New Faculty – Dr. Vicki Lens

Dr. Vicki Lens joined the Silberman School of Social Work faculty in Fall 2016 as a Professor. Dr. Lens came to Silberman from the Columbia University School of Social Work, where she taught for many years. She received her Ph.D. in social welfare from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and her MSW from Stony Brook University (SUNY). Professor Lens has also trained and worked as a lawyer, with her JD from New York Law School.

Dr. Lens is an esteemed scholar who has helped to create and shape the intersectional field of socio-legal studies. Her research examines social justice and equity in legal settings. It focuses on situations in which the most disadvantaged persons encounter and must contend with legal judgement. Her most recent work has used the ethnographic method – based on immersive participant-observation – to study how judges and attorneys interact with claimants in two legal settings: New York State’s administrative Fair Hearings where people on public assistance may claim grievances; and Family Court.

“Are people treated fairly?” she asks. “Substantively and procedurally, are people [in these courts] getting the benefits, the justice, they are entitled to?”

Dr. Lens has found that in both court environments, such justice is not the norm. The courts are more likely than not to act in “anti-therapeutic” ways. This term comes out of a sophisticated framework she has advanced, which distinguishes “therapeutic” from “anti-therapeutic” justice. Anti-therapeutic justice includes paternalism and shaming by legal agents (judges, attorneys) in Family Court, and what Dr. Lens calls “super-bureaucrat” judges at Fair Hearings who replicate decisions made at lower levels rather than forming critical judgements.

These, and many other imperative insights about how courts administer justice – or do not – to those who are already vulnerable, are detailed in Dr. Lens’ acclaimed new book, Poor Justice: How the Poor Fare in the Courts (Oxford University Press: 2016). Poor Justice adds to Dr. Lens’ prolific cadre of published work, which includes nine books or book chapters and several dozen peer-reviewed articles.

Before becoming a scholar of social welfare, Professor Lens lived the courtroom dynamics she now studies, as a practicing attorney representing New Yorkers on public assistance. She witnessed her clients being engaged in ways she felt were unjust, so she set out to study what was going on and advocate for a different approach.

Two key skills gained while she was an agent of the legal system still guide Dr. Lens. One is qualitative research, which informs her scholarly methodology. She recalls, “I was immediately drawn to qualitative methods like ethnography…going in to settings I had been a part of and understanding them more deeply…with words and language.” The other is critical and multi-angled thinking, which has informed her teaching pedagogy. “Critical analytical thinking [both in law and in the social work classroom],” she emphasizes, “teaches people how to understand both sides of any issue.”

Although she no longer practices law, Dr. Lens works closely with legal professionals and leaders to translate her research findings into actionable social change. She trains and supports judges, in particular, in the practices of therapeutic justice that represent a more socially-just ethic.

For Dr. Lens, teaching is a tremendous joy. She is very happy to bring that commitment to the Silberman School of Social Work, where she taches courses including social policy and community organizing.

“Since getting my PhD, I have been drawn to the Silberman School of Social Work,” she says. “I have admired its commitment to communities as partners. Communities are important to it, not outside of it.”

The Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College is thrilled to have Dr. Vicki Lens on the faculty.