Texas Tech University

Academic Calling Led Distinguished Legal Mind to Educational Excellence

Allen Ramsey

March 16, 2022

Sally McDonald Henry received a 2022 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2022 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the eight Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

Practicing law wasn't Sally McDonald Henry's first love.

Henry earned her bachelor's degree in history from Duke University before moving on to the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she earned her master's degree in anthropology.

But anthropology didn't offer enough opportunities for professional growth, so Henry decided to shift her focus to the legal field. She earned her law degree from New York University (NYU) and spent nearly three decades working at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a multinational law firm headquartered in New York City. She was a partner there for 20 years. 

Sally McDonald Henry
Sally McDonald Henry

But the pull of academia lingered, and Henry made the decision to change directions again. She wanted to get back on campus and found a home at Texas Tech in the fall of 2012. Now the John E. Krahmer Banking and Commercial Endowed Professor of Law in the Texas Tech University School of Law, Henry has spent the last decade mentoring the next generation of leaders in the legal profession.

Her work as an educator has been recognized with a 2022 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

The Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards are given to individuals who exemplify teaching or research excellence and who have significantly advanced teaching or research efforts and are noted as leaders among colleagues and in their respective fields. Established in 2001, they are the highest honors given to Texas Tech University System faculty members.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

My research focuses on corporate restructuring, which is very important in American life. It's easy to rattle off the names of numerous companies that have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy - GM, Chrysler, Neiman Marcus, Kmart, Sears, Radio Shack, American Airlines, United Airlines - the list goes on and on. Here in the U.S., we take a very different approach to restructuring than is taken in much of the world, and some scholars attribute part of the American economic success to our approaches to financial challenges. I've published several books in the field along with a number of articles. I have been told by academics and practitioners that I have clarified complicated issues for them and my writings have been used in law schools throughout the country. I've also worked internationally by, for example, participating in meetings in Italy designed to help the country revise its insolvency laws. Moreover, I've had terrific feedback on my work with the International Bar Association, which among other things, works to help lawyers in developing economies modernize their laws.

What projects are you working on at this time?

I am completing a book for the American Bar Association Business Law Section that addresses recent changes to the law. I recently submitted updates to my treatise on corporate restructuring and I am wrapping up an article addressing some Texas commercial law issues. We cannot ignore how important Texas is to the world's gross domestic product (GDP); its GDP is greater than that of Russia. My most time-consuming project, however, is an empirical study of recent changes to the Bankruptcy Code that affect small business Chapter 11 reorganizations. 

What areas are you interested in for future research?

In the near future, I want to continue my work on small business reorganizations, because it is a neglected field and small businesses are so critical to our national and state economy.

Long-range, one project I have been toying with involves combining my expertise in cultural anthropology with my legal background and looking closely at the financing of immigrant businesses. Although it is just an amorphous idea at this time, I am working on enhancing some foreign language skills that might come in handy for such a project by taking courses online at night. Finally, on the other side of the coin, I had a great deal of cross-border work when I practiced law and I've been outlining a research article on how we address cross-border restructurings.

What rewards do you get from teaching?

I love teaching and it is wonderful seeing my students succeed. Many of my students are first-generation college students and I am particularly thrilled to help those students realize their dreams. I'm also really proud that Texas Tech is a Hispanic-Serving Institution because the Latino population is so very important in Texas. Moreover, since I came to the law school, we have increased our African-American enrollment, which I think is also extremely important for the future of our state. So, one great reward is playing a small role in helping the country I love embrace its diversity and offer opportunities to all. That is, after all, the essence of the American dream to me. 

Just as important as my delight in helping students succeed, however, is the enjoyment I get from engaging intellectually with the students. They have such insightful and interesting ideas. It is wonderful that there is such a variety of opinions and experiences. I have students from Earth, Texas, with a population of about 1,000, and Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the U.S. I teach students who were born in Eritrea in East Africa and students who were born in Dallas. It is wonderful!

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

I had always wanted to be an academic and pursued graduate studies in anthropology. But, after I received my master's, I concluded that the field would not be a growing one, so I decided to go to law school. I loved it! After I clerked, I became a partner in a large corporate law firm and I really enjoyed the work, but I couldn't get academia out of my mind. I wanted to have the time to be able to research issues that are really important and I wanted to play a role in public education, which is so important to our nation. For that reason, I started writing and, as we say in the trade, “went on the market.” I had represented clients from Lubbock, so I was delighted to have an opportunity to teach here.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

I've heard a great deal about silly in-fighting in academia and the lack of collegiality among professors. Some law schools I've heard about seem like snake pits! Frankly, when I first went “on the market,” I was shocked to see the obvious in-fighting among some faculties at schools I visited for interviews. Here at Texas Tech, however, my colleagues are terrific. Dean Nowlin is so encouraging and supportive of scholarship and teaching. The entire atmosphere of the school really makes it a wonderful place to work.

I also find that the university's emphasis on “engaged scholarship” is critical to me. What that means is that my work that directly impacts practitioners is respected. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once complained that too many law schools over-emphasize research on topics like “18th-century Bulgarian evidentiary approaches” rather than topics that are pertinent to today's legal issues. Sadly, he wasn't being too hyperbolic.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

Without a doubt, my parents, John and Mary Frances Henry, had the biggest impact because it never occurred to me for a moment that I couldn't succeed at anything intellectual at which I worked hard. I remember my mother encouraging me to write a book when I was 9 years old! My parents made many sacrifices to enable all of us – they had six children – to fulfill our potential and obtain great educations. My grandmother, Sallie McDonald, left school after the sixth grade but helped all of us through school and was also a great role model.

The person most helpful specifically to my becoming an academic, however, was Samuel Estreicher, an NYU law school professor I worked for when I was in law school. I'm sure he doesn't remember it, but he encouraged me to become a law school professor and he was extremely helpful to me in getting my first job. I'll never be able to thank him enough.