I went to dinner last night with an recently-retired and absolutely revered law professor from my law school. There were eight of us who went, as part of a dinner series to allow students to interact with a professor in a context that doesn’t involve the Socratic method and a cold sweat. I’d never actually taken a class from this professor (he retired too soon!) so I was excited to have the opportunity to meet him.

Holy crap this man is smart. I mean silly smart. And it got me thinking. All of my professors are really smart people, clearly. They publish, they come up with novel theories, they actually understand the rule against perpetuities. But I can’t help but think that for the newer ones, the academic landscape is just different enough that this professor at dinner is a member of a dying breed. We spent half an hour, for example, discussing the merits of various performances of Shakespeare’s histories by various prominent English actors, which is not something I’d necessarily expect a federal courts expert to have such well-developed knowledge of. (I had little to contribute to this discussion, other than “Oh! Henry IV! That’s really long!”) He talked about how, for kicks, he taught evidence one year so that he could write an exam about the admissibility of all of the evidence Iago presented against Desdemona in an imaginary divorce proceeding between Desdamona and Othello. There was even a brief discussion of the Pirates of Penzance.

But what was really fascinating was listening to him talk about being in law school, and then being a clerk on the Supreme Court. As a law student, he was fascinated by Conflicts of Laws (a good sign of a professorial future, I’d wager,) and he started a correspondance with a leading scholar on the topic, and spent the entire term “engaged in lively debate with my professor about different theories of conflicts of laws.” He called it the best time he spent at law school. And I can picture it, a group of 50 men (because it was pretty much all men in those days) sitting in a seminar room, smoking, serious in their discussion, a little exhilerated, trying as a group to figure out some of the hardest stuff in the law.

This picture is so dramatically different from the law school I know (and love, if I’m honest, but don’t tell my teaching friends because a nerdier thing has never been said.) In the law school I know, students set up their laptops at the start of class, type furiously to try to write down everything the man says (because it’s still largely men,) pack up their laptops at the end of class and hope that at the end of the term they’ll be able to construct a coherent outline and write a decent exam. And I can’t figure out why it’s so different, but the idea of a group of us sitting around with a professor, all of us equally trying to puzzle through something, is just…odd. Were these guys smarter back then? Was the law less settled? (Or, maybe, were the academic aspects of the law just getting settled, so there was more new stuff to write?) Today, when students struggle to find topics on which to write comments for law review that hasn’t been preempted by something someone else has written, they tend to settle on topics like “the law governing the little blue birds that live in kansas, but not the ones that live in nebraska and not the darker blue ones that were already written about in the law journal of birdlovers, vol 3 issue 10, 2002.” This professor’s first writings were something like “conflicts of laws” and “federal jurisdiction.” You know, easy stuff. Narrow.

I’m not going anywhere with this, particularly, but this dinner was fascinating, and made me a little nostalgic for a time that I didn’t even know. I get that my classmates and I are going to have lots of job opportunities, and many of us will be good lawyers, and some of us may even turn out to be great professors. But I have to wonder if, after 44 years of teaching, today’s professors will have the same sort of gentle affection for the law and the process of teaching it and writing about it. For the sake of future dinners, I really hope so.

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