Eight Fantastic Professors at The University of Chicago Law School

Chicago Law School AdmissionsOne of the main reasons students cite for choosing a law school is the quality of the faculty, and there is perhaps no law school known more for its faculty than the University of Chicago. With the exceptions of Yale, Stanford, and Harvard (which is amassing a veritable army of academic elites), Chicago arguably stands alone as the staging ground for teaching excellence. In fact, while the school often ranks anywhere from 4th to 7th overall in rankings such as U.S. News, it is always near the top of the Faculty Rankings list generated by Brian Leiter (Chicago appears set to come in third in the upcoming 2010 version.) This, despite the fact that other top law schools have raided the U of C faculty over the past several years, enticing several elite professors to move to other programs. The exodus has included world-renowned legal scholars Richard Epstein (part-time to NYU, and then to retirement) and Cass Sunstein (to Harvard, and then to the Obama Administration), criminal law expert Tracy Meares (to Yale), beloved constitutional and legislative scholar Adrian Vermeule (Harvard), and law and econ guru Alan Sykes (Stanford).

Most institutions would be crippled beyond repair by such a loss of talent, yet Chicago has managed to retain its lofty perch at the top of any reputable ranking of educational quality. This is partly due to the fact that Chicago still retains its fair share of legal titans such as Seventh Circuit Judges Frank Easterbrook (Chief Judge), Diane Wood, and Richard Posner. However, the high ranking is also a byproduct of the fact that the school has made the hiring and grooming of young academics its highest priority. Between the “think tank” atmosphere, the many workshop and seminar teaching formats, and the Law School’s reputation for producing legal scholars, Chicago stands as one of the world’s premier learning and teaching centers.

For that reason, the U of C remains a place populated by dynamic professors and the list of “must take” classes grows every year. The following are some student favorites and particularly noteworthy instructors among the 53 full-time faculty members at the U of C – the names and faces that make Chicago one of the truly elite places to study law:

