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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Remembering Influential Law Professors

I am so sad to hear about the passing of Elizabeth Garrett. She was my torts professor, and she was a wonderful teacher. I was always very reluctant to ask my professors for help or advice. I'm not really sure why - I'm not generally a shy person. I worked at a law firm for three years without a garbage can in my office. I kept a garbage sack in my office, and each night, I would take my own garbage out. One night, someone saw me and asked why I didn't just ask for a garbage can. I said, "Well, I don't want to bother anyone." She looked at my like I was crazy, and I totally deserved it. She then handed me my own garbage can. The same impulse that kept me from asking for a garbage can kept me from asking for help from my professors. Professor Garrett asked a group of students to come to her office for an informal chat. For whatever reason, that made it easier for me to approach her outside of class. I have always remembered how she made that extra effort to get to know her students. I have tried to emulate her example as a teacher, knowing that there are students like me who will not ask for my help or advice unless I am the one to reach out first. Like Professor Garrett, I want them to know that not only is it okay to ask, but I want them to and I'm happy to help.

I became a law professor in part because of teachers like Elizabeth Garrett. I had a transformative law school experience because of many great teachers who challenged and encouraged me. One of the most influential law professors in my life is someone from whom I never took a class.

My wife and I arrived in Chicago several weeks before the beginning of classes my 1L year, to have some time to get to know our new city. Funds were very limited, and we inquired at the Law School whether there might be any short term paying jobs. As luck would have it, the Law School was refinishing the doors on all of the professors' offices. The doors would remain unlocked and open during the day. We were hired to spend a few weeks watching the doors to make sure no one entered the offices, and then make sure the doors were closed and locked at the end of each day. We were literally being paid to watch paint dry, and we had a wonderful time.

One day, as I was sitting watching paint dry, a man exited one of the offices and asked for my help reading some mail. His eyesight was fading, and his reader (a machine that illuminated and magnified letters and books) was not working. I said I would be happy to help. The name on the door of the office was Bernard Meltzer.

I knew a little about Professor Meltzer - that he had been a prosecutor at Nuremberg and an arbitrator for Major League Baseball. He was an emeritus faculty member at the time, but still came into the office most days. We struck up a friendship that first summer, and he hired me as his research assistant for my 2L and 3L years. I would pick him up in the morning at his home and drive him to the office, and then drive him home in the evening. As "payment," he would give me vegetables from his garden, and we would make salsa from those vegetables which we would then share with his family. Once a week, we would go to lunch together to talk about his projects, and about my papers and classes. He gave me advice that I still give to all of my students. "A great lawyer is three things. First, a great lawyer must be a good person, someone with integrity and kindness. Second, a great lawyer is a great writer. And third, a great lawyer knows how to negotiate and reach a compromise." When we would discuss cases, he would ask me a question I still ask my students with each case, "How would you have kept this out of court? What compromise might have been acceptable to both parties?" He refused to ever use the elevator, even though his office was on the sixth floor. His passion and curiosity were inspiring, humbling, and exhausting. I would think, "If I could just be half the lawyer, scholar, teacher, and man he is, this crazy law school idea will be worth it."

I am not half-way there yet. But the crazy law school idea has been worth it because of people like Professor Garrett and Professor Meltzer. I miss them both, but they continue to teach me with their examples.

Posted by Rhett Larson on March 8, 2016 at 01:25 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: PACA Law | Dec 11, 2016 10:26:48 PM

Amen -- really beautiful. I didn't really know Beth Garrett, but I know from many, and now from your former student perspective, how super she was. I did have the luck to know Bernie Meltzer, who was indeed very great as a teacher, scholar and person. I wrote this Jackson List post when he died in 2007:
http://thejacksonlist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/20070131-Jackson-List-re-Meltzer.pdf. He is the professor/role model I think of most every day -- his example and those memories lift my spirits and my "game," as every great teacher does for long, long after her or his time passes. RIP, President Garrett and Professor Meltzer.

Posted by: John Q. Barrett | Mar 9, 2016 8:56:40 AM

Lovely post, Professor Larson -- and a moving tribute to two greats of the legal profession.

Posted by: Goober | Mar 8, 2016 4:40:36 PM

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