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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How I Became a Law Professor

Becoming a law professor was largely the result of an alphabetical accident. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland (long story as to how I got there), my parents (Dad still being a colonel in the Air Force) were stationed on the island of Bermuda (where I also spent a year, another long story), but then in my senior year at Maryland Dad was transferred to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. Since I had not seen them often when they were half an ocean away, I asked my Maryland Faculty Advisor if there was a good law school near Texas, and she replied that Texas was a very good law school. So I applied to the University of Texas and was promptly accepted, with a starting date of September, 1965.

At Maryland (and indeed during all of my education to that point), I could make A’s if I applied myself, which usually I did only in the courses that I liked. The others I could make B’s in without much effort (except the Microbiology disaster, which required me, a night owl, to do two hours of labs at 8 am twice a week, and I couldn’t get out of bed to do it, leading me to flunk the course, and then have a very interesting discussion with my father). Consequently, I graduated from Maryland with an almost perfect B average.

I figured at law school I would just do what everyone else was doing and that would be enough to see me through. At Texas everything is oversized, and the entering class had 500 people in it (almost all men in those days); compare Ohio State’s law school class, which is typically around half of that.

What I didn’t count on was being seated next to Jay Westbrook (an alphabetical accident) in each one of my first year courses. Jay would eventually graduate number one in the class, and since he and I became close friends (rooming together for the last two years of law school, me being best man at his wedding, and this year he and his wife, Polly, and I are discussing a vacation together), I simply did what Jay did. That led me to graduating 14th in that class of 500. Without grades like that I would never have qualified to become a law professor.

A word about Jay Westbrook (now himself a law professor at U. of T., and the world's leading expert on international bankruptcies). Jay is the most intelligent person I have ever known when it comes to handling an abstract idea (and not when, for example confronting a spider). I would be sitting in our rented apartment happily reading Mad Magazine, and he would come bursting through the door saying, “Doug, agency law is flawed at its basic core!” I would beg him to let me alone, but the excitement over his discovery would lead to a two hour discussion of the myriad problems with agency law. By the time we got to class, we were both loaded for bear. He also taught me how to boil an argument down to the fundamental disagreement, which proved hugely valuable latter in life, and about which I will devote a subsequent post.

When I graduated in 1968, I went to practice law in Chicago with a major firm. In the fall of 1969, I received a letter in the mail from the Indiana Indianapolis School of Law (Indiana has two law schools---the other is in Bloomington), asking if I was interested in interviewing for the position of Assistant Professor of Law, with a starting date of Jan. 1, 1970. The letter was signed by a “Melvin Poland,” which made me suspicious that it was a fake (surely no one was really named Melvin Poland, and, it being Chicago, there were a lot of Pollack jokes going around). On the other hand, the letter was on letterhead stationery, which was hard to create in those days without great expense, so I did reply, was interviewed, and hired. It turned out that Indiana had a sudden need for someone to teach Contracts, a basic first year course, and my former Contracts professor at Texas had recommended me for the job. It was a course that I taught for decades, most recently in 2007-08.

I had never even thought about teaching law until this happened, and I wondered if I would be good at it. Dad always said that Whaleys make their living through the gift of gab (at which he was a master, regularly appearing on TV, giving speeches, etc.), and once I thought about it, I was very interested.

So my starting paycheck dated from Jan. 1, 1970, forty years ago this month. Once I got into the classroom, it was “duck discovers water.” I had a very fulfilling teaching career, winning numerous teaching awards, publishing a large number of casebooks, etc. The biggest reward was in influencing the leaders of tomorrow, many of whom are in Congress, on the bench, deans and faculty members at law schools, or running major law firms, corporations, or non-profit organizations. There are thousands of them.

But if Jay Westbrook had been named “Jay Smith,” I would probably be practicing law somewhere, oblivious to the enormous pleasure of standing in front of a room filled with bright minds eager to learn law.
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Related Posts:
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Clickers,” March 17, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
“The Sexy Promissory Note,”August 17, 2010
"Mortgage Foreclosures: The Disaster of Unintended Consequences," October 27, 2010
"Update: Mortgage Foreclosure and Missing Notes," November 16, 2010
"Women in My Law School Classroom," January 8, 2011
"The Exploding Alarm Clock," February 19, 2011
"One More Story From Law School," February 27, 2011
"I Threaten To Sure Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011
"Bob Whaley Goes to Law School," June 3, 2011
"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011
"Adventures in the Law School Classroom," September 10, 2011
"What Non-Lawyers Should Know About Warranties," October 11, 2011
"How To Write and Effective Legal Threat Letter," October 19,2011
"Funny Law Professors," January 15, 2012
“How To Take a Law School Exam,” November 30, 2012”
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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