  • David Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law. Professor Strauss is an absolute must-take at the U of C and, in fact, half the incoming class will be assured of having him for a course as he serves as one of the two star professors who teach Chicago’s unique Elements of the Law class. “Elements” is an esoteric course focusing largely on the theoretical and historical underpinnings of today’s legal framework in America. Elements of the Law is a very popular required 1L course and Professor Strauss is the master in this setting. Even if students miss out on him during 1L year, however, there is ample opportunity to take a Strauss course going forward, as he teaches several constitutional law classes, including Con Law III, which focuses on due process and equal protection. One of Chicago’s most soft-spoken and thoughtful professors, Professor Strauss can still be very intimidating when he starts tapping his trademark highlighter against the back of his hand and wondering aloud about the answer to a particular tricky legal question. A true scholar’s scholar, Professor Strauss was recently rumored to be on the move in order to join his good friend and former Chicago colleague Barack Obama in Washington, but fortunately for U of C students present and future, he remains an anchor on the Law School’s faculty.
  • Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law. A member of the U of C faculty since 1973, Professor Stone is not only a favorite of Chicago students (primarily for his ability to make Evidence an interesting course), but also serves as a prominent voice of the Law School, having authored several award-winning books (most notably 2004’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, which won both the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history) and appearing on many major media outlets. As one of the most liberal professors on a historically conservative (or, perhaps more accurately, libertarian) faculty, Stone’s special presentations and speaker series events on campus are often the most well-attended and tend to spark a great deal of discussion in the Law Quadrangle. Additionally, Professor Stone teaches one of the most innovative and challenging courses in the Law School, Constitutional Decision Making, which puts students in the roles of judges who must author opinions (including majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions) on difficult equal protection or First Amendment issues.
  • Douglas Baird, Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law. Each year, the Chicago Law Foundation (CLF) hosts a celebrated auction at the law school, in which items and activities are put up for bid. It is both the biggest fundraiser for CLF and also the biggest social event of the year for law students, who often pool a great deal of money (especially 2L and 3L students coming off lucrative summer associate stints) to bid on outings with favorite professors. No event generates more charitable dollars than the annual brandy scotch tasting night with Professor Baird. Beloved by U of C students -– many of whom take his contracts class as a 1L –- Baird is a Chicago institution. He was the Law School’s dean from 1984 to 1999, taking it to its loftiest heights and creating the academic culture that exists today. Professor Baird also lives near campus, making him highly visible, from the grocery co-op in Hyde Park to the gym at the university’s Ratner Center. Blessed with a wit as sharp as his legal mind, Professor Baird makes full use of the crazy cases that exist throughout contract law, turning the 1L requirement into one of the highest-rated courses at the law school. It is fortunate that most incoming students are not yet aware of how great he is, lest the half that gets left out protest its inability to take his contracts class.
  • Lior Strahilevitz, Professor of Law and Walter Mander Teaching Scholar. One of the fastest professors to receive full tenure in the history of the Law School, Professor Strahilevitz is one of the funniest people (faculty member, staff, or student) at the Law School at any given moment, using his quick wit and vast knowledge of pop culture to keep terrified 1Ls relaxed and laughing. A testament to his popularity is the fact that an Intellectual Property class for 2L and 3L students required a move from a traditional classroom to the much larger auditorium … even after he had wireless Internet access turned off (prior to the school removing Internet connections in all classrooms). A savant when it comes to property (whether real or intellectual) law, Professor Strahilevitz is known for weaving current events into long-standing property law structures, such as his focus on the Kelo case in 2005 and 2006, as that legal battle shaped the law of eminent domain. Professor Strahilevitz also brings Chicago’s law and econ focus to the forefront in all of his classes as he lets the students chose which method by which the seating chart will be created. He takes a vote and lets the class choose whether to use an auction, a first-come-first-served model, or simply default to alphabetical order. Extremely available after hours, Professor Strahilevitz is often the first choice for academic-minded students seeking a 1L summer research job or for 2L and 3L students who wish to perform a publishable independent study.
  • Emily Buss, Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of Law and Kanter Director of Chicago Policy Initiatives. Professor Buss is one of Chicago’s most active and influential professors in the areas of family law and children’s advocacy, overseeing many policy initiatives and opportunities for clinical work. In an environment that can often be extremely theoretical, Professor Buss can be a breath of fresh air with her commitment to actionable change and her preference for dealing with hot button issues and current events. Her primary areas of interest are often very specific and are best served in seminar settings with just 15 to 20 upper level students. Therefore, in keeping with the Chicago tradition, Professor Buss is annually tapped as one of the star 1L professors to teach the required courses. Her specialty in this area is Civil Procedure and hers is often the very first class that an incoming student will experience at the Law School. One of the sweetest and kindest people a student will ever meet, Professor Buss is still as tough as nails when it comes to the Socratic Method. She rarely lets a struggling student off the hook, unless a fellow classmate is the one rushing to the rescue. She is also one of the only professors in the Law School who will use role playing and mock trial type exercises to work through tricky areas of federal civil procedure – utilizing such creative teaching methods even in 90-person classes.
  • M. Todd Henderson, Assistant Professor of Law. Professor Henderson is one of the reasons that Chicago can lose vaunted professors and keep on clocking in at the top of any educational quality rankings. A former associate in the elite appellate litigation practice group at Kirkland & Ellis in D.C. and then a star consultant at McKinsey & Company, Professor Henderson has brought his brash, quirky style to the Law School, where he teaches many of the key corporations and securities cases that are vital to any future corporate lawyer. Widely considered one of the toughest graders at the U of C, Professor Henderson actually tends to be a little easier than most with regard to the Socratic Method, as he relies mainly on volunteers to keep the dialogue going. Professor Henderson can be intimidating, given his height (at least 6’6”), incisive wit, booming voice, and slightly unconventional methods – to say nothing of the dense, complicated subject matter – but any student who goes through three years of legal education at Chicago and does not take a Henderson class is missing out. The Law School certainly seems aware of that fact, as almost all of his classes are held in the auditorium – an honor reserved for only the most popular 2L and 3L classes.
  • Adam Cox, Assistant Professor of Law. Professor Cox is part of the new guard of Chicago professors: strongly against Internet usage in the classroom, incredibly smart, and a staunch, sometimes brutal administrator of the Socratic Method. Professor Cox is one of the few Chicago professors who will note when someone is absent from a class and then immediately pound that person with difficult questions the next time he or she dares to show up for class. That said, for all the stress that students endure in one of Professor Cox’s classes – often Civil Procedure II or an elective course dealing with elections, voting rights, or immigration – his fresh ideas and enthusiasm make the class well worth it. Not only that, but students can be sure that his demanding style comes from a good place, as he himself was a law student not so long ago (Michigan Law School, ’99). Professor Cox also taught at Chicago as a Bigelow Fellow in 2004 before joining the full-time faculty, and his ease around students is evident. Whether it is a debate about music (he’s a fan of indie bands), fashion, or the best coffee shops in Chicago, Professor Cox will drop everything to engage in conversation with members of the U of C community.
  • Randal Picker, Paul H. and Theo Leffmann Professor of Commercial Law. Professor Picker has long been a favorite professor at U of C, dating back to the early 1990s, when he served as the school’s associate dean. However, his star – perhaps more than any other Chicago professor – has been on the rise in recent years due to the explosion of the Internet as it relates to legal policy. A specialist in the areas of intellectual property and antitrust, Professor Picker has become the go-to person for all things IP in Hyde Park. From students seeking his guidance and involvement in the Intellectual Property Law Society, to an influx of people taking his classes, to national media interviews, Professor Picker’s opinion is shaping the law on what seems like a daily basis. Additionally, Professor Picker is one of the most prolific and well-read contributors to the Law School’s Faculty Blog, which features posts from various faculty members on the key legal events of the day. His theories and ideas regarding digital rights management (DRM) are some of the most salient in the field. As a classroom presence, few compare to Professor Picker, whose natural enthusiasm is evident to all in attendance. From his highly detailed PowerPoint slides for every class, to his increasingly fast and high-pitched voice, to the removal of his sweater when he really gets going (a Picker class tradition), there is no doubt that he is totally and completely invested in every class.