganization of the Legal Aid Clinic, now known as the Notre Dame Clinical Law Center, raised significant funds for student scholarships, and oversaw the launch of the Law School's Loan Repayment Assistance Program. She also helped recruit and hire 18 outstanding faculty members who to this day recall her many personal kindnesses.

When O’Hara decided to return to the faculty after serving two consecutive 5-year terms as dean, she continued to play a quiet but much appreciated role in supporting her successor, Nell Jessup Newton, who served as dean from 2009-2019 before returning to the faculty. “Patty could not have been more generous as a former dean after I came to Notre Dame Law School,” said Professor Newton. “She encouraged me to reach out and responded quickly to my rather frequent calls and emails. She provided me with the background necessary for me to make a decision and even when she suggested a course of action, she always reminded me that the decision was mine. I will always be grateful to her for her advice and friendship.”

A beloved teacher over the entire course of her career, O’Hara was first selected for the Law School’s Distinguished Teaching Award by the Class of 1986, and lastly by the Class of 2020, who voted for her before learning that she was planning to retire. Lange, who served as O’Hara’s research assistant in 1986 before graduating and going on to became a partner at Foley & Lardner, an investment banker at Baird and, from 1999-2019, a member of the Law School Advisory Council, recalls that O’Hara was “blessed with that rare combination of exceptional intellect, dedication to excellence, superior communication and pedagogical skills, and a genuine interest in her students. Even in a larger class, Patty could call on us by name within the first week, even on day one. Her ability to lead a 90-minute discussion without referring to any notes and somehow simultaneously filling every inch of a white board is legendary.”

Pattyohara Legendstrophy2018Students surprised Professor Patricia O'Hara in November 2018 by arranging with the Notre Dame Athletics Department to display the Legends Trophy in her Business Associations class. The trophy is awarded annually to the winner of the Notre Dame-Stanford game, a matchup that has special importance for O'Hara as a native of northern California. Photo by Alicia Sachau/Notre Dame Law School.

Nora Klein ’17 J.D. served as O’Hara’s research assistant 31 years after Lange did and now works as an associate engaged in a corporate and capital markets practice at McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago. “It is difficult to put into words the impact Professor O'Hara had on me and the countless other law students who learned from her,” she said. “Every day she came to Notre Dame to serve her students and make us better. Even while teaching corporate-focused classes such as business associations or securities regulations, she weaved in Catholic values of love, compassion, and patience that was unparalleled to any other professor at the Law School. Although she is one of the smartest people you will ever meet, one of her greatest gifts is her ability to connect on a personal level with each and every person she encounters. To Professor O'Hara, it does not matter whether you are a bright-eyed first-year law student or former Secretary of State Condi Rice; to Professor O'Hara, each person deserves the same respect and love as anyone else. She is an iconic figure who made Notre Dame Law School so special to countless alumni and current students.”

Professor Matthew J. Barrett ’82,’85 J.D. was another student in O’Hara’s Business Associations, Securities Regulation, and Business Planning courses. “No one taught me more than Professor O'Hara in law school. Her classes encompassed 10 of the 90 credit hours in my law school education. She was the best classroom teacher that I was privileged to learn from as a law student, and she remained an outstanding teacher for almost 40 years.”

Faculty say she held herself to a similar standard when supporting her colleagues.

“Patty should be remembered for much more than jobs and titles she held, though she did yeoman’s leadership work for Notre Dame for some 20 years,” said Professor William K. Kelley. “Much more important than the jobs she held is the example she has unfailingly been of Christian discipleship — she’s been a loving and supportive colleague and mentor to generations of faculty and students, and a wise and humble counselor to so many on matters big and small. For me, Patty O’Hara has been a constant role model of faithful and selfless service to the Church and especially to Our Lady's University.”

“Patty has been many things to me,” said Judge Amy Coney Barrett ’97 J.D., who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit since 2017 and as a member of Notre Dame Law School's faculty since 2002. (As first-year law students learn each year, she is not related to Professor Matt Barrett.) O’Hara, she said, is “an inspiration, a mentor, a colleague, and, most importantly, a friend. Despite her many responsibilities, she visited me with gifts when my children were born and never forgets a birthday. At particularly difficult times, Patty's encouragement has been invaluable. I certainly would not be who I am today, as either a lawyer or a person, if I had missed the great privilege of knowing her.”

Professor Matt Barrett, said, “No one has shared more gifts with my family than Patty. She arranged the blind date where I met my wife, Kate, and has been our dear family friend ever since, spending most holidays and all family occasions with us — birthdays, baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, graduations, one wedding, and has also been there to support us during funerals. She has blessed us by proclaiming the first reading at our wedding, serving devotedly as the godmother to our third son, and developing beautiful friendships with each of our children and our oldest son's wife.”

O’Hara plans to remain in South Bend, where she said, “I look forward to finding new ways to contribute on campus as an emerita faculty member, although I know that I will never be able to give as much as I have received. I will always be indebted to God, to my colleagues, and to my students for this singular community that is at the very core of my heart.